Perfect Pitch (Live)

Buoyed by my successful return to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe in London last week, I decided to try some of my prose there too. Trying to stay within the spirit of the event I picked a somewhat lyrical piece, Perfect Pitch. What follows below is Perfect Pitch (Live), an updated, and dare I say improved, version that better suits the spoken word. I received some brilliant feedback from the audience, so I hope you enjoy it too.

Perfect Pitch (Live)

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, the belief lost all sense of self and together spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches scrawled in a thick, black crayon were the kindling, elaborated in balsa the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient for the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, the sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Computer animations take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one, an idyll, for how long? The odds are poor, non-virtual footage insists on proving the point. But that comes later, that comes at the end, that comes too late.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out in virtual time, without ever risking a brick. Hand over the pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, the demolition man and graffiti artist. Then wait.

The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform azure? The first to go. Even the ugliest place can be bleached clean under a summer sun. No, the true test comes in the desolation of a thunderstorm or below the chromatic monotony of clouds, variations on a theme of grey, senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward now, through the wear and tear of existence, show homes long forgotten. Once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, stained with rusty streaks by the rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an insidious organic trim. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied every available canvas. This new art ages too, and is itself defaced. Tags, electronic, or not, thrive.

Inside the tower a hooded figure sets his back to the broken closed circuit TV and propels a liquid Slinky down failing steps. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by half-hearted fluorescent tubes, forever on the verge of getting going, but then never do. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then finally given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome contrast to the dreary concrete. The steps, half-crumbled, still  hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

Outdoors, the three oblivious children who spun a roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the nearby swings, only one remains whole. Another dangles at a limp half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but peeling, mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward. We go backward.

Yellow-hatted men probe the tower blocks with high-power drills, infiltrating the concrete skeletons with mile after mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake, dazed in a shared hangover. Then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea, and whistle. A perfect pitch.

Letter to Thoreau – Published in Brev Spread

This week I’m delighted to announce that my short story, Letter to Thoreau, has been published in a literary/arts magazine called Brev Spread. You can find it at their homepage or directly download the magazine hereLetter to Thoreau is a playful epistle, a gentle pastiche, the unaware writer of which challenges Henry David Thoreau’s conclusions that he famously reached in his volume Walden.

In addition to my story, the issue is packed full of artwork, short stories, essays, poetry and an interview. Starting at the very beginning, particular personal highlights include the melancholy front cover artwork by Annlyn Huang (visit her website for more here ), which features a heartbreakingly tender moment of a lonely red car singing its life story to itself, and to unknown distant observers, as it navigates a tangled road. Is it driving towards a future life, or is it heading back in time into the confusing morass of memory, which becomes evermore difficult to unpick and navigate with any reliability the further back it reaches? The red car is us, and we it; we must explore our individual memories alone.

A second highlight is an extensive interview with Rob Wilson, a poet and Professor of Literature, Creative Writing, and Cultural Studies at the University of California. The discussion is chock-full of thought-provoking deliberations on poetry, the act of writing, philosophy and the purpose of education & universities. I leave you with an excerpt from Promise Place by Rob Wilson, which I found particularly striking.

But the name must not eclipse the cenotaph

of your photography or wild barley brush growing over origins,

asking no one for help.

Brev Spread Issue 14 - Front Cover

Front cover from Brev Spread Issue 14 – Travelling Nostalgia by Annlyn Huang

 

 

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,
It’s commonly said, more or less, and attributed to many (in more than one language), that “if I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter”, and this could be true here too. So too the reverse, it could become a thesis. I have form. Though it would be a brave student indeed who began his dissertation so cheekily with the words “Dear Examiner, I hope this thesis finds you well.” Not to be outdone nor forget my manners, dear reader, I hope this letter (please, play along) finds you well.

The letter is truly a stalwart, not just of literature, but of life – both of our individual and collective lives. Dear John letters. Letters sent home from soldiers in the trenches. Letters that constitute the epistolary novel. The collected letters of the famous writer or artist. Clearly even the highbrow of society engage in the voyeuristic eavesdropping of others’ lives.

