Snooping Through Salman Rushdie's Computer

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On an unusually cold February evening in Atlanta, a hundred people shuffle into Emory University's Schatten Gallery to celebrate the grand opening of Salman Rushdie's archives. To the right are Rushdie's original hand-drawn covers for Midnight's Children. To the left is a copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie's ode to pop music, alongside the lyrics Bono wrote based on his title. Inside a small glass case are four illustrated versions of Haroun and the Sea of Stories written for his eldest son, Zafar, who was separated from his father for most of Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa against the author.

As the last of the guests come in, Rushdie's longtime pal, Christopher Hitchens, ushers him onstage with "To the health of the written word." Curiously, Hitchens could have just as easily toasted the health of the digital word. For all the physical memorabilia, the true focus of the exhibit is something intangible: 18 gigabytes of digital data retrieved from four separate Macs. As Rushdie remarks when he took the podium, the crowd is there to celebrate "dead computers which had to be exhumed."

Rushdie's author archives at Emory are the first in the world to include "born-digital" materials--drafts and notes initially created in an electronic medium. Along with Rushdie's 200 boxes of diaries and first editions, the university acquired Rushdie's early computers--a mid-90s desktop, three laptops, and an external hard drive with over 40,000 files including Rushdie's first foray into email in the early 1990s. When I find Rushdie wandering through the exhibit and perusing his own memorabilia, I ask how he feels about the opening of the archive. He laughs and, in true Rushdie fashion, simply says, "Weird." Weird, yes. New, definitely.

Rushdie's old Performa 5400 is part of the exhibit, housed under Plexiglass. But the real excitement is five stories up at MARBL, Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Walking out of the elevator past a panoramic view of Atlanta's midtown skyline, researchers find a wood-paneled reading room where a single desk holds a large monitor and a new MacBook Pro. The initial screen shows a photo of a smiling Rushdie. To its right is an icon that reads "Rushdie's Computer." 

Erika Farr, who headed the team of archivists and programmers that "exhumed" Rushdie's computer files, clicks on the icon, and up pops an emulation of the same early '90s Mac operating system Rushdie used. She clicks on Claris Works and we're looking at a neat grey screen with an archaic hard disk icon in the top right hand corner. Inside is a folder called "Midnight's Children" and two others called "My Money," and "Names for New Child." (The latter refers to Rushdie's youngest son, Milan, to whom his upcoming book Luka and the Fire of Life is dedicated.) The "Names" and "Money" folders are outlined in red. Farr clicks on them and there is nothing inside. 

Similarly, when Farr opens an early version of the Eudora email application, there are full correspondences with Rushdie's long-time friend Anita Desai and agent Andrew Wylie, but a number of addresses have been redacted. The hidden data makes it clear how thin the line is between Rushdie's literary legacy and private thoughts, particularly because he's an author who is still living. Even when you open the materials that are available--such as early notes about Rushdie's ex-wife and the final draft of Midnight's Children--it feels like you're snooping through Salman Rushdie's computer. Which, in fact, you are.

Farr double clicks on an icon that says "Search/Browse" and the true strength of the born-digital archive is revealed. "We're lucky he saved everything and that he was so organized," she says as a complete searchable database opens up beside the replica of Rushdie's desktop. With both windows open, you can read the first draft of The Ground Beneath Her Feet in the same Palatino font and format Rushdie wrote it in. At the same time, you can do a complete search of all his correspondence related to the writing of the novel. You can read "Ground Notes"--Rushdie's ideas about how the novel would end-- saved on an early version of Stickies from his Performa 5400. You can see the author's entire creative process in context, right down to the games he played during breaks from writing. "It's how we're all working today," says Naomi Nelson, MARBL's interim director. She hopes to soon install a larger workstation where researchers can simultaneously access the computer simulations, search the database, and look through reams feet of physical papers. For now, this machine is just a gem in the corner of the reading room.

As Farr closes the emulated environment, a familiar dialogue box pops up on the screen: "Are you sure you want to shut down your computer now?" This is Salman Rushdie's desktop after all, so when Farr clicks "Shutdown," it seems to send a valuable message to all authors writing today: Remember to save your work.

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Devyani Saltzman is the curator of literary programming at the Luminato arts festival in Toronto.

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