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.

Bookish Dreams

Driving into upstate New York via interstate 81 you’ll find a remarkable rest stop.  To put this into context, I should say that my wife and I have driven from Maine to Washington (not on a single trip) and from Wisconsin to Louisiana and South Carolina.  We’ve laid down considerable mileage together, and never have we encountered such a nice rest stop.  Clean, modern, and featuring local goods for sale, it’s a loving homage to the southern tier, the New York outside the city.  One of the features of this unusual facility is a terrazzo floor fresco highlighting the various points of interest within a couple hours’ drive.  Mostly when we stop here we look toward Binghamton and Ithaca, the cities we most frequently visit.  We stop to use the restroom and then drive on.

When we stopped over the holidays, however, we lingered a little bit.  There’s a display on Mark Twain—he lived in Elmira, New York for a time—and there’s an in-ground plaque outside to Rod Serling.  I spent some time looking over the points of interest in the floor map when my wife pointed out a site listed as Hobart Book Village of the Catskills.  I couldn’t believe that I’d been in this building dozens of times but had never bothered to look that far east.  Curious, I did a web search once we reached out destination.  There is, it turns out, a village in upstate known for its main street of book stores.  What perhaps impressed me even more was that it was considered significant enough to be given a kind of “Hollywood star” treatment in what is an often overlooked part of the state.

Now I can’t say what my impressions of Hobart are.  I’ve never been there, having just learned of it on a recent roadtrip.  What I can say is that my world suddenly began to feel just a bit more friendly knowing that such a place exists.  We live in a country that could indeed use a bit more positive influence.  Some of my happiest memories involve bookstores.  Back in my teaching days we made regular autumnal literary weekend trips, visiting sites haunted by writers.  Often we’d find an independent bookstore near such sacred places.  To many, I realize, this would smack of nonsense, but to those ensconced in literary dreams, it created pleasant memories.  You feel something in the air as you stand near the house or grave of an author.  Places are made sacred by what transpires within them.  The writing of books shapes the very space-time around them.  At least it does for those who even find inspiration in an interstate rest stop.

Yearn Books

While this blog ranges over an outdated map of my mind, one of the two common elements that hold it together is books.  I don’t have many bibliophile followers, but for any who happen upon my pages, welcome.  Each year at this time I look back over the year in books.  I started doing this when I joined Goodreads.  I don’t put every single book in Goodreads, but it’s a fair register of what I’ve been up to.  This year I set a reduced goal of 65 books (I knew I’d be moving and commuting less, and I do most of my reading on the bus).  Happily I ended the year with 83 officially read, but then the first five months of the year were still spent in daily commutes.

Three years ago my wife discovered the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I can’t say just how much I look forward to the new year just to begin reading the books I select to meet that challenge.  The reason I do this is to force myself into reading things I might not feel like reading, or often, books I’ve been putting off for some reason or another.  It only amounts to a dozen books and if I can’t get through twelve in a year, something’s terribly wrong.  Margaret Atwood once said something like “Show me a person who’s read a thousand books and I’ll show you an interesting person.”  I didn’t really need that quote to set a goal, and I don’t think of it as bragging for readers to share their experience with books.  I started getting into books in middle school, and although I didn’t keep track in those days I likely read a thousand books before I graduated from high school.  Branches begin to bend to the light early on.

So, were there memorable books this year?  My reading, due to contractual obligations (I brought them on myself), has tended to be dark.  There were, nevertheless, spots of light.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Paul Bogard’s The Ground Beneath Us were early favorites.  I managed to stop my ears enough to miss spoilers from Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful Annihilation.  Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was artfully done, and Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? was a saunter down memory lane.  Selections from my reading challenge fiction that I really enjoyed were Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. And Lee Irby’s Unreliable.  And and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  The last inspired non-fiction title I read was Susan Fair’s American Witches.  I always appreciate suggestions, just sayin’.  Reading is the balm in my personal Gilead, and I look forward to a 2019 full of books, even if I can’t keep the pace of years past.

Masses and Markets

The other day I had to go somewhere that I knew would involve a wait.  I’ve always thought of waiting as a theological problem—time is very limited and I don’t have it to squander while dallying about for my turn.  That’s why I take a book.  The problem is that many books I read, I feel, require explanation.  That’s because many of them are the 6-by-9 format preferred by publishers these days.  The idea behind the paperback that fit into your pocket—the “mass market paperback”—was that it was essentially disposable.  Cheap, easily printed in large quantities, it was handy for taking along while on a bus, plane, or submarine.  It didn’t take up too much space.  It was easy to keep private.  I miss the mass market paperback.

The majority of my books—fiction as well as non—are larger than the mass market.  That’s the price you pay for reading books that don’t sell in those quantities.  If your interests aren’t the lowest common denominator, you have to buy a copy that won’t easily slip into a pocket.  And everybody can see what you’re reading.  I work in publishing, so I get it.  The idea is that the book cover is a form of advertisement.  The thing is, reading is generally a private activity.  I post on this blog most of the books I read (but not all!).  I want to support those who write and actually manage to find publishers to advocate their work.  But I’d really like to be able to put the book into my pocket between appointments.  

