Construct a Western Codex book consisting of images on thirty transparencies. Process the film-negatives by developing, short stop but no fix. Wash, dry, and under proper safelight, hand bind as a leather case bound book. Place completed book in light-tight box.

Neuromancer author William Gibson tried something of the sort in a poem about his late father, "Agrippa." The poem came on a floppy, to be read via a self-destructing program (the previous link will indicate how well its protection stood up to the collective computer expertise of Gibson fans); the package also came with etchings by Dennis Ashbaugh printed on light-sensitive ink. Smith’s self-destructing book is a great idea, but it would be doomed to failure in a digital medium; it’s far too easy to make a copy.

Graham Leuschke has been reading A Book of the Book and points to book artist Kevin Smith. Smith has a modest proposal for self-destructing art:

Construct a Western Codex book consisting of images on thirty transparencies. Process the film-negatives by developing, short stop but no fix. Wash, dry, and under proper safelight, hand bind as a leather case bound book. Place completed book in light-tight box.

Neuromancer author William Gibson tried something of the sort in a poem about his late father, "Agrippa." The poem came on a floppy, to be read via a self-destructing program (the previous link will indicate how well its protection stood up to the collective computer expertise of Gibson fans); the package also came with etchings by Dennis Ashbaugh printed on light-sensitive ink. Smith’s self-destructing book is a great idea, but it would be doomed to failure in a digital medium; it’s far too easy to make a copy. Paper is a fragile thing. The Great Library at Alexandria, the grand repository of Hellenistic knowledge and literature, was destroyed by a fire set by the troops of Julius Caesar in 48 B.C.; the "daughter library" founded by Ptolemy III was destroyed in the fourth century. The printing press made duplicating and disseminating books much easier, but what about letters and manuscripts? Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin legendarily smoked the only copy of his book on the Bildungsroman, cigarette papers being hard to come by in Leningrad in 1942. Ralph Ellison lost several hundred pages of the manuscript of his second novel (eventually published as Juneteenth) in a fire at his Massachusetts cabin. (Gabriel Rosetti buried a sheaf of his poems with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal. Thinking better of the gesture, he later had Siddal exhumed and the poems removed from her coffin: less romantic, perhaps, but fully understandable.)

In 1806, an Englishman, Ralph Wedgewood, applied for a patent on carbon paper. (An Italian, Pellegrino Turri, independently designed a typewriter-and-carbon device in 1808, so that Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono, who was blind and had atrocious handwriting, could write him intelligible love letters without relying on her secretary.) Carbon paper is still sold today, although the invention of the mimeograph (circa 1887), the spirit duplicator (circa 1923), and xerographic copiers (circa 1949) have largely rendered it a relic of the same age that gave us secretarial pools, green visors, and the three-martini lunch.

By now, most people probably understand that the recipient of email can easily send copies to other people (which can result in awkward situations. Google’s Usenet archive offers a twenty-year selection of writing, some of it embarassing to the authors. In the future, will ephemera be a thing of the past? Will no writer be able to escape his or her juvenilia? Perhaps if you’re shy — unwilling to let lesser drafts and journeyman pieces sully the brilliance of your masterpiece — the only solution will be to keep your writing away from a computer and be like Emily Dickinson: hide your work in a drawer and hope nobody notices it until you’re long past caring.