What constitutes a literary legacy in the age of the laptop?

Earlier this week Sotheby’s auction house put up for sale what a press release calls “the largest and most important group of William Faulkner material ever to appear at auction.” The sale included an unpublished short story entitled “The Trapper’s Story,” as well as a handwritten draft of Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize speech which, according to Sotheby’s, differs significantly from the address Faulkner gave at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. The medal and diploma Faulkner received upon being awarded the Nobel Prize will be bundled with the handwritten speech into a lot expected to sell for upwards of $500,000, according to a pre-sale estimate. All told, the auction of the late author’s possessions—which will also include letters, postcards, and manuscript drafts—is expected to fetch upwards of $2 million.

Yet while exclusive collectors bid on Faulkner’s papers and awards, we as a society are exiting the historical period of the book as a fetishized object. Yes, many of us still prefer paper over LED, and bibliophiles’ hearts still leap at the news that a new Faulkner story may be published, but even those of us who hoard paperbacks like preternaturally intelligent squirrels compose on our laptops from time to time. Instead of typescripts and holographs, twenty-first century writers leave behind Word documents and partially completed blog posts. In twenty-five years, will collectors be jockeying for the chance to bid on Jennifer Egan’s hard drive?

While those bemoaning the death of print media usually focus on the consumer, the move toward a technology-based writing process will affect literary culture perhaps as much as a technology-based reading process. Microsoft Word allows writers so much freedom—to alter, to move, to erase and replace—that unless we’re careful, intermediary drafts can disappear with one click of the touchpad. Dangerous for writers who may later wish to return to a draft already gone, this phenomenon also poses an interesting challenge for scholars.

Bibliographic scholars study books as physical and cultural objects, and their work relies heavily on the physical evidence authors leave behind. In the 1950s, Fredson Bowers, a bibliographer from the University of Virginia, rediscovered the order for Walt Whitman’s Calamus poems—twelve homoerotic poems published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass but later excised—by examining the remains of the notebook in which Whitman originally wrote them. Because the notebook had since been taken apart, Bowers examined extant physical clues, such as the arrangement of needle holes on each page, to recover Whitman’s original order for the poems.

Even works that have not been dismantled or lost have benefitted from a bibliographer’s eye. In 1985, Noel Polk’s first volume of the “corrected text” of Faulkner’s novels appeared. Polk, a Faulkner scholar, examined typescripts, holographs, proofs, and hand-written notes to produce a text of each novel that adheres as closely as possible to the author’s indicated preferences in wording, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.

Though Faulkner claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying “in six weeks, without changing a word,” manuscripts betray this claim as an exaggeration. Now that writers compose via laptop, will the new frontier of bibliographic studies move from page to screen? Instead of the needle-holes in Whitman’s notebook, will scholars scour files for their “created on” date and other caches of data? I worry such a transition will position the genius writer even farther from the everyman reader, that without scribbled drafts and scratched out phrases, the final book will seem to appear from nowhere, fully formed, an electronic Athena.

When a cache of Faulkner’s papers go up for auction, our lust for this archival material likely is, at its core, less than academic: seeing a writer’s original manuscript is a semi-spiritual experience. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to examine Allen Ginsberg’s original typescript to Howl; I nearly fell over. My heart beat at 150% its normal rate for the rest of the day. Recently, I handled a number of Walt Whitman’s letters, written in his own hand, and my eyes welled up. How intimate, to touch the paper he touched, see the personality of his handwriting. As if I could touch his genius itself, and yet these handwritten pages—and Ginsberg’s smeared typescripts—bring me back to the material world, to the recognition this writer was a man. He misspelled words and scratched out false starts. As we transition into electronic means of composition, I hope literature doesn’t lose its humanness, this evidence that writing is work.