The waiting room is a kind of torture chamber of daytime television and insipid magazines.  Most of the people in here are looking at their phones anyway.  I have a book with me, and I’m vulnerable with everyone freely able to read my preferences.  I want to explain—“I’m writing a book about demons, you see.  It’s not that I believe all this stuff…” and so on.  It would be so much easier if the book were small enough to be concealed by my hands.  If others want to know what I’ve been reading, they can consult this blog.  Well, the stats show they haven’t been doing that.  They might, however, if my own books had been published in mass market format.  Available in the wire-rack at the drug store or vape-shop.  Then the readers could easily hide their interest by putting it into their pocket.  None would be the wiser.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Book Naked

Alogotransiphobia doesn’t just strike me when I’m on the bus.  Whenever I travel anywhere I try to take a book along.  To the DMV.  To movie theaters.  To take the paper to the shredding truck.  Anywhere there might be a line.  There comes a time when you realize every second is a gift, and time runs swiftly through the glass.  Life’s too short not to read.  So it is that I find myself in a hotel for a night.  Feeling somewhat like taking a risk, I’ve only brought three books.  Will I read them all tonight?  Most likely not.  But just in case…

Alogotransiphobia is real.  In my long-distance commuting days—in a past still very recent—I tried to calculate carefully.  Would I finish this book in the three hours I knew I’d have on New Jersey Transit?  If even a chance seemed to exist that I would, I would add another book to my bag.  But then that occasional Monday morning would arrive when somehow Sunday night seemed to slip away unbidden, leaving me bleary eyed and foggy brained to face pre-dawn alone on a deserted street corner.  And I neglected to calculate the chances.  Once in a great while, on such a day I would finish a book only to face a very long ride home without another.  Alogotransiphobia would kick in.  I would squirm in my seat as well as in my mind, anxious to get off that bus, as if I needed to shower to wash the feeling of wasted time off me.  A commute without a book was remaindered, unrecoverable time.  Lost time.  Squandered.

For two months now I’ve been delivered from the daily commuting life.  Now I find the opposite phobia.  That which entails staying at home and having so much to do that time to read is stolen back by that cosmic trickster we call fate.  I try to carve out time for reading, but the funny thing about work is that when you do it from home you feel you have to prove yourself.  I suspect employers know that.  A certain type of worker—perhaps one who’s lost a job or two in recent years—will always reach for supererogation.  And such a one will even sacrifice literacy on the altar of an assured paycheck.  Until recent days I was like a hermit on the bus.  Those around me may have been going in the same direction but we were in completely separate places.  I was, during the commute, lost in a book.  Alogotransiphobia was in the seat right beside me.

 

Homework

I’m trying to organize a home office.  Gone are the days that this meant a stapler and mug full of pencils.  The office is essentially a laptop since work is essentially virtual.  Oh, there are days when I have to haul myself into New York City, but even making traditional print books is an exercise done largely online.  The office is a place conducive to work.  In the case of an editor, a room of books that can be used for reference.  In our apartment we had bookshelves (mostly homemade) around the inside perimeter, covering all wall space that wasn’t claimed by more necessary furniture.  We realized, as we were packing, that no free wall space reached to the floor.  We didn’t plan it that way, but a reading life can be a complicated one.  To write books you need to read books.

Our house has some built-in bookshelves.  Not enough to hold our surviving books, but it’s a start.  My office, however, is a spartan room.  Over the weekend I unpacked my “work books.”  That meant, for the most part, books about the Bible.  I filled three large bookshelves then ran out of room.  Not only was there that embarrassment, but there was the fact that a large number of “religion” books remained unshelved.  You see, I was a religion editor for a few years before being more narrowly slotted into the Good Book.  Some might say I should jettison these books since my career has moved on.  Those who suggest such heresy don’t understand the career of a displaced professor at all.  These books are still work books.  Job descriptions aren’t as stable as they used to be.

The complaint is an old one, at least to my wife’s ears.  In my mind I’m still a professor.  I still write—strictly on my own time—and I still research.  I do so without access to a university library so I have, over the past several years, made my own library.  This office, now out of bookshelves, is that amateur academic library.  My research has shifted from ancient Near Eastern studies (and that’s another whole discipline’s worth of books, some unfortunately washed away in the flood) to religion more broadly.  Not only is that reflected on this blog, but also in my publications.  The office isn’t done yet.  There’s a desk and a chair.  More importantly, there’s internet access.  There are some shelves, but in coming days there will need to be more.  Libraries are like minds; if they shrink they become less functional.  All books, no matter how dry, began in someone’s imagination.  That’s virtual reality.