With all the interest in the publication of Go Set a Watchman, which may or may not be a sequel to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, one thing is clear: This would all have been a lot easier if they had just used document management software.
Admittedly, this was all moot in 1957, when the manuscript was first written, because the world didn’t yet have document management software. Not to mention, author Harper Lee is not exactly on the cutting edge of technology; as recently as 2002, she reportedly didn’t even yet use an electric typewriter.
That said, in the same way that we look at classic movies such as An Affair to Remember now and muse that the star-crossed lovers wouldn’t have had so many problems if they’d had cellphones, a number of the mysteries the publishing world is currently grappling with would no longer be an issue today if Mockingbird’s creators had used modern document management tools.
First, there’s the whole issue of how the Go Set a Watchman manuscript was found in the first place: in a bank—a secure place, to be sure, but lost for a number of years and attached to a To Kill a Mockingbird manuscript. Document management software would have made it clear whether there were two (or three, as some people are now suggesting) manuscripts, and it wouldn’t have gotten misplaced in the first place.
When it comes to the two manuscripts themselves, people are arguing about when each was written and to what degree Go Set a Watchman influenced To Kill a Mockingbird.
To demonstrate how some material is shared almost verbatim between the two manuscripts, Quartz is laboriously manually searching for duplicate passages. “To find these overlapping passages, we broke Watchman into chunks of words, and searched the entire text of Mockingbird for those same chunks, allowing for slight variations in spelling and phrasings,” explains Keith Collins.
Wouldn’t it be great if they could have simply compared the versions of the two documents, quickly producing a list of all copy shared between them? With proper version control functionality, there wouldn’t be any guesswork—we’d know which manuscript came first, how much content was shared between them and whether Lee considered them as separate works or not.
We’d also have a better idea of the writing and editing process each manuscript followed. As it happens, Lee’s agent, Annie Laurie Williams, was considered to be a meticulous record-keeper, making notes on index cards to indicate where each manuscript was in the publishing process. The Columbia University collection of Williams’ correspondence includes more than 100,000 items in 208 boxes; 10 correspondence file boxes; 9 card file drawers; and approximately 150 volumes, according to its description.
How much easier it would have been for Williams if she had a business process workflow system that allowed her to track the progress of each manuscript? That would also make it easier for the journalists who now have to trek over to the Columbia University library where her records are stored because they haven’t been scanned.
In addition, it’s speculated that Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, was heavily involved in the direction the manuscript eventually took in its journey from Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird. With a proper electronic document management system, we’d have a much better idea of her contributions. Maybe there’d be email messages appended to the file with directions. Maybe there’d simply be comments and revision marks. Either way, we’d know.
Similarly, it’s been speculated for years that the well-known writer Truman Capote, with whom Lee grew up and who served as the model for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, had some involvement in the writing of the book (though Lee vehemently denied this). Any electronic document management system worth its salt can handle multiple authors and make it clear who was responsible for exactly what parts of a document.
Plus, with secure records management, people wouldn’t have needed to traipse over to a bank to open a safe-deposit box, but could simply have looked at the manuscripts remotely. In the same way, Lee’s representative could have used access control functionality to limit who could read the manuscripts.
However you feel about the process by which Go Set a Watchman was published, and the different story it tells, it’s breaking all kinds of records for sales and pre-ordering. We haven’t seen this many people excited about a book in a long time.
“The excitement is, in a way, a salute to America’s literary memory: in what is supposed to be an amnesiac society, the memory of a fifty-five-year-old novel burns so bright that an auxiliary volume is still a national event,” writes Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker.
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