Everything McEwan

Last Thursday the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas, announced that it had secured the rights to hold the entire literary archive of novelist Ian McEwan. This collection is to include drafts of stories, notes, letters, and his complete 17 years of email correspondence history. All for the bargain price of £1.2 million. I’ll take two! At least we’ve discovered one way to make a fortune from a career of writing literary fiction. Though I imagine the filming of his novel Atonement didn’t hurt.

Vincent Van Gogh, self portrait, 1889

Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Saint-rémy-de-provence, France

The grubby details of filthy lucre aside, this announcement prompts other prurient thoughts. The first concerned the contents of his email archive. Is it truly the entirety or just those between his literary buddies Amis, Hitchens, Barnes and the rest? Or will there be every piece of trivia imaginable, from the restaurant booking enquiry, train ticket refund complaint, spam emails that somehow made their way past the filter and were never deleted? Will personal details be redacted? If so, how long will it take before those redactions that seem reasonable and necessary today, become the subject of conspiratorial, literary intrigue and over-reaching scholarly debate hamstrung by confirmation bias? Will McEwan be tempted to delete any emails that paint him in a less flattering light, or did the library pay extra for a signed guarantee that the archive would be delivered whole and unexpurgated?

In light of this, one wonders if I, and other aspiring writers of today, should now put a little extra effort into each and every email that is sent, peppering them with literary gems and flecks of waggish wit? Imagine, how disappointing if they were found to be uniformly trite and bland, of absolutely no exterior interest. Will there be anything in McEwan’s correspondence to approach the poignant sentiments that Vincent Van Gogh expressed when writing to his brother Theo?

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.

I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.

What dominant captains steered Van Gogh, and he was greatness-bound.

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.