Reading Memory

I recently wrote about writing too much (as if such a thing were possible).  After posting that I thought of how much the same can be said of reading.  I like to believe that whatever I’ve read is stored in my brain somewhere, rather like my writing on all those external drives.  I get some hopeful hints of this when a fragment of something read long ago suddenly reappears.  It’s good to know it’s there somewhere.  What brought this to mind is that a book I’m currently reading used a significant term.  Overly confident as I only am when reading, I figured I’d remember where it occurred.  A few days later I’d forgotten.  “No problem,” I thought, “the index.”  Indexes are never perfect and I’m always amazed by what strikes me as being so important failed to make the author’s cut.  So it happened.

This particular book was compactly written, but even so, it was more than sixty pages ago.  It took a few days of skimming, and finally going through line-by-line to find the word again.  It was a capitalized word and I thought mere skimming would be able to pick it out.  No such luck.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is that since I’ve left academia I’ve pretty much stopped writing in books.  I always did it in pencil, but still—there’s something about that pristine page so carefully typeset and laid out.  Well, if I had all the time in the world I could re-read those first sixty pages again, but I don’t have time to read all the books I need to, so I grabbed my old Pentel and began marking the spots I wanted to remember.

When we age it’s recall that suffers.  I tend to think the memories themselves are still there, sometimes distorted, sometimes altered, but present.  Books, after all, can be reread.  If I read something while commuting to Manhattan, there is a good likelihood that some of it was occluded by the worries of work lying ahead, coupled with the anxiety of catching the bus back home at the end of the day.  Not to mention anything that might’ve been happening in real life—that place outside of work that you really care about.  I’m glad for the commute reading; I regularly read over 100 books a year.  You couldn’t take notes while on a New Jersey Transit bus, though.  It’s not possible to read too much, but reading memory, it seems, is a sometimes a scarce resource.


To Write in Black and White

It can be seen as a black and white issue: either you’ve written a book or you haven’t.  Many people do write books.  Many more want to.  In a survey I saw sometime in the past few months—I can’t recall exactly where—a survey indicated a high percentage of Americans wanted to write a book.  What exactly does that mean?  There are many different kinds of books and several motivations for writing them.  And, depending, your work may or may not be taken seriously, even if you publish.  As someone who’s published four nonfiction books, all of them obscure, I often think about this.  Working in publishing I have some privileged access to the ins and outs of how this works, but that doesn’t necessarily help in writing success.  So what are the motivations?  Is there any way to tell the difference?

Obviously, I can’t speak for others’ motivations but I can see the results.  Most of the writers with whom I work are academic writers.  Their books are generally written for fellow academics and they’re the result of years of research in specialized libraries often off-limits to non-academics.  Those are pretty easy to tell at a glance.  Another class of nonfiction writer is the journalist.  It’s assumed by the industry that someone who majored in journalism is a talented writer.  If, after reporting on a topic for a few years, a journalist wants to write a book based on experience, that frequently gets a publisher’s interest.  The results may not be academically reliable.  I recall that as a grad student it was assumed there were even certain established publishers not to trust—mainly those that weren’t university presses, but not exclusively.

The self-published book has a more difficult trajectory to trace.  Some authors, no matter how good or insightful, just can’t get a standard publisher’s attention.  Others are convinced of their own wisdom and now have an easy route to become a published author.  Yet others realize some money can be made from writing (although making a living at it is very hard work).  I’ve been reading a book by a journalist that has lots of factual errors in it.  I try not to judge, but I do wonder when I know it’s shelved as nonfiction.  Now, these aren’t the kinds of errors that will cost a life if dosed incorrectly or will set off a war between dominant personalities that are heads of state.  I also know that most books do contain inadvertent errors—books are written by humans and we don’t have all the answers yet.  Still, I think of the readers and how we define nonfiction.  What counts as a book anyway?  Things are seldom black or white.

Writing my first book

Dirty Books

Dirty books annoy me.  Not that kind of dirty book, but books that arrive dirty.  If a book is expensive, particularly an academic book, I look for a used copy.  Since we’re in a pandemic, and also since the books I read tend to be outré, shall we say, getting them in the local second-hand place generally doesn’t work.  Sellers of used books online have to rate them.  Acceptable, poor, fair, good, very good—the scale is somewhat arbitrary.  I don’t like books with writing in them; I don’t want somebody else telling me what’s important.  I think I can find a topic sentence, thank you very much.  Lately I’ve gone down to the level of good with my online buying.  (Have you looked at the prices?!)  When you add that “very” to “good” sticker shock sets in.  Okay, so the books arrive well loved, I expect that.  But dirty?

