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12 January 2010

Anne Frank and us

The challenge of preserving art for posterity

By Sebastian Gillies

Miep Gies, who died on Monday at the age of 100, was one of the few remaining people who had known Anne Frank. It is thanks to her that Anne’s diary survived, after she collected the pages when the secret annexe was discovered and hid them, in hope of Anne’s return, until Otto Frank came back. As The Diary of a Young Girl has never been out of print since, has sold millions of copies and has become a wider symbol of the Holocaust, it is difficult to imagine that, but for Gies, it could have easily been lost.

Many famous works have entered posterity by the skin of their teeth. Part of a Sappho poem was reused as an Egyptian mummy bandage. Diego de Landa and Bartolome de Las Casas preserved Mayan and Aztec oral culture by getting it down on paper. John Heminges and Henry Condell determined the way Shakespeare’s plays have been handed down to us by having them included in the First Folio. By choosing The Marriage of Figaro for a performance, Joseph II prevented Mozart from carrying out his threat to burn the score. The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom was missed by the rioters who stormed the Bastille where he wrote it. Kathleen Noonan stopped her father, Robert Tressell, from incinerating The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists after three publishing rejections by keeping the 1,600 hand-written pages in a box under her bed. The environment has also acted as a preservative; the Dead Sea Scrolls survived in dry desert caves for over a thousand years. Because of this, valuable links remain, through which we may reconnect with the past.

In the age of e-books, which lack the fragility of paper, but also their preciousness, and the Espresso Book Machine printing thousands of titles on demand in a few minutes, it may look as if the danger of literary vandalism has passed. But new threats to world’s literary legacy and future will emerge. In a quiet act of friendship, Gies demonstrated how fundamentally fragile art is and how both its creation and survival depend wholly upon us.

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