A Second Set of Suspenders Wouldn’t be Too Much

Or, Let’s Talk about Backups.

Because bad things can happen to unique manuscripts.

Consider.  Until 1787 we had only a single manuscript copy of Beowulf, and it narrowly escaped burning in the Cotton Library fire at Ashburnham House in 1731.  (Librarians and scholars know the names of famous library fires the way that meteorologists know the names of famous storms.)  After 1787 we also had two transcriptions — handwritten copies — done by the scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín; and those also almost perished in flames in 1807, when Thorkelín’s house burned down during the Battle of Copenhagen.  Not until 1815 was there a print edition in multiple copies.

These days, of course, we have multiple print editions, not to mention an on-line facsimile — in other words, backups.

Fiery disaster can strike earlier in the writing process as well.  Folklorists tell of the original text upon which Thomas Percy based his 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, supposedly discovered by Percy in the house of a friend, where the pages were being used by the parlormaid to start the fire.  And scholars of Victorian literature speak with awe of Thomas Carlyle, who loaned the only manuscript copy of Volume One of his work-in-progress The French Revolution:  A History to his friend John Stuart Mill, and who, when Mill’s housemaid mistook the MS for trash and burned it, wrote the whole thing over again.

(Looking at those two stories so close together inspires in me the unworthy thought that 18th and 19th century household servants must have made really useful scapegoats for all sorts of embarrassing accidents.  These days, one usually has to invoke some misdeed on the part of the family cat.  But I digress.)

Disaster is always waiting to strike the written word, and the only true safety lies is multiple copies.  These days, we have CD and DVD storage, and external hard drives, and USB memory sticks, and the cloud.  Using at least one of those for your backups is good; using two or more of them is even better.  That way, when the world falls apart, you’ll at least have your work-in-progress with you.

(This post was brought to you by my Dropbox, where I was able to find the backup copy of the scene I was working on last night when a cascade of typos managed to produce a combination of keystrokes that sent an evening’s hard work vanishing into the ether.)

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