And now a rejuvenation of the form is underway at The Letters Page, a new literary journal run by the good people of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. The past issues are available free to download from the website here and they’re well worth a read. To return to the beginning, but altered for the experience, in the first letter of Issue One the author declares that regrettably he has no time to write a letter. I sincerely hope that you are never forced to write the same.

Until we meet again,
The Author

Player Piano, Player Reader?

Every time Conlon punched a hole, the world got more interesting.

So said Robert Willey of the 20th-century composer Conlon Nancarrow, and what a beautiful thing that is to say of an artist. Would that someone might say the same of us and our work.

Nancarrow, an American composer, spent much of his life in self-imposed exile in Mexico due to his far-left political beliefs, and gained renown – in the world of classical music at least – for his innovative use of player pianos. These are the pianos that “play themselves”, with the music fed in on rolls of paper that’s pock-marked with encoded musical notation. For a surprisingly funky example that provides context for the rest of the article, I highly recommend that you listen to the following one of his compositions:

As you will have just heard, Nancarrow exploits the possibilities afforded by the player piano to produce fiendishly complex rhythms and staggering polyphony, to an extent which would lead to broken digits and mental breakdown if attempted by a living pianist.

But that’s just the beginning, what I’m really interested in is the following question: is there an analogue, or something close to it, in literature for the music and compositional technique of Conlon Nancarrow?

To begin to answer that, it’s necessary to understand what it is that his approach to composition and performance allows, and it seems to me that, aside from highly music specific aspects, there are two main effects.

  1. It removes the possibility of interpretation by the performer; the composer’s word is now final.
  2. It allows the music to possess a complexity of sound that would otherwise be difficult, or impossible, to obtain through normal means.

These things taken together, along with his rhythmic innovations, give us a new kind of music. How might we do something similar for literature?

For music, the performer and listener are separate roles, but for literature, the reader is working overtime in two jobs. When they bring the text to life beyond what’s stated on the page they are both performing and listening, more or less simultaneously.

Therefore, tackling point one, one possible analogue is to have it such that every single thing in the sentence, every symbol, reference and allusion is explained as fully as possible, in an attempt (futile, but still) to remove the possibility of any incorrect interpretation on the part of the reader.

Another is to remove any emotion and interpretation by producing a speech-synthesised recording of the text. But this kind of electronic reproduction allows for further innovation and refers to point two – in a similar way to Nancarrow, we could use this synthesised speech to overlay multiple strands of speech and narration, which no longer necessarily obey the rules of etiquette, and now refuse to wait for one to finish before entering with their own contribution. Cacophony it could be, also confusing, nauseating or breathtaking. Finally, we could deploy a combination of these two effects: complex multi-layered speech and narration, accompanied by the exhaustive authorial exposition.

It’s likely, almost certain in fact, that some of these suggestions will sound horrific or merely redundant, but then to an ear accustomed to more traditional modes of music, Nancarrow’s can feel claustrophobic and bewildering at first, but there’s no doubting its place in the canon. Equally there is surely space for these other methods of writing and storytelling.

In this post, I’ve only begun to suggest and hint at possibilities, but the judgement of their success can only be made by recourse to some concrete examples. To that end, in the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading a few of my attempts to capture something of Nancarrow’s music in the “written” form. I welcome your feedback and hope that we can have a fascinating debate on the topic.

Perfect Pitch

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, and the belief lost all sense of self and together they spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches nonchalantly scrawled in thick, black crayon were the kindling, and when elaborated in structurally-benign balsa wood models the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient to smooth over the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Perhaps followed by CGI visualisations that take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one the idyll might exist. But for how long will it remain? The odds are not favourable. What is more, there is non-virtual footage that insists on proving the point. But that comes later, at the end, and too late, it should be there at the beginning, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out over time, and do it virtually, without ever risking a brick. Hand over these pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, and the demolition man and graffiti artist, then wait.