I used to sell used books on Amazon.  I never sold many, but I always tried to be sure they were dusted off before putting them in the envelope.  I never put a cup of coffee on them.  Nor used them as a plate.  Some people apparently do, though.  I had one book arrive so filthy that I took the 409 to it.  Thing is, it cleaned up nicely.  Is it too much to expect that someone selling used books might go ahead and get some of the gunk off before sending it?  It’s not exactly Antiques Roadshow patina, after all.  It’s someone else’s slovenliness.  Who knows—might not a quick wipe-down improve the profitability by enhancing the condition of the book?

Library builders like yours truly want to afford the best editions that we can.  Books are more than mere objects gathering dust on the shelves—they’re individuals that we get to know.  Those that we meet but don’t really care for we pass along, hopefully to loving homes.  The way someone treats books reveals quite a bit about a person.  Accidents happen, of course.  A hazard of reading a lot may lead to the occasional spilled coffee or dropped bit of food, but treating books with respect not only increases their resale potential, it’s also an acknowledgement of the accomplishment.  Writing a book involves a considerable amount of work.  And although your property is yours to treat as you please, books are particularly vulnerable to damage by water, mice, or neglect.  Add fire, food, or extended exposure to sunlight and you get a sense of their fragility.  Acknowledging the effort a book takes to produce can go a long way towards making sure no book is dirty.  That, and a quick wipe-off before shoving it in the envelope.

Neat as a pin.


Unintentional Patterns

Time, they say, is what prevents everything from happening at once.  I’ve noticed something about my reading life (is there any other kind of life?).  One of my favorite topics on this blog is books.  Both reading and writing them.  When I wake up and try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from my head to think about the day’s post, I always feel relieved when I have a book I’ve just finished because that’s an eager and ready topic.  When I’m in the middle of a large book, it seems like a long time until I’ll be able to jot down some thoughts on it, and the ideas don’t always flow.  It’s here that I’ve noticed a strange kind of pattern and it has to do with the way I read.  Interestingly, it isn’t intentional.  It goes back to my post-commuting literary lifestyle.

I read nonfiction in the mornings.  I awake early and after about an hour of writing I try to get in an hour of reading before thoughts turn to work and its unraveling effect on the fabric I’ve been weaving before the sun rises.  The nonfiction I read depends, to a large extent, on my writing projects.  Not exactly the kind of research that time and libraries afford academics, but still, research in my own way.  Often these nonfiction books are large—400 pagers seem to be the trend.  I’m a slow reader, so they take some weeks to finish.  At night (or actually evening, for I retire early) I read fiction.  It isn’t unusual for my fiction choices to be briefer than the nonfiction books of the morning.  It always seems, however, that I finish two books very near the same time.  Then I have two book posts in a week and many days without any.

Since we married over thirty years ago, my wife and I read to each other.  Usually she reads while I wash dishes.  Those reading choices are by mutual consent.  They sometimes make their way into my research, but more often they show up in my fiction writing.  In any case, they also seem to fit this same pattern.  When I finish a large nonfiction book in the morning, the same day, or the next day, I generally finish my fiction book.  Shortly after that our dishes-reading book finishes.  I’ve noticed this happening over the past couple of years and I always wonder about unexpected patterns that I find.  It doesn’t always happen this way, but it does often enough to make me wonder.  If I intentionally set out to do this it would be understandable, but as it is, it simply happens.  As they say, things tend to occur in threes.


Gratefully

I confess.  I read acknowledgements.  Part of it is the vanity of finding someone’s name I know.  Or the worse vanity of finding my own name.  Acknowledgements, however, reveal quite a lot about the book you’re about to read, or have just read.  Not all books have them, of course.  Most academic books do.  A recurring theme occurs in the acknowledgements I read: privilege.  Many academics are feted and pampered and their institutions pour money on their desks.  Often they show a nonchalance about it all.  ‘Tweren’t nothin’.  What seems to be missing to me is the struggle.  Anything worth having, in the experience of many, is something for which sacrifice was required.  Hard work, long hours, and nobody pouring money on your desk.

Privilege breeds a strange kind of entitlement.  Many academics complain of how difficult they’ve got it.  (The stories I could tell!)  Now, I haven’t walked in their loafers so I can’t say if the personal circumstances of others are trying or not.  My own experience at Nashotah House—how good I had it!—wasn’t exactly pristine.  Conflicts between dean and faculty.  Required chapel twice a day whether you needed it or not.  Your every move watched for any indication of heresy or disloyalty (that’s not limited to the Oval Office).  And yet, those days were much better than I realized at the time.  Once in a while you have to crawl up next to Job on his ash heap to get an idea of what you simply couldn’t see before.

Acknowledgements are often like mini biographies.  You try to make sure you don’t leave out anyone that helped you along the way.  Books, particularly academic books, are the product of many people, not just the author.  Sure, the author’s the star of the show, but if the support staff wasn’t there, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  Book making is incredibly complex, which is why self-publishing, while sometimes necessary, often shows in the end results.  Editors come in many flavors: acquisitions editors, copyeditors, line editors, production editors, and more.  Sometimes there’s overlap between positions, but even books that barely get read have plenty of sets of eyes upon them before they come to the public.  Acknowledgments don’t always name everyone.  In fact, they simply can’t.  It takes a village to publish a book.  Instead of feeling entitled,   I find acknowledgements always instill a sense of humility.  It’s an honor to be part of bringing a book to birth, even if your contribution is hidden away in unread pages.


