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How Gmail Became Our Diary

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Illustration: Maria Contreras

Twenty years ago this month, Google launched Gmail. At first, user numbers were deliberately kept low, and those with access would hoard invitations and bestow them on friends like precious gifts. Once you were on the inside, though, a whole new world opened up. It’s difficult to remember now (if you’re old enough to remember), but we used to delete our emails. The big-name providers — AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo! — were so stingy with storage that users had to regularly scrub their inboxes, tossing messages into a digital burn box like diplomats abandoning an embassy. Google, however, gave everyone a full gigabyte of storage, enough in those lower-res days to keep, well, everything.

Because of that decision made in Mountain View, we now have a huge accidental archive of our collective past. Awkward flirtations, drunken rants, earnest pleas; friendships fraying or rekindled, personae tried on and discarded, good jokes and bad decisions; every dumb or brilliant or anguished thing we wrote below the subject line — we have an instantly searchable record of it all. To mark the anniversary of this revolution, the editors of New York asked some of our favorite writers to excavate their individual archives and tell us — with dismay or pride or chagrin — what they saw.

The author of several novels, including, most recently, The Bee Sting

Gmail first appeared the year I turned 30. Around me, people I knew were doing hitherto unthinkable things like buying houses and settling down; later that spring, my friend Jonathan, whom I’d known since I was 8, was getting married.

The writing was on the wall: After years of evasion, we were being dragged into adulthood. My new Gmail account was a not-insignificant part of that journey. Until then, I’d had a charmingly whimsical Hotmail address — great for staying in touch with girls I’d met while Interrailing, but not ideal for communicating with prospective employers, editors, etc. Would you trust your database management to mysticaldreamer3125? Or look forward to running into stonedsoulwarrior every day at the watercooler? I saw the Gmail account, which — also hitherto unthinkable — incorporated my actual name, as marking my transition from scruffy, lovable crypto-hippie into ruthless, sharklike grown-up.

Pretty much every other email I wrote at that point related to my approaching 30th birthday. My sent folder is filled with lamentation over the passing of the years.

“I really do feel awash with feelings of mortality, meaninglessness, having wasted my life/not wasted it enough, all that. Positive attitude, though: I did think that I would be totally bald by now.”

At that point, I was living in a shared house while writing my second novel. That had seemed a fine way to pass my 20s, but now I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a serious wrong turn. Everyone I knew was getting real jobs and taking out mortgages, trying to get onto the property ladder. It felt like my whole generation was undergoing a metamorphosis, like a corporate butterfly emerging from a chrysalis made of Slint T-shirts. I, meanwhile, was living the same way I had since I was a college student. Only now I was old!

My friend Loren — then still comfortably in her mid-20s — enjoyed all this existential hand-wringing. On my birthday, she sent me an email headed YOU ARE YOUNGER THAN ADRIEN BRODY! BUT OLDER THAN BUFFY, with an mp3 of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” attached. I wrote back to her the next day with a hangover and my initial impressions of the Other Side: “The first lesson of your thirties is that you can no longer party as if you were twenty-nine.”

Jonathan had chosen me and our mutual buddy Justin as his groomsmen; any doubts he had about his upcoming wedding related exclusively to us. “Fellas, I will need you to wear suits on the day,” he wrote. “I have taken the liberty of picking these out and paying for them. I now need you to go to the shop to be measured. I think the simplest thing is for me to drive you to the shop myself. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that the shop is hard to find and there’s a time element now.” (The phrase “It’s not that I don’t trust you” appears numerous times in his emails.)

The wedding was a huge success. “Lots of friends, everybody together, beautiful venue, Justin and I immaculately tailored,” I wrote to Loren. There had been romance, too. “Late into the night our schoolfriend Noel got in a heated argument with a girl about whether Cardinal Ratzinger would make a good pope [John Paul II had died a couple of weeks before]. Somehow this ended up in her sleeping with him (Noel, that is, not Cardinal Ratzinger.)”