The first thing to go? The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform blue – almost perverse to include it for buildings in the UK, even the ugliest place can be bleached to freshness by an intense, summer’s sun. The true test of the building’s character is found in the desolation of a thunderstorm or underneath the chromatic monotony of clouds – variations on a theme of grey – to which the blocks of flats match perfectly to create senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward through time, through the daily wear and tear of existence, and opening-day show homes are forgotten. Their once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, persistently stained with brown streaks of the rusty rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an organic trim, but one that’s sadly unwelcome. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied the inviting blank canvas of off-white wall and in turn this erstwhile art has itself been defaced by the encrypted squiggles of tag graffiti.

On the other side of the wall a hooded figure sets his back to the dysfunctional CCTV camera and unleashes a stinking, liquid Slinky down the cracked, concrete steps of the stairwell. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by the half-hearted fluorescent lights, which seem to be forever on the verge of getting going, but don’t. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome touch of colour to the forgettable shade of concrete. The steps it seems, though half-crumbled, remain hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

In the outdoor gloom, the three healthy children propelling the roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the three swings adjacent, only one remains operational. One dangles forlornly at half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward, we, go, backward.

Yellow-hatted men have taken to assaulting the tower blocks with probing drills so as to infiltrate these concrete skeletons with mile upon mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake to euphoric hangover, then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea and whistle. A perfect pitch.

The Final Word

FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! Now that I have grabbed your attention in a most indecorous manner, I would actually like to offer you some free fiction.  Mine, as it happens. Some time ago I wrote about a piece of innovative fiction that I submitted to a competition run by Diagram Magazine. Now that the competition has run its course, I’m making my story available here for everyone to download via the link just below.

The Final Word by Andrew Cookson

The story is called The Final Word and could be described as an intellectual, satirical detective story, presented through non-standard narrative means. I would love to hear your feedback, either as a comment below or via email here. To give you a taste, here is the first page.

THE FINAL WORD

You know what advice I’d give to people, if I could, one piece of advice so that they’d never be convicted of a crime? Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. And that’s it. If you have a daily routine, stick to it. Religiously. That way there’s nothing to explain. That’s my advice – never, ever leave yourself with something to explain.

J. Smith, on his release from prison, after spending 40 years inside for a crime he did not commit.

You know what makes an epistolary novel unbelievable? When none of the letters go missing. I wish I lived in a world like that. And why do we only see the relevant letters? If you want to show a person’s life through their letters, why don’t we see them all? The utility bills, the flyers for delivery pizza firms, letters addressed to previous tenants and the rest. Just imagine now, doing the same with the modern day equivalent – a novel told through an exchange of emails. A festival of badly-written notes, carelessly devoid of grammar, baffling and patchy capitalisation, unspellchecked spelling, all bookended by an awkard and often incongruous approach to personal formality. Not to mention the deluge of spam from online casinos and drug vendors. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all.

C. Johnson, prominent literary critic and neophyte blogger.

Which Artwork Should You Be Creating?

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland

This was the first of three pieces of advice that I’ve encountered recently on the topic of artistic creation. They’ve conspired to accumulate and in synergistic fashion approach the same question, albeit from different angles. I suspect that they will be equally valuable to other writers and artists, but as you’ll see, even knowing these things, doesn’t mean that we will always and reliably follow them – external prompting helps.

Now, I could almost quote every other sentence of Art & Fear, but rather than doing that, I recommend that you buy yourself a copy. I can guarantee you’ll read and then re-read it, particularly if, like me, you’ve never been to art school or equivalently taken a degree in creative writing. This book can in part form a surrogate for that missed experience. The book explains what it is to be an artist (in whatever medium – paint, musical notes, words), and how to continue to create art in the face of doubts and external indifference.

The second piece of advice was given by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, in an interview with the Guardian. When asked, what advice would he give a young writer, he answered:

Finish everything you start. Often, you don’t know where you’re going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.

If it’s true for writing, it’ll almost certainly be true for other artistic disciplines as well. That’s two pieces of worthy advice then, but without personal intervention they are easy enough to ignore.

