Columnist could use some help creating paper trail

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Sunday, October 15, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — A certain university (which I won’t embarrass by naming) has made me what should have been a highly flattering proposition. "We would like," the spokesman for the president’s office intoned, "to be the repository of your papers."

He must have thought I was nuts when I laughed out loud.

"My papers? "I said. "I don’t have any papers."

I have paper, of course. Any visitor to my office can tell you that I have paper all over the place — useful paper, paper that may possibly become useful at some point, paper that used to be useful. But I do not have papers.

Worse, I’m not even sure I know what papers are. I know what they used to be. My doctoral-student wife (yes, the one whose graduation from college nine years ago prompted a congratulatory column in this space) has been speaking with awe of the papers she’s discovered at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

Scholarly papers, political papers, personal papers. There are letters from Frederick Douglass, written in his own hand, telling friends of his appointment as envoy to Haiti; a letter from Langston Hughes in Italy to Alain Locke; manumission papers; letters to and from famous politicians.

Now those are papers. But where and what are mine? The sketch I made for the deck that never got built? Notes from my interviews with politicians or other world leaders? Letters to and from friends and family?

I can’t imagine that anyone would care about my doodling. The interview notes in all those little loose-leaf notebooks are by now illegible even to me. And, anyway, the columns that come out of those interviews have all the good stuff.

But while the columns are retrievable — electronically for the past decade or two and from the newspaper "morgue" before that — they don’t really constitute papers. Come to think of it, they aren’t even mine. They belong to The Washington Post.

I have no unfinished scholarly treatises, no philosophical musings, no unpublished poems or critiques or anything that might pass as papers. As for letters: those I’ve written are, of course, no longer in my possession; nor am I silly enough to imagine that the recipients have stored them in fireproof vaults in case some university comes seeking their papers. No, those letters are gone as irretrievably as those my correspondents wrote me in return.

Actually, there was a time when I did keep copies of the letters I wrote. That was in the days when the old messy carbon paper came to be replaced first by "carbon sets" and then by NCR — no carbon required — sheafs you could feed directly into your typewriter.

I kept a lot of those letters, sometimes because I thought I’d been particularly witty, but mostly because it was the easiest way to keep from telling the same person a second or third time about some Army misadventure of mine. They’ve been gone for decades.

Nowadays, of course, there are not only no carbons but no actual letters. One does e-mail instead, a technical advance that has done wonders to facilitate the quick exchange of information. Members of my generation will recall when we used to get real letters — sometimes long, gossipy or poignant letters — from friends. We will remember how a really good letter would take days and weeks to answer. You had to clear the time to re-read the letter and to think about what to offer in return. Those were the days when one spoke of "owing" a letter, a clear recognition of the fact that to receive a well-written letter was to incur a debt.

E-mail gets answered immediately, with the scantest greeting and no more elaboration than is needed to answer the questions raised in the original. E-mail is quick, efficient and largely effortless. But it isn’t papers.

What is? I’ve just talked to a colleague who showed me boxes of his now-worthless story ideas, printed-out interview notes, and no-longer-relevant leads. He says he keeps letters from news sources and public officials in his attic.

And that gives me an idea. If all 435 members of the House, all 100 senators and the top members of the administration would each write me a little note — witty, flattering and insightful — I’d have papers.

And a certain university would be deliriously happy.

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