At the wedding dinner, Jonathan closed his speech by telling his new wife, “Being with you makes me look forward to the future.” That line made a big impact on me; until then, I don’t know that looking forward to the future had ever occurred to me as something you could do. Suddenly, middle age — as I then saw it — didn’t seem so bad.

The midlife crisis enjoyed a further uptick a few weeks later: “I finished my (preliminary) (illegible) first draft on Friday. 1090 pages of unprintable chaos! Actually got a warm glow and since then have had a renewed sense of connection to and love for the world … I feel like an animal coming out of hibernation.”

Another five years would pass before the book saw the light of day. Still, for the first time, I could look at the future and just about see myself in it — which was good news because, as my 30-year-old self would learn, the future just keeps on coming.

Looking back, I find it hard to relate to the issues I thought I had in the Gmail era. Confusion and doubt seem a small price to pay for all that freedom. But of course I’d think that; everyone thinks his problems are the only real ones. For all of his complaining, I’m glad my 30-year-old self kept going with his book; I’m sure he’d be glad to know that I’m still keeping going 20 years later. Also that — though I can hardly believe it myself — I’m still younger than Adrien Brody.

Author of six books, including the memoir Grief Is for People, which was published in February

In 2014, a group of hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace leaked thousands of emails from Sony Pictures employees, sending a collective shudder up the spines of those of us who’d spent the previous decade using our work accounts for “us” talks and medical missives. “I still love you. Signed, Sloane Crosley, Associate Director of Publicity.” “I think the ointment is making it worse? Signed, Sloane Crosley, Associate Director of Publicity.” My entire 20s passed through that Random House account, an Ellis Island of digital mistakes. I did not succumb to Gmail until I left corporate America in 2011, at which point I sent my new self a handful of exchanges from my old self. Which means I did my survey of the early aughts long ago. But so unwisely. Imagine Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but instead of picking the Holy Grail, he picks a list of midwestern media contacts, all of which will bounce back within two years.

I have but one substantive exchange from that time, and I can’t imagine why I held on to it. Or why I forwarded it to myself to begin with. Perhaps I envisioned a scenario in which I’d one day have to blackmail myself. It spans the course of a few days in 2004 and contains the most wince-inducing nonsense between me and a male reporter, mostly my doing. I am trying to prove my intelligence and disaffection so he will cover the books I will eventually recommend to him. After he doesn’t come to a party, I write, “You missed it. Might vs. Lingua Franca keg stands, whoever chugs with more irony gets put back in print. I left around 10:30 with a friend and we painted the town puce. Went to some establishment called PM which is an on-the-nose name for an on-the-nose place. Home by 2:30AM!” As the exchange goes on, I throw different versions of myself at the wall to see what sticks. I assumed my 2:30 a.m. was his 9 p.m. But I was wrong: “2:30. Yeah, you’re 25.”

Maybe I sent myself the exchange because this was before I understood how banter could mimic something else, particularly among people who traffic in references both for a living and as a means of flirtation. It should surprise absolutely no one that eventually the reporter and I went on a date that I did not fully realize was a date. Things ended amicably with a bit of harmless annoyance on everyone’s part. Or maybe I kept it because, in the last segment of the exchange, he asks me what on-the-nose means. Maybe I kept it to remind myself not to work so hard.

A features writer for Vulture and New York

Many of my first Gmail messages from my mother, grandmother, various aunts, and female friends are emails warning me not to open other emails lest I destroy my life and possibly the universe. These virus emails came in many flavors: (1) the O.G. classic manic chain letter with dozens of oddly spaced paragraphs written in bright-red variably sized and shaped fonts, almost always mentioning John McAfee and/or Nostradamus); (2) stern, shame-tinged missives from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who opened a seemingly innocuous email, got hacked, lost their job, and died in a fire; or (3) my personal favorite flavor, an all-caps freak-out about something possibly bad that I had already clicked on with a quantum multiverse of consequences.

