Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Losing a dissertation

My daughter spoke of an acquaintance who had written a thesis. To protect it, she had saved it:

1. in a printed form, which was placed in a zip-loc bag, and stored in the freezer, the place considered safest in a house in the event of a fire, and

2. on a disc, and

3. on a flash drive, and

4. on her university mail server, and

5. finally, on a free email account (Yahoo, or something like that).

Someone who has never written doesn't get this. It seems neurotic. To those who have written an extended paper, a thesis, a book, or whatever, it sounds perfectly normal.

At least we have the abilities to save them in diverse locations. Here's a man who was not (in the late 1940s) able to do so. From Donald Keene's book On Familiar Terms, pages 106-107:

"During the winter vacation in 1948 my rooms in college were to be used by students taking examinations, and I decided to go to Rome, where I knew some people from the ship that had taken me to Europe. I had completed writing my doctoral dissertation, The Battles of Coxinga, while in Cambridge, and I decided to type it in Rome. I went first to Paris, then took an overnight train to Milan. The compartment was stuffy, and I thought I would take advantage of the wait in Milan to get some fresh air. I asked another passenger in the compartment if he would look after my suitcase and typewriter, and I then walked up and down the platform briskly for perhaps five minutes. When I returned to the compartment, there was no man and no suitcase. At first I couldn't believe it. I thought that it must be a nightmare from which I would presently awake. I went to the police, and in my poor Italian explained what had happened. I urged them to look for the man, who must still be in the station, but they laughed at my guilelessness and insisted that I complete a form. Name of father. Name of mother. Names of grandparents. Profession of father. And so on. By this time I was almost hysterical, but there was absolutely nothing I could do. I never saw the manuscript of my dissertation again. I returned to Cambridge with nothing but the few clothes I had bought in Italy."

Such a story is almost unbelievable now but we should remember that even photocopying abilities were extremely primitive then, and not available to most people. Most of us become irritated when we lose a paragraph by neglecting to hit "save." Losing an entire dissertation would be more than most of us could endure.

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