In a recent post, Anyone For Some Innovative Fiction?, I mentioned a piece of work that I was going to submit to a writing competition, with the brief of “innovative fiction”. As of now this story is just over 9000 words in length. But in no way was it conceived as a whole. In fact, it all sprung from a tiny idea based on a piece of grammatical wordplay, nothing more than a single sentence. This pun only forms a small part of the finished story, but without it the rest of the story would never have emerged. However, it took four different stories before it finally found a natural and finished home. Colm Tóibín was right.

I say it’s finished, but that’s no longer true. The story was finished, then submitted, put aside, finally hands washed and back to the keyboard to commence the next project. A project which has been stewing in my mind for some time, and which I believed to be the perfect one, my own single perfect pot.

What’s strange is that in that being so open-minded as to avoid, for the most part, conventional narrative prose, I had become quite closed as to the larger possibilities of the work – an artistic myopia. Feedback on this work, graciously provided by Mark Nelkin of BeautifulOrange, suggested that the story could easily be extended into a novella or novel. My immediate reaction was somewhat sceptical, allowing only that perhaps a novella could be a possibility. Perhaps.

He was right though, as within a week I had two sides of A4 of jotted ideas for new plot lines and the elaboration of existing ones, not to mention a host of innovative narrative structures and devices. Certainly enough new ideas to fill out, at the very least, a short novel. And with Colm Tóibín’s advice having held true thus far, I can hardly begin to ignore it now. Nor will I ignore Bayles & Orland; I’ll write many stories and explore many ideas, rather than fixating on creating a single, perfect one.

If anyone wants to read the aforementioned innovative fiction, just send me a message here or simply “like” this post if you have contact info on your blog/gravatar profile, and I’ll be in touch. Thanks!

The Secret Life of a Bookmark

What happens when you place a bookmark between the pages of a book? Surely the answer is that it waits faithfully for your return, at the place you left it, ready to indicate to you the page at which you should resume your reading. But does it?

Despite appearances to the contrary, a bookmark left in a book is not stationary, but in fact is moving closer to the front with each passing day, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Furthermore, the greater the complexity and depth of the fictional universe, the more complex the narrative and more numerous the characters, the faster does this invisible journey occur, as the previously-read facts slip from our memory. Take this to its conclusion, and if you leave the bookmark alone for long enough, then there’ll be nothing for it but to restart reading from the very beginning of book.

It must have happened to us all, the physical corpus of the bookmark remained exactly where you left it, but when you opened the book at the indicated position, everything printed there seemed foreign and unfamiliar. It’s as if on selecting the bookmark you create a secondary and shared consciousness that exists between you and it. The bookmark, previously inanimate, is now animated by this communal soul, and it’s this spirit that is really marking your progress through the book. Perhaps it’s a three-way split, a biblio-trinity of you, the bookmark and the front cover, which cover exerts an irresistible pull over the the bookmark and inexorably drags it forward.

Given the depth of this relationship that we form – one which forges a spiritual bond with us, becoming nothing less than a surrogate for memory, our emissary in the world of the novel – it is strange that we often show remarkably little care when choosing it: a recent receipt from the supermarket, a used train ticket, a postcard received just that morning. Occasionally we might deign to use a beautiful piece of leather expressly designed for the task, such as this Medieval owl design from the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Medieval owl bookmark

Medieval owl bookmark from the Bodleian Library shop, Oxford

This is the usual way of things then, and in spite of our haphazard selection, it always seems to turn out fine. Return to the book frequently enough, and it will have slipped back only a few words, a paragraph at most. Within this margin of error, the bookmark has behaved as expected. More or less.

If we allow, however, the possibility of this reverse motion, what’s to say it can’t go the other way? It certainly seems like it’s a necessary corollary. If so, how? Under what circumstances could this happen?