One November when I was a college student poorly managing seasonal depression, my mom sent me a chain letter that hits every sweet spot: a subject line that projects ethos, pathos, and Drudge Report–level terror (“Bad Virus – CNN Announced – Snopes Confirmed As Real”), a McAfee name-drop (RIP), a vague technological reference that sounds fucked-up but doesn’t track for the average person (“the virus simply destroys Sector Zero from the hard disk, where vital information for its functioning are stored”), and an earnest exhortation to “PLEASE SEND THIS TO EVERYONE ON YOUR CONTACT LIST!!”

Six months later, my mom forwarded an alarming-looking email from AT&T with the message “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN???” Only this one wasn’t spam; I had changed an account setting without her knowledge in order to download a custom ringtone — another horrible viral phenomenon of the early aughts. My bratty reply: “why the capital letters?” Both my mom’s intense concern and my flippant obnoxiousness were quite common at the time.

The men in my family did not seem as openly concerned about computer viruses, or at least they didn’t send as many frantic email chains about them, a fact that could be read in any number of ways. Men in 2008 were too busy starting to cyberbully female gamers; men throughout time don’t pay attention to anything. But I choose to read it, as I do so many things, as an inherent indictment of male imagination and sociability. Women can bond over anything — historically, we’ve had to get very creative — and the women in my family can develop anxiety over anything, which is correct because everything usually turns out badly. I choose to see my early-Gmail female brethren’s concern for our global cybersecurity as feminist praxis.

The author of ten books, including Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change and Leave Society

I got my first email address in 1996, when I was 12, from America Online. There was no one to email at first, but then I met a girl in a chatroom and we emailed irregularly through middle and high school. I don’t remember what we said  —  or who else I emailed  —  because I don’t have access to tao343@aol.com anymore; it was “deactivated due to inactivity” sometime after 2004, when I got my Gmail account. I’ve amassed 71.81 gigabytes of emails in around 36,000 threads in my Gmail account over two decades. The first hundred or so emails are ones I forwarded to myself from my AOL account for storage purposes. One of these emails was from my mom, who in November 2004 said,

I will still use AOL for a while because you said all emails will be automatically saved in Gmail, which I don’t want. I need to delete some emails sometimes. Are you still using AOL account? You can cancel it now that you have Gmail. Why Google gives people free emails? If all the people use Google email, then AOL and others will be broke.

Gmail’s near-unlimited storage and long-term staying power has been an unprecedented asset to writers. A Gmail account is a literary chronicle of a type never seen before: timestamped, organized, searchable, and photo-and-video-supported. Correspondences that would normally be utterly forgotten or severely misremembered, ranging from brief and chatty to elaborate and weighty, are now archived in a non-degradable manner, safe from the unconscious, self-serving distortions of memory.

Throughout my writing career, I’ve taken advantage of email as source material for my autofiction and nonfiction. Doing this has allowed me to construct detailed, accurate, chronological stories and essays and novels about my life.

In 2021, after my friend Giancarlo DiTrapano, editor of Tyrant Books, died, I reread our hundreds of emails going back to 2005. Rereading sixteen years of our emails  —  besides being a poignant and stimulating experience, unique to the 21st century  —  allowed me to write a long, documentarian essay on our friendship, quoting many of our emails. Without email, my remembrance of Gian would have been much less compelling and substantial.

That same year, my Gmail account greatly assisted me in writing another essay  —  about a time in 2009 when a Canadian gay porn site emailed me, offering to pay me 5000 dollars to masturbate on camera. By 2021, all I could remember of this amusing episode was that (1) my then-girlfriend had been supportive; (2) I’d asked a friend if he’d watch me masturbate so I could practice doing it in front of a man (he said no); and that (3) after a series of delays and many emails with multiple employees at the company, the porn shoot never happened.

