When Schechter abandoned Cambridge to become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, most of the documents he left behind were neglected for the next half-century, some even stored in crates marked “Rubbish.” The collection wasn’t completely catalogued for more than 70 years.
The Jews of medieval Cairo had an excuse for saving everything: They regarded their language as infused with holiness. The NSA has its excuses, too, whether or not we accept them. But what’s our excuse? Beyond narcissism, do we have a reason for Instagramming every instant of our lives? What is it about data-dumping that we find so compelling and necessary?
Perhaps it is a fear of mortality. The Egyptian pharaohs filled their tombs with images and texts representing all they hoped to carry from one world to the next. If we could just save everything, we similarly hope, then all our momentary encounters — the delicious dinner that will become a pile of dirty dishes, the glowing sunset that will fade into darkness, the laughing man or woman who will leave us for someone else, the smiling parent who will pass away, the crawling baby who will grow up faster than we can imagine — will remain unchanging, stored for eternity in some metaphysical space beyond time. No wonder we call it “the cloud.”
What is lost in that cloud is the art of forgetting, the selective memory that distinguishes trash from treasure. My parents spent 30 years as avid snapshot-takers. An entire floor-to-ceiling bookcase holds their albums of our family’s adventures, including four children’s birthdays, graduations, weddings and more. But if my husband and I were to print all our photos from our four children’s lives, the resulting albums would easily fill a room — and our oldest is only 8. Saving everything, it turns out, is eerily similar to saving nothing, especially when there are no British academics waiting to catalogue our joys and woes. In sheer quantity of data, many people’s personal records may come to resemble that room in Cairo: a bottomless well of mostly trivial information, its treasures concealed in a cloud.
In the Cairo Genizah’s rubbish heap, one of the most popular authors is Bahya ibn Paquda, a medieval Hebrew philosopher. In his book of ethics, he wrote: “Days are scrolls. Write on them only what you want remembered.”
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