In Praise of Rescuing Lost Stories
Whenever I come across a broken link, I gasp. I pull up Archive.org, the vast backup of broken links, and I indulge the impulse. I noticed this first in 2012, when I tried finding full footage of the Watch the Throne documentary. I caught wind that there was a full 45 minute version out there, and the 10 minute one was definitely not enough…
Obsession is one of the most useful tools in creative work. Think Yayoi Kusama and polka dots, Robert Caro and LBJ, DJ Khaled and ad libs. (“We the best!” since 2005.) One of my obsessions is looking for lost documents. The more lost the document is, the greater the pull, the stronger my motivation to find it.
After I looked for the aforementioned documentary for hours, I decided I needed to let go and move on with my life. That was the moment I also realized, letting go of obsession sometimes is one of the best things one can do for their creative work. Ship it or give it up, but don’t fixate.
This particular obsession is useful at this moment; a lot of valuable, previously published, information gets lost. Mostly, this happens because someone forgets to renew a domain, or makes a decision to not renew it. Years of hard work, dead to the world. The website legacy of Lucky Peach would have been all but lost were it not for Archive.org. It’s now a brewery of bad link juice. It deserves better.
Similarly, there is cultural material everywhere that just hasn’t surfaced yet. That’s part of the hope that fuels this obsession. In some way, it’s part of each writer’s job—preserving knowledge that otherwise would have gotten swept away by the cascades of new content.
Note: Both cultivating and letting go of obsession are propositions in my book, “There Is No Right Way to Do This.” If you want some more great techniques for learning new skills and shipping side projects, click here to learn more.
Practically speaking, in an age where there’s a lot of articles that seem the same—only the names seem to change—finding obscure, difficult to find, information is a valuable edge. These lost documents are an example of that. For example, this helps clarify quotes and misquotes; find the document that’s the primary source, read it in context, and clarify. (Here’s an example.)
In the past few years, I’ve developed something of a knack for looking for these documents. For example, I remembered watching Eddie Huang do a Google Hangout for his Skillshare class a while ago. I really like Eddie’s writing, and I still reference his Fresh Off the Boat blogspot, where he hasn’t posted regularly for years. Try as I may, I couldn’t find the video—but I did dig up this PDF that was floating around, a course syllabus of sorts.
Same goes for the Taking Note blog, which I first took note of in 2015 when I was writing for Lifehacker. I didn’t get to cover it, but I rediscovered it in one of my own documents and clicked through, only to realize it was taken down. Luckily for me, Archive.org took many snapshots of it throughout the years, and I spent a few hours looking through the blog.
But recently, for real, I was doing research and I found this very interesting table of contents online—only to realize that the people building the website took the full chapters down, and linked it all back to the homepage! Nonetheless, even that poorly made decision couldn’t get in the way of the greatness that once existed on the page there, thanks to Archive.org.
If you’re ever out of ideas, just find the last broken link you’ve come across and paste it into Archive.org. You might be surprised at what you find. And more importantly, if you like it, you need to do a service—signal boost it, and preserve it for other readers. You might not consciously know why it’s valuable yet, but you will know what’s worth rescuing.
I’m rescuing three books at a time
Thanks for reading this. If you like reading books, sign up for the Best of Books reading newsletter, where I send three great books to your inbox every month. See you around!