After consulting my email, I was able to write a 4000-word-plus narrative essay filled with long-forgotten details, including that I’d been solicited for a series titled “hot, brainy boys”; that the solicitor had stated, “Of particular importance to us is a pressing need to diversify our models. In 2010, we plan to include a new design and links to anti-erotic-racism websites”; that I’d gchatted with the website’s lead attorney’s assistant, who’d asked if I could “masturbate in a variety of positions”; that the lead attorney herself had emailed me to say that both of the men I’d talked to had contracted H1N1 (swine flu); and that she, the lead attorney, had tried, unsuccessfully, to “generate other posing work” for me.

My Gmail account contains probably hundreds of other stories like my friendship with Gian and my encounter with the porn world. Instead of relying on my low-fidelity, reality-distorting memory to construct literature, I can use my emails to build factual, linear accounts to carefully craft into art. As more writers grow up with email, and more of our older writers learn to utilize it for literary purposes, and all of us continue to fill our email accounts with experiences and dialogues, literature as a whole will, I believe, continue to benefit, becoming ever more realistic, exacting, and thorough.

The author of four novels, including The Great Believers and I Have Some Questions for You

From: Rebecca

To: Jess

Subject: (No Subject)

Date: August 8, 2004

Jess—

Sorry I’ve been out of touch for SO long, especially since you wrote me a lovely, long letter this winter. I hope everything’s still good… Are you still in CT? If you’re there over christmas with any time to spare, we actually should get together this year, like we’ve been saying we will forever.

It’s going to be a fairly crazy school year here… We were trying to move back to Baltimore for this fall, but absolutely everything fell through, and so we’re here at least through the spring. In the meantime, we’re going to do a really wide job search, hoping to end up for next fall somewhere on or near the east coast, preferably with us both teaching at a boarding school. So since we thought we were moving, I basically gave up my job, and thought for a while I was going to be completely screwed. Now I’m only mildly screwed, taking a big pay-cut to fill in this fall for an English teacher on maternity.

I’m actually very excited about teaching high school, since this is what I want to end up doing for the next few years at least, but I don’t get to start until September 20th, unless she has her baby early. So I’m getting gads done, writing a lot and cleaning out my desk (scary!) and finally getting back in touch with everyone.

So I have absolutely no gossip to share with you, unless I never told you that ____ is getting married soon. He’s moving to ___ to be near her in a couple months, and sounds very happy. I’m glad, as prior to this he’d been mopey for about eight years. Haven’t heard from ____ in ages, probably since her wedding… Not that I’m surprised, but I guess I’m slightly worried. You know anything? And more to the point, what’s the gossip about YOU?

love,

bec

In early spring of 2004, my husband and I knew exactly what the next few years would hold: We’d leave Chicago and move back to Baltimore, where he’d been living when we met. He’d return to the school where he’d been teaching back when I kidnapped him to the Midwest, and I’d get an MFA in writing or, failing that, teach high-school English.

Absolutely none of this happened. The job fell through, the MFA program (the only one I applied to, because of location) didn’t accept me, and since I hadn’t been able to renew my contract in time at the Montessori school where I’d been teaching, I now had no real job.

I remember looking at my husband that spring and saying, “There will be a time in our lives when won’t be able to imagine it working out any other way.” He disagreed.

By the time I wrote this email to a college friend, in August, I’d accepted the situation. You can almost hear me talking myself into it, trying to make sure the downtime was so useful that I couldn’t regret it. And I did make use of the time, starting to wrangle my diffuse notes into a novel draft. I never got the MFA, but it didn’t matter. And we never applied again out east. I got back in the Montessori classroom that spring and taught for eight more years, during which I finished and published that novel and had two babies. “At least through the spring” has been twenty-three years and counting in Chicago.

2004 doesn’t seem so long ago, but then this exchange feels almost 19th century in both its formality and in the circuitous way we kept abreast of each other’s lives. Have you any word of our dear Elspeth? I do hope you’ve survived the long winter! And all around me is the evidence of the intervening 20 years. That baby whose mother’s leave I covered is finishing up her first year of college. I was a visiting author last year at the MFA program that didn’t offer me a slot. I hold infinite news about old and new friends in the palm of my hand.

