I had lunch with friends the other day, one of whom confessed that until recently she had 15,000 stored emails on her computer. They were from her adult children and she had been saving them for years, until finally she created books– each one a compilation of many year’s worth of emails from that child. Now she is down to 5,000 emails. Two of us asked in unison, “Do they really want these?” She said yes, because the emails told the stories of what was happening in their lives as they dated, then married and had children. She added, “People used to write letters to share this information with their families and they saved each others’ letters. But we don’t do that any more. That’s why saving emails is so important.”
This takes me to a project I may be helping with. My minister, Rev. C., is in the process of inheriting a a collection of letters and writings by his mentor (now deceased), enough to fill a one-car garage from floor to ceiling. The mentor sounds fascinating. He lived in Japan from 1951 to the 1961 and seems to have been well-connected there. He is quoted a number of times by American mythologist Joseph Campbell in Baksheesh and Braman: Asian Journals. Luckily for me and probably Rev. C, his inheritance, which is in California, will probably be shipped here a few boxes at a time, rather than arriving all at once in a U-Haul trailer. I asked the Sensei what his goal was in wanting to review thousands of pages of musty documents. “I want to piece together a life,” he said. Having seen some of the odds and ends that arrived in the first two boxes, this description seemed perfect. What else could anyone do in writing a biography, but examine all the fragments left from a person’s life and try to create something coherent from them? I’m not sure I will really have a role to play in this project. It’s hard for me to know the significance of anything I’ve seen so far. But I have a greater appreciation for the work of the biographer, the immense undertaking involved in sifting through thousands of details and organizing them in a way that bring the subject alive to a reader without drowning them in minutiae.