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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.