Imagine now, that class of books that are essentially plot-driven rehashes of already extant novels, the trashy thrillers, crime or romance novels of the world. In any given sentence there will be no revelatory prose that’s worth reading for it’s own sake as a piece of miniature poetry, the characters are carbon copies of others we have already encountered, and the book could almost be reduced to a précis of the plot. For such a book, any discussions you might happen to hear that reveal the plot developments would be transmitted to the bookmark, any reviews you read, cultural references, parodies, affectionate or otherwise, would increase yours and the bookmark’s knowledge of the book. In response, the bookmark would begin to inch its way toward the back of the book. Hear enough, and you won’t have to actually read a single word.

In Italo Calvino’s categorisation, humorously outlined in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, these would be the Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written or Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

So, the next time you’re reading a novel – perhaps whilst sitting in bed and you happen to notice that it’s late and therefore time to go to sleep – and you gently insert a bookmark and put the book to one side, just remember that while you might be sleeping, the bookmark isn’t, and is instead diligently making its way back to the front. Where it stops when you wake, is a secret between the two of you.

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!

The Book Collector and his Tools

In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s fascinating novel The Dumas Club, the book collector Fargas sits among his treasured collection of antique books, which are now distributed as a secondary carpet atop many rugs, as if the long-ago pulped trees were trying to grow anew. Trapped by difficult financial circumstances he is forced to gradually plunder this rich forest and sell off his famous collection book by book, though mercifully not page by page.

The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

A literary noir fiction, perfect for all true booklovers.

Faced with the alternatives of divesting a large quantity of books of low value, or a few volumes of great value, he chooses thus:

“I have to sell one book each time. And not just any one. The sacrifice has to ensure that the rest are safe for another six months… It’s my tribute to the Minotaur.”

But not just the most valuable in commercial terms, it is his favourites that must be sacrificed:

“My hands? What you mean is my soul burns in the torments of hell. I thought I’d explained… The book to be sacrificed can never be one to which I am indifferent. What meaning would this painful act have otherwise? A sordid transaction determined by market forces, several cheap ones instead of a single expensive one…”

Any bibliophile can surely understand his point of view, even if we might not agree. And then, even if we did agree in principle, acting in accordance might still not be possible.

However, with all his books spread out over large areas of floorspace, how was Fargas to know where each book could be found? A collector of his obsessiveness had surely constructed an intricate mental map, to be navigated at will and containing every salient fact and a few others besides, but what are the rest of us to do? Or how would we know the monetary value (literary value being something entirely other) of our entire collection, for example, if pressed to provide such an answer for insurance purposes?

We need not approach the task unequipped. A friend pointed me to the iOS app Book Crawler, from Chiisai App Solutions, which for only $1.99 will help you catalogue your literary treasures.

To add a new book to your inventory, the easiest method is to point your iPhone’s camera at the barcode/ISBN number and let Book Crawler retrieve the other information for you. The only thing that remains is to type in the price that you paid for the particular edition. After that, you can add additional tags and categories to further refine your organisation, if you so wish.

There are other features to the app such as sharing your collections with others and linking to Goodreads, though I personally don’t use them. For me, it’s all about the ease of cataloguing. However, as quick and easy as the app makes it, the initial documenting of all your books is still going to take a few hours (this is still orders-of-magnitude faster than doing things manually), and I don’t think there’s any escaping that fact. Once it’s out of the way though, every additional purchase is easily accommodated in a matter of seconds. For those with children, perhaps this is a perfect means of exchanging pocket money for odd-jobs, or, for all of us, why not treat this, not as a chore, but as an opportunity to revisit those half-forgotten books that surely languish on all of our bookshelves. Or stand for a few moments and allow yourself the pleasure of remembering the time and place that you first read a favourite book.

But however you choose to do it, and whether your collection of books is large or small, I hope that you are never faced with the same scenario as Fargas; may your books only leave your hands willingly.

Note: In the interests of disclosure, I have no connection to the developers of Book Crawler. The software is also available for the iPad and Mac OS X , but as I’ve only used the iPhone version, I can’t comment on their suitability or any differences that might exist between them and the iPhone manifestation. As ever, caveat emptor.