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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

Some musings on paperwork.


Some of the oldest surviving examples of the written word involve record-keeping. Cuneiform, the script of the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia, later adapted to other other languages (Akkadian, Hittite, Hurrian, Luwian, and others), had its roots in the Sumerian pictograph system: a method for visually depicting commodities, and later recording numbers, before it evolved and expanded to express the fullness of a human language. What could more quickly make ancient peoples familiar to us than the knowledge that they, too, made grocery lists, to-do lists, and kept receipts for their purchases? Even in the reign of Utu-hengal, the great man, King of Uruk, King of the four quarters of the world, ordinary people were writing reminders to help with their trips to the ancient Sumerian equivalent of K-Mart. (For a trip to the last actual K-Mart store, see Colman Rowan’s article.)

Not only death and taxes, then, but also paperwork must be numbered as one of life’s certainties. Charles Lamb, employed for many years at a counting-house of the East India Company, became so oppressed by the paperwork and records he pored over by day that at night he would “awake with terrors of imaginary false entries, errors in my accounts,” and felt “grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.” For him, the record-books of life, the secondary literature of real existence, had become life itself. Melville’s Bartleby, the law-office copyist, decides to wither and die rather than live such a life. (Samuel Sweeney investigates the conflict between what is written and what is real in journalism in the Middle East.)

But of course most of this “secondary literature of living” is harmless and even helpful. Dictionaries, thesauruses, user and instructional manuals—all of these document existence in a secondary way that is directly helpful in a primary way. (For Dan Hitchens’s essay on the father of the English dictionary, Samuel Johnson, see here.) Prayer books, too, have their place in this genre. For what else is a prayer book but a tool? Words that teach and remind us how to use other words for God’s worship and glory. (For Father James Bradley’s essay on a new Ordinariate prayer book, see here.)

American sports in particular are a wellspring of paperwork, and notably, I think, perhaps the only kind that a large number of ordinary people enjoy. Who does not have an acquaintance who knows several decades of batting averages perhaps better than he remembers his cousin’s birthdays? Perhaps you are one of these yourself. In football all the possible action in a game is distilled into different play calls, written down, studied by the team, and bound up in a playbook. This manual becomes a closely guarded secret; both descriptive and prescriptive, it is the key to everything a team knows to do on the field. In the hands of a rival it is like reading the team’s diary. (For our editor’s essay on the coach of the New England football team, click here.)

We should not be too disdainful of red tape, however. For many of us, documents may be the only way we continue to exist in this world long after we pass on to the next. Grocery store shopping lists, letters to friends and colleagues, calendars—we write them for ourselves, to put down on paper what we cannot remember, but they may be read by those long after for the same purpose. Each man leaves behind a vast quantity of the materials for his own autobiography, written in his own hand. (For an appreciation of the author of one of the most amusing memoirs in our language, see Aaron James's piece.)

It is true that one’s own administrative odds and ends do not tend to capture the imagination. For proof of this, look no further than this: novels, and the imaginative lives that they contain, are notoriously quiet about the contents of their characters’ credit card statements. Novels can depict life and its truths better for lack of the details they do not contain. (Alberto Miguel Fernandez reflects on popular novels that nourished his faith.) But life is not only what we think, and feel, and love, but also what we do by rote, or do reluctantly. A novel must keep our interest. Much of life, though, is what bores us and what we have to remind ourselves to do, lest we forget.

The men of the Renaissance, from Erasmus to Machiavelli, used to write instruction books for how their princes should live and govern; perhaps it is a small irony that their instructions so often included the reminder that people learn best from lived example. (Gladden Pappin discusses Catholic responses to Machiavelli.) Life when viewed in a mirror always contains lessons that one can only partially reconstruct, from the notes and jottings and reminders thereof. Happy then, for us, that the narratives of our lives have an Author, to whom no detail is forgotten, and no fact insignificant, whose Word is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

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