I do think about the lives we might have lived if the move had worked. We’d have conceived different kids, for one thing. Would I have had a writing career? I’d like to think so, but I know that without the unstructured time that September, my first novel wouldn’t have turned out the same. Would it have been better? Maybe. Or maybe an MFA would have defeated me. Or maybe I’d have wound up teaching high school, drained enough by the experience that writing would forever remain the thing I hoped to get back to someday.

So maybe my husband was right after all, because I can imagine this other life for myself. That version of me is out there somewhere in the multiverse, not writing a word. I see her pretty clearly. I hope she’s doing okay.

The author of The Incendiaries and Exhibit, which will be published in May

From: R.O. Kwon

To: Clara Kwon

Subject: piano books

Date: September 14, 2004

chopin waltzes

beethoven concertos / sonatas

schubert

mozart sonatas

chopin mazurkas

piano finger exercise…forgot the name…haydn?

love you!

As soon as I figured out how to read a book while playing the piano, it should have been obvious I wasn’t going to become a professional musician. Instead, for years, I kept up the fiction: hours of daily practice, a rigid schedule of competitions and recitals, the life-shaping idea, which I thought I also believed, that I might go from high school to a conservatory. I also kept reading books, avid for literature’s different music even while I played Chopin or Schubert.

It wasn’t hard. Since I needed just one hand to hold open a novel, I could hurl myself into a fictional world as I played music with the other hand. The piano and I had our own room. It’s not unusual, while practicing a passage, to work on just the left or right hand’s part, so it took a long time before my parents caught on.

Eventually I realized that, if I was bored by the piano, and I was, I couldn’t be a pianist. My parents didn’t disagree; but, my mother said, I should keep going. I’d love having the skill, as an adult. It would be a lasting gift. If I quit, I’d regret the loss.

So, for years, balking, I was dragged along. Then, in a high-school science class, the teacher brought in a box of dry ice. I recall the skid and hiss of ice pellets on the pocked surface of a public-school desk. Dry ice burns skin, the teacher warned.

On a whim, though, I placed a pellet on the back of my left hand. I had a piano lesson that night: I didn’t want to go. By the time I let the ice slide off, I was left with a second-degree burn, one requiring a bandage. It hurt, but not that much; after a while, the scar faded. More to the point, it worked. I didn’t have to touch the piano again.

In the email above, years after the dry-ice incident, I’m telling my mother which of my piano scores to keep. I’m bewildered by what I was willing to trash  —  where is the Bach, the Debussy?  —  but what I really notice is the Hanon. (Hanon, not Haydn!, and the fact that I could have mixed those up for even an instant shows how far I’d traveled from my pianist days.) Hanon’s finger exercises are controversial, but I was trained to believe they’d help build up strength and agility in a pianist’s hands. My desire to keep the Hanon indicates, I think, that I was holding open the door in case I wanted to make my way back to the piano I thought I despised.

I still haven’t played the piano again. But a year ago, while I was in the depths of revising my novel Exhibit  —  a book about two artists, a photographer and a ballerina, learning what they’re willing to give up for their art  —  a novelist friend asked, “You were a pianist, weren’t you?” Writers who were also musicians, she said, have so much patience for revising. Those years of practice! I think of how, when I cared, I could spend hours, days, working a phrase or passage until it felt like the best possible version of itself, and how unwilling I was to let anything go until I’d satisfied that requirement.

I once thought a pianist’s training was wasted on me, but I was wrong. It might have been an ideal education for the kind of writer I hope to be.

Senior writer at Vulture

When I was 23, I set about trying to get a full-time job in media. I did not have a journalism degree, or any real connections. What I did have were a few clips from a recently expired temp gig at TIME.com, and more important, a willingness to lie.

Many of the increasingly strained cover letters I sent out during this period still lie dormant in my Gmail “sent” folder. (This is the only folder most of them show up in, as they did not receive a reply.) I wish I could say that I do not recognize the person who wrote them  —  desperate, willing to debase himself, while making it clear he considered the whole endeavor beneath him. They read like the emails of an exiled aristocrat, holding out for the ship home that was surely just beyond the horizon.

