Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

Infinity

It occurred to me the other day that I will never read all the books on my list.  Only in my fifties, it’s not as if I’m knocking at death’s door, but who hasn’t been aware that that gentle rapping might come at any time?  Macabre?  Maybe.  Realistic?  Definitely.  Perhaps I’m a little old to be thinking about prioritizing, but it’s pretty clear that between work, writing, and the requirements of daily life (taking the car to the shop, scheduling a dentist appointment, trying to find time for a haircut, lawn care), that something’s got to give.  Work’s the non-negotiable since without it avoiding starvation (or perhaps getting medical coverage) becomes a full-time job.  Best to leave that sleeping dog slumber.  Then come the other three Rs: relationships, reading, and writing.  After that the time left to divide is pretty petty indeed.

My reading list grows almost daily.  Reading is a form of relationship.  I’ve recklessly written to writers after finishing their books, convinced that they’d written it to me.  I’ve also read material that, when done, makes me regret the time spent.  Still, I don’t, I can’t give up.  Writing is a form of giving back.  The other day an editor who’d accepted one of my fictional stories wrote that she couldn’t stop reading it.  It doesn’t matter that the magazine doesn’t pay—I’ve received back already what I’d planned for all along.  A kind of relationship with a reader.  If WordPress is to be believed, there are some followers on this blog.  Most think I write too much, and some, perhaps, too little.  Writing, however, like reading, is the formation of relationships.

Like relationships, reading takes time.  I carve out a spot for it daily but that doesn’t really make a dent in the growing reading list.  I can’t claim that it’s because I’m no longer a professor.  Except during the summer I read more now than I did when I was teaching (the professor’s life isn’t what most people think).  It is, I believe, that there are so many interesting ideas out there that one person simply doesn’t have time to think them all.  Reading and writing are a form of very slow conversation.  Of course, with technology the rest of life is speeding up.  Things seem now to happen instantly.  The world of books is slower, and the pace is far more sane.  I may never get through my list of books to read, but at least I have good conversation with those I don’t know, and that’s what really matters.

Drowning in Words

One of the features of this blog, which as inclined more lately toward books of all sorts rather than simply religion, is that I only write one post per book read.  There’s no law that says this should (or must) be the case, but I’ve held myself to that standard for about a decade now, and if I have trouble recalling a book this blog is generally a kickstarter for my memory before hauling myself off to the attic to find the physical copy—long live print!—to do a bit more detailed work.  This method sometimes leads to crises of my own making.  Long books take some time to get through.  And despite the action-packed picture you get of my life from this web log, many long weeks are spent doing work and I can’t really share the details here.  And so it goes.

Like many people I read multiple books at a time.  Although I have a kind of general plan, the actual books being read at any one time often depend on my ability to lay my hands on a copy.  And since I’m in the final stages of Nightmares with the Bible, I tend to prioritize books I really should read in whole for that tome.  I also read (and write) fiction.  Normally I reserve my fiction for bedtime reading; it’s more pleasant to prepare for sleep with an engaging story that I know isn’t factual enough to haunt me.  Sometimes the fiction is a long book too.  Two lengthy books going simultaneously feels like trying to pass a truck going uphill.  Or swimming underwater.  The insistence of the necessity of taking a breath (writing a blog post on a book) strains against me as I look up and see the surface still some distance away.  Drowning in words, however, isn’t that bad.

As I confessed to a friend the other day, I am a graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  To do that it helps to read incessantly.  At any one time I’ve got several books going, and I’ll let you know when I reach the end of any of them.  This is, I suppose, the bookish life.  Ironically I read more now than when I was a professor.  Those days were filled with lesson prep, teaching, and reading student papers.  Grading tests.  Fulfilling administrative duties.  On the days when I feel like lamenting my lack of time (and those are most days) I need to remind myself that a great deal more of my effort is now spent with books than it used to be.  You’ll have to trust me on that since I don’t always get to write about reading until the long books are done.  And that’s okay by me.

Final Stretch

There comes a point, in my experience of book writing, when you can think of nothing else.  This is near the end of the process.  For months and months you’ve been working at it in increments, and the sudden realization hits you that other people are (you hope) going to read what you’ve been scratching out for a couple of years.  My interlocutors tend to be in print or email form.  I don’t work day-to-day with colleagues who know about the book, nor, I suspect, would they care very much.  In my case this comes as I’m trying to generate attention for Holy Horror, with very limited results.  But I don’t have time to think about that now.  Nightmares with the Bible is almost ready to submit.  If only I had more time to read everything.  If only.

Writing is a challenging form of expression.  Let me qualify that: getting writing published is challenging.  The actual craft flows.  The book that is intended to pass scholarly muster, however, must be full of notes and quotes.  I’m trying to leave those behind as much as possible since I’ve been reading about these topics for decades and that ought to count for something.  Still, that nagging doubt awakes you—haven’t you overlooked something?  Some vital source that you should’ve cited?  Some argument that knocks your book off its stilts?  Near the end of the process it’s hard to concentrate on other things such as blog posts and tweets.  Yet you need to build your platform while you’re standing on it.  And then there’s the small matter of work that will demand well over forty of your waking hours this coming week.  And the index—you can’t forget the index!

