Today, we have the capacity to “save” so many of our experiences. Remnants of our lives are preserved not just in our attics and garages but in our photo-sharing services, e-mail folders, Facebook albums and Twitter posts — not to mention in massive National Security Agency databases. But how many of those trillions of pieces of information will we ever sit down and reexamine? And if we record every moment of our lives, what will our memories be for?
These questions aren’t new; data dumping is an ancient practice. For me, the revelations this summer of the NSA’s surveillance programs came at a strangely resonant moment — just as I was completing a novel about one community’s efforts to catalogue and store vast amounts of information. And in the culture I researched, the impulse to store information began with a desire to preserve the name of God.
In 1897, Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter discovered a trove of medieval documents in a 900-year-old Cairo synagogue. Because of a religious law against destroying texts inscribed with God’s name, this synagogue, like many Jewish communities to this day, had a storage space called a genizah, meaning “hiding place,” to keep damaged or discarded documents before burying them. Unlike most communities, the Jews of Cairo saved not only sacred writings but anything written in Hebrew letters — and they hadn’t cleaned out their genizah in 900 years. When Schechter opened the second-story hatch leading to the 12-by-14-foot space, he looked down into a cloud of dust. Beneath the dust was a well of loose paper more than 20 feet deep.
Schechter, in typical British imperial fashion, paid off the locals and brought about 190,000 of the room’s documents back to Cambridge. Some of these were priceless treasures: first drafts of major philosophical works, personal letters from historic figures, forgotten poetry by world-class talents, unknown versions of biblical texts. But most were sales receipts, love notes, children’s schoolwork, business inventories, medical prescriptions and other fragments of daily life.
“Please don’t spank my child for being late. His homework delayed him,” reads one typical bit of trash.
You could think of the Cairo Genizah, as it came to be called, as an archive. But it is more like a medieval Facebook, crammed with so much mundane junk that one could reconstruct an entire world from it.
Schechter sensed that possibility. Reading through these parchments, he claimed, was like “an act of resurrection in miniature. How the past suddenly rushes in upon you with all its joys and woes! And there is a spark of a human soul like yours come to light again after a disappearance of centuries, crying for sympathy and mercy. . . . You dare not neglect the appeal and slay this soul again.”
Yet that is exactly what Schechter did. After spending five years sifting out the genizah’s most obvious treasures, he felt he was drowning. “I cannot overcome a sad feeling stealing over me,” he wrote, “that I shall hardly be worthy to see all the results. . . . The work is not for one man and not for one generation. It will occupy many a specialist, and much longer than a lifetime.”
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.”