Like many follies, the onset of my search was marked by an irrational overconfidence. I applied to an open editorial assistant position at The Onion, a lifelong dream job. I’d had an unpaid internship there the year before, so I must have been feeling myself, because, not for the last time, I led with shit-talking. “As a former Onion intern who’s since worked in traditional media and witnessed their struggle for identity, I welcome the chance to return to an institution with more certainty in its mission,” I wrote. I landed an interview for that job, but they hired the guy who would go on to co-create Clickhole instead.

The sass was still in evidence a few weeks later, when I applied to a junior-editor position at VF.com, where I eagerly informed the hiring manager that I was “looking to make the jump from sites that write for search engines to sites that write for people.” This message was met with silence.

I decided to get serious. I applied to be a web producer at WABC and an editorial assistant at Budget Travel. (I called myself “a recent graduate looking to expand into travel journalism.” Sure.) The lying began in earnest when I sought an associate editor position at Men’s Health. “I have long been a fan of Men’s Health’s positive (and, relatively speaking, progressive) coverage of wellness and lifestyle issues,” I said. “Masculinity is going through a thorny redefinition right now,” I went on, anticipating New Girl discourse by at least eight months, “and I think will be incredibly interesting to see how men’s magazines process and reflect the change in the years ahead.” There was no response for any of these, either.

I lied so much! I told the Washington Post I was “looking to relocate to Washington DC in the coming months,” and Mediabistro that I had “picked up a working knowledge of CSS.” This last fib at least earned me another interview, where over the course of 30 excruciating minutes it became clear that I did not in fact have a working knowledge of CSS.

Like many at the end of their rope, I hoped the racetrack could be my salvation. I applied to be a web producer at something called Daily Racing Forum. “As a casual sports fan who has always been curious about the world of horse racing…” I wrote with a straight face.

Then came my lifeline: Metro, the free subway paper, was looking for someone to run their website. If you think, Why would a free subway paper need a website? that’s both a fair question to ask and also the exact level of journalism job I was qualified for. This time, I called myself “a viral news junkie” who admired “Metro’s tight and comprehensive takes on the day’s news,” which was good enough to score an interview, and eventually, the job. In work as in dating, the secret is to find someone as desperate as you are.

A poet whose collection Razzle Dazzle: New and Selected Poems 2002-2022 was published last year

The email arrived on my birthday, September 9, 2004. Gmail was five months old. I was 36. “Major,” the sender wrote, “Someone mentioned your website and said the photos are (superlative here, maybe sexual in connotation). Well, yes. So your ears must be warm; the queenies are talking about you!”

I cannot recall what celebrations took place that day, if I blew out candles on a cake or took in a concert. Photos in my iCloud do not reveal any clues. I lost much of my digital record from that time when someone nabbed my computer out of a car I was loading in Brooklyn. With the trunk open, I took a step inside a house on Macon Street to retrieve luggage. I heard a car pull up then screech off. My heart raced. I ran outside; sure enough my Dell laptop, in the hands of some thief, turned the corner, forever lost to me. And yet, I have this email on a server somewhere on the planet.

I remember how much hand-wringing there was about writers having their own websites back in 2004. Writers with websites were ostentatious, vain, pathetic in their self-promotion. Those of us with websites lacked the modesty of true writers, who live in cabins in far-flung places like Montana, Maine, and Long Island. Now author websites are a requirement, and so, we now complain about TikTok instead.

The writer of the email was an MFA fiction graduate of a low-residency program. “I’m studying always and am still baffled by poetry but I keep looking,” she wrote me. Was she flirting? Well, yes. In reply, I ignored the coquettish talk, though indeed my ears were warm.

I keep meaning to print out my emails and archive them in case of a server crash  —  the digital version of the thief on Macon Street  —  erases them forever, taking with it a map of my relationship to writers and the literary world. But I never do.

The author of four novels, including Atlas of Unknowns and Loot

From: J.

