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Imagining lost books in the age of Cambridge Analytica

Last spring, I—along with a substantial portion of my friends and acquaintances—followed some instructions I’d read online and successfully downloaded a copy of my Facebook data. Amongst other things, I was reminded of the fact that I had joined the social network on 21 February 2007 at 06:02 UTC and that my (semi-accurate, but handily alphabetized) list of commercially viable interests includes “Academic journal,” “Adaptation,” “Atlantic Ocean,” “Beast (Canadian band),” “Books,” “Cooperation,” “County Louth,” and “Current Events,” to name just a few. For the record, I’m really no more partial to Louth than County Tipperary, say, or Mayo, and I can’t confirm with absolute certainty that I’ve ever heard a song by Beast. At any rate, scrolling back through a written history of comments and conversations that I thought had long since disappeared, I experienced a disconcerting realization: by cross-referencing this Facebook data report with a trawl through my Gmail account, I could probably reconstruct with reasonable precision what I’d been up to on any given date in the previous decade. After all, when I became a Gmail user on 16 January 2006, I took Google’s claims that they’d “keep giving people more space forever” at face value and essentially stopped deleting my emails, both sent and received. This means I can now tell you, for example, that on the morning of 23 September 2008 I forgot my password for the online bookstore at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I would soon be instructing undergraduate classes on “Arthurian Traditions” and “Shakespeare and Company”; I imagine this came to my attention because I was trying to finalize the reading lists. Later that same day, I RSVP’d for my friend Jon’s upcoming birthday party—I think it was his 29th—and spent time in my Toronto apartment waiting for the delivery of a new Acer Aspire. I presume that I also ended up going to the “book history thingy from 5–7 and then drinks after” that I flagged to my boyfriend (now husband) in my online correspondence. In the age of big data and cloud storage, the old dog-ate-my-homework routine has become even less persuasive, and it can feel like nothing we’ve ever written, no matter how mundane, can be truly lost—not even those things that we might want to forget.

I don’t think it coincidental that, at approximately the same historical moment when online sites and services began (both overtly and covertly) preserving and mining our textual interactions en masse, wider culture evinced a perceptible surge of interest in the lost books of past, pre-digital eras. In my own scholarly field of early modern literary studies, this manifested, for instance, in the 2009 establishment of a wiki-style Lost Plays Database, where contributors continue to compile a wealth of information about lost English plays in the period from 1570–1642. And this attraction to lost books is not strictly academic. Various works of nonfiction aimed at broader readerships, such as Stuart Kelly’s Book of Lost Books (2005) or Giorgio van Straten’s In Search of Lost Books (first published in 2016 as Stogie di libri perduti), have capitalized upon and showcased the nostalgic allure of textual loss. What is more, a bibliophile’s hunt for a lost book of great historical and/or literary significance is a plot device that recurs with surprising regularity in recent imaginative works. It would seem that bookish lacunae are becoming ever more seductive and easily romanticized in our own, increasingly loss-resistant world.

…at approximately the same historical moment when online sites and services began (both overtly and covertly) preserving and mining our textual interactions en masse, wider culture evinced a perceptible surge of interest in the lost books of past, pre-digital eras.

Back in 2013, I found myself reading widely as I was conducting research for an article I was then writing on contemporary representations of Marlowe and the so-called School of Night. Falling somewhat outside of my ordinary research area, this initial line of enquiry alerted me, in turn, to the existence of a substantive body of popular literature in which various early modern English authors and/or their literary outputs have been fictionalized. As I began curiously sampling such works, I found myself struck by just how frequently post-millennial novels have engaged (often in strikingly similar ways) with the idea of the lost Shakespearean text, in particular—an issue to which I have returned in my more recent research. I am aware of no fewer than four novels published in relatively quick succession between 2003 and 2009 that chronicle a protagonist’s suspenseful, adventure-style quest to find either Love’s Labour’s Won or Cardenio: William Martin’s Harvard Yard, Jennifer Lee Carrell’s The Shakespeare Secret (published in the US as Interred with Their Bones), Jean Rae Baxter’s Looking for Cardenio, and A.J. Hartley’s What Time Devours. These roughly contemporaneous works share not only vital plot elements, but also particular preoccupations and themes, not the least of which is their quasi-elegiac celebration of literary loss itself (spoiler alert: in only one of these four texts is Love’s Labour’s Won or Cardenio successfully located and revived). Does this remarkably homogenous group of novels merely represent an aughties flash in the pan, or is Martin, Carrell, Baxter, and Hartley’s collective fascination with lost Shakespearean books—and, by extension, the ultimate irrecoverability of the pre-modern past—a harbinger of things to come? As I skim over my Facebook data report and probe the profundity of the 19,593 (and counting) personal conversations currently lodged in the “Primary” section of my Gmail inbox, I’m inclined to think the latter.

Featured image credit: Photo by Lin Kristensen, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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