In the intervening months you might’ve read some newspaper headlines, read some books off-topic, read other people’s blogs, kept up with social media.  Now, however, you have tunnel vision.  You’ve said what you have to say, you think.  You must check it.  And recheck it.  Did you leave a sentence open for later comment?  What chapter was that in?  Have you figured out how to close it?  Woe betide those to whom this happens at tax time.  Or before a business trip.  Making a living as a writer you do not.  This avocation, however, is your life.  Your legacy.  Editors who’ve been remembered are few.  A book is a stab at immortality.  There are meetings.  There are work deadlines.  There’s a lawn to mow.  Those, however, are mere distractions at this point.

Learn and Let Learn

My wife often works weekends.  Generally this involves trips to New Jersey, and since my unconventional schedule means we see each other awake only a brief time during the week, I often tag along.  The colder months of the year, and general economic caution, mean things to be done around the house can wait.  Most of the locations where she works have nearby bookstores, but even a guy with proclivities like mine finds it hard to spend more three or four hours in one place, even in such a welcome environment.  It finally occurred to me that one need not be a resident to find shelter, and free wifi, in the public library.  I’ll pack my laptop, and if it’s going to be a full day, a sack lunch, and head to the library for a change of scenery.  It has led to a kind of renaissance for my spirits.

Public libraries generally do not house the books I read.  The source of my jouissance has rather been discovering how well used the libraries are.  In both affluent and more modest neighborhoods, people willingly spend part of their Saturdays in buildings dedicated to learning.  Not all are there for the books, but they seem comfortable surrounded by them.  We gather in a temple to the human mind.  And everyone’s generally quiet.  Mentors coach young people who want to learn.  Some even dress well, as if the library might be a place to be seen.  In a nation where education is under attack, I always leave refreshed without spending a penny.

Such opportunities are a rarity.  Before the library opens, if we happen to be at her venue early, I may need to find a Starbucks.  They more or less assume you’ll consume to utilize their free wifi, but beyond that a day at the library comes without cost and considerable gain.  A variety of ethnicities are always present, and nobody’s right to be here is questioned.  It’s a microcosm of what we could be as a nation, had we the will, the desire to learn and let learn.  People generally have a difficult time with silence—just ask any introvert.  I suspect this is one reason not everyone shares my enthusiasm for a cloistered experience of a Saturday.  Libraries are where we’re forced to be relatively quiet to respect the needs of those actually there to read.  Hoi polloi prefer to be loud, as any bar on a weekend afternoon will reveal.  But the libraries remain, and even in their own way, are buzzing hives of the life of the mind.

The Price Is Wrong

The costs for academic books can seem criminal.  Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing.  Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche.  At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe.  Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value?  Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other.  In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet.  Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.

These days books are the handmaidens to the internet.  The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted.  Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it.  Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean.  Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up.  This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business.  You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff.  Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell.  It’s like an entire business model run on consignment.  And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies.  That means that the per unit cost has to go up.  Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.

I keep a running list of books I’d like.  Some are for research and some are for other pleasures.  The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published.  I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way.  If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs?  I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45.  Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing.  Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much.  Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent?  Or is all of this just criminal?

Care and Keeping of Books

I take good care of books.  It’s my personal goal that after I’ve read a book you won’t be able to tell.  I used to mark books up, but it occurred to me that I want the books to outlast me and if someone else is to get the full benefit of them I shouldn’t be doing such scribbling.  Of course, when a book has to commute with you there’s bound to be some scuffing from being put into a briefcase along with other necessities.  On the days I don’t commute, I try to replicate bus time for reading.  I curl up in a chair with my book and a cup of coffee to warm my fingers, and read.  The other day as I did this, a drop of coffee made its way from my mug onto the open page.  I was aghast.

Reading a marred book page is eternally distracting.  My eye is immediately drawn to the imperfection and I sometimes can’t even make sense of the sentence in which the blemish occurs.  Not because I can’t read it, but because I can’t get beyond the hurt.  Coffee rings are chic, I know, on the cover of a book or a notebook page.  It’s one of the truest clichés of the literary crowd.  Coffee and a good book.  Not coffee in a good book!  I tried to get back into the flow of the narrative.  My eye kept wandering back to the spot I’d unintentionally marred—I’d violated my own principles.  Unintentionally of course—this isn’t Starbucks where the heat is set at a reasonable level and you don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm.  But still.  But still.

After many minutes of feeling like I’d shot a friend, I managed to move on.  I kept turning back to my coffee page to see if the damage was as distracting as I thought it was.  After work that night when I picked my book up again—commuting is a twice a day activity—I turned back to the damaged page and frowned.  Books are, to some of us, friends.  I want to treat them right.  I line them up in order on their shelves, knowing just where to find them when I need them again.  One careless drop of coffee had taken its eternal toll on an innocent tome.  I realize this world lacks perfection; I’m not naive.  Still, this book, which wasn’t cheap, now bears a scar that I dealt it.  Will I ever comprehend what that one page says?  I hope my silent friend will forgive.