To: Tania

Subject: Nick

Date: May 24, 2006

Pluses for Nick:

smart, very smart

cute dresser

owns house and dog

loves books, identifies good writing

is probably a good cook

is probably more principled than me

is single (i think is single)

writes nice emails!

has car, will drive to meet me

minuses:

near impossible to read

shy, very shy

possibly emotionally stagnant

wants to make change but doesn’t make it

is so careful

possibly anti-social

appeared not to have washed his hair

if only he’d shampooed, maybe things would’ve gone a different way.

love you and your clean hair,

 j.

According to my inbox, my early twenties were mostly devoted to the search for a suitable boy or a suitable sublet. At one point, I signed up to live with a Craigslist couple who had installed a mini-fridge and hot plate in my room, so that I wouldn’t have to use their kitchen. They’d also, mysteriously, installed a padlock on their bedroom door. No problem, I thought, so eager to get on with my life that I would’ve moved in with Bluebeard and made roommates of his headless wives. Within days, the arrangement imploded.

My romantic search wasn’t much better. Sparkless match.com dates. Situationships with guys who didn’t love me back. All of them chronicled in post-mortem emails like the one above, from my friend J.

J and I had met in grad school and were of similar enough height and coloring that (white) people confused us all the time. I pretended to roll my eyes at this but secretly celebrated because she was hot and I do not mind being mistaken for hot people. We had excellent email chemistry, which as you can tell  —  writes nice emails!  —  meant something to us. A good email was one that made the reader smile, that sought to entertain but not impress. We saved the sad parts for when we met up in person, sitting and talking on her stoop or mine. Strung together, our emails depict a joyful time though I know it was also full of uncertainty and loneliness.

Another thing I notice from our emails: J and I could dip in and out of the current of a conversation with no need for hello! or hope this finds you well. We didn’t need to waste time finding each other: we were always there. Which is how I like to imagine it will be, years from now, after our lives have slowed and email has gone the way of the telegram. She’ll be waiting for me on a stoop somewhere, and nothing and everything will have changed.

Author of several novels, including Book of Numbers and The Netanyahus, which won the Pulitzer Prize

The first Gmail I ever received was from myself. From/to yours truly, not because I didn’t have any friends (though I didn’t really), not because I didn’t have any work (though I didn’t really), but honestly because I was finally being smart, a responsible adult. I’d written most of a novel  —  this was September 2004, I’d just turned 24  —  written it in ye olde way, hand on pen, pen in a notebook, scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble, and then the notebook had gone into the bag and the bag had gone onto the train (with me) and the train (with me on it) had gone from Germany to Hungary. And somewhere before, or at, the Hungarian border, I was robbed. I woke up bagless. I remember  —  it’s all somewhat hazy  —  being in some train station office in Budapest, filling out some forms, but because the forms were in Hungarian I probably put my name in the address blank and my address for a phone. I didn’t have a phone at the time, at least not a phone that wasn’t stuck to the wall (and the wall was stuck in Berlin). I had to borrow a pen to fill in the form incorrectly and then I signed my name, probably where I should’ve put in the date (day first, then month).

A week or so later, I started the habit of typing up each week’s writing and then mailing “the file” — emailing “the document” — Gmailing it — to myself. Like I was some kind of spy — that’s how important it used to feel to “attach” — it felt simultaneously covert and professional to “have attachments.” I tried to reconstruct the novel I’d lost — sample subject line of what were otherwise empty emails: “last try at draft chap before suicide” — but the process of reconstruction changed it. Now I was writing a novel about technology. I was already a few chapters in when I, and everyone else, got the news: the US government was engaged in warrantless surveillance (it was also blowing the hell out of the Middle East). I worked those angles into what I was writing and went back to notebooks and pens. Ten years later, the novel was published. I would like to end this brief reminiscence by stating that the novel stolen from me on that overnight train became the basis for all Hungarian literature published thereafter. Google it, Bing it, Ask Jeeves.

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