Do libraries buy e-mails?

On the wall behind Dr. Roberts hung a tactically inoffensive abstract painting, rhythmic brushstrokes in lavender, blue, green—very competently executed visual Muzak. If you asked the author what Roberts looked like, he would conjure the painting rather than the face.

Roberts said, “I understand your writing has garnered some attention, but how exactly would you, in your early thirties, have any papers that a university library would be interested in collecting?”

The author said he shared Roberts’s surprise and paraphrased the special-collections librarian: because he’d been “particularly precocious,” her phrase, and because in his twenties he had co-edited a small and now-defunct but influential literary magazine, they suspected he might already be in possession of a “mature archive.” Moreover, collecting practices were changing, and papers were now often sold in increments. They’d buy, let’s say, a third of the author’s papers now, then acquire the other two installments across the years. Since he would presumably want all his papers in one place, there was an institutional interest in establishing a relationship early, to invest in him. The author pronounced “papers” in a way that made it clear he was placing the word in quotes.

“And do you have a ‘mature archive’?” Roberts asked. He seemed to like the phrase.

“No,” he said. “Almost all the correspondence about the magazine was e-mail, and I had a different e-mail account for much of that time. I never printed anything. What I do have is boring, logistical. And in terms of my own work”—he was trying not to place “work” in quotes—“I don’t write by hand and don’t save drafts on the computer.”

“What do you have?”

“Oh, massive and obsessive electronic correspondence with my best writer friends that’s poorly written and full of gossip and shit-talking and divulges all manner of embarrassing information. I have a folder full of postcards from authors, some of them famous, politely thanking me for sending them my book.”

“Do libraries buy e-mails?”

“Apparently they’re starting to. Electronic archives. She said everything is changing as the technology changes. But they wouldn’t want anything I have. And I wouldn’t want anyone to see it, even after I’m dead.”

Roberts made a pause that italicized the author’s last four words, silence that had the same effect as repetition.

“A year ago, this would have been weird and silly and flattering, their interest, and now it seems like some institutional premonition that I’m going to die.”

“There is no evidence that your condition is going to worsen,” Roberts repeated, without impatience, for the thousandth time.

“I’m also surprised to find,” the author said, ignoring him, “that I want to have ‘papers,’ want to leave and be left those traces, that it would authenticate me.”

Roberts made the pause that meant “Go on.”

Ben Lerner, 10:04, Granta Books 2015.

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