Is It Real?

I’ve been reading an ebook and I feel lost.  I resorted to the ebook because I was invited to join an informal virtual bookclub.  Book discussion group may be a more accurate description.  Since I don’t see many people this seemed like a good idea.  Although I often take recommendations, reading a book someone else chose is kind of an infringement on my already crowded “to read” list, but connection is connection.  The problem was I couldn’t get a physical copy of the book delivered before the first meeting.  I struggled with whether or not to buy the ebook for hours.  I just can’t get over the feeling that I’m paying for something that can disappear at the next upgrade and all my effort in reading it will have been lost.  I’m a book keeper.  (Not a bookkeeper.)

After a morning of angst, I finally clicked on “buy.”  I’ve been reading the book but I’m finding it disorienting.  When I read an actual book, I quite often take a look at the physical object and assess it as I’m reading.  Appraise it.  Who is the author again?  Who published it?  When?  In the ebook world that information is obviously available, but it’s not where I expect to find it.  And there’s the matter of pages.  I measure my progress of book reading by the location of my physical bookmarks.  I can tell at a glance to the top of the book how my progress is.  A slider bar just doesn’t do it.  I click out of it and check on Amazon.  How many pages does this book actually have?  Why does my e-version have a different number?  Won’t that confuse the discussion?

I don’t feel so guilty about marking up an ebook, I’m finding.  Highlighting in a print book always annoys me—I don’t want some previous owner telling me what I should remember.  This ebook won’t get passed on to anyone else (that’s the genius of the business model—the ebook isn’t available for resale, which more durable, actual books are).  As I’m doing this I recollect that I’ve only ever read two ebooks before, both fiction.  They didn’t make much of an impact because it was only in writing this post that I remembered them at all.  The world of the coronavirus has taken its toll, I guess.  I’m reading an ebook and I can’t wait to finish so I can get my hands on the real thing again.


2019 Books

  Goodreads is always a little eager to put the tally on a year’s worth of reading.  This year, however, since I’ve been engaged in some larger books, they may be on target.  According to their count I’ve read 71 books this year.  (I re-read two, so my personal count is 73.)  New Year’s Eve, for me, is a time to reflect about what I’ve learned in the past year.  Much of that involves books I’ve read.  A good deal of my reading has been for Nightmares with the Bible.  To write a book you need to read books.  Frequently it means taking them on regardless of your mood—and I tend to be a mood-driven reader.  So what books stand out from 2019?  (They all have individual posts on this blog, in case you missed them.)

My first nonfiction book of the year was Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster.  Animal intelligence always makes for good reading and this was reprised in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.  I’ve fallen behind in my Frans de Waal reading, though.  Of the many research books on the Devil and demons, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles stands out.  Russell’s clear thinking and wide view make him a pleasure to read even on unpleasant subjects.  Other books in that category didn’t quite rise to his level.  Monster books, on the other hand, rocked.  I loved James Neibaur’s Monster Movies of Universal Studios, Mallory O’Meara’s Lady from the Black Lagoon, and Kröger and Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote.  These were all excellent.  Tipping toward the unusual, Guy Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps because I was reading longer books, this year didn’t have fiction in the numbers I usually strive for.  Most of it was quite good, though.   David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was memorable and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (strangely similar to Mitchell) became an instant favorite.  My young adult fix came through Christy Lenzi’s Stonefield and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Victor Gischler scored with Vampire a Go-Go and Cherie Priest made a fine impression with The Toll.  I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Fall yesterday, but it will stay with me into 2020.

A couple of memories/biographies also made deep marks on my mind.  Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him brought me close to Rod Serling and Barbara Taylor Brown’s Learning to Walk in the Dark found me where I live.  America’s Dark Theologian by Douglas E. Cowan isn’t really biography, but it was thought-provoking (as his books always are) and increased my resolve to read some more Stephen King.  The books I read make me more myself.  At the end of each year I think back over it all.  And this year I pondered what got me through a difficult 2019.  I have ended the year more myself than ever, I suspect, and I looking forward to a reading through the new decade.


Honest Labor

When an artisan begins a new job, s/he must acquire the tools of the trade.  During a period of unemployment I seriously considered getting certified as a plumber.  I’d done some plumbing repair and, unlike many people, I wasn’t afraid of it.  (I am, however, terrified of electrical work.)  When I was looking into it, it became clear that there would be a significant outlay of tool purchasing up front.  While all of this may seem obvious, people are often surprised to learn that writing books also involves tools acquisition, although it generally pays far less than plumbing. The tools used to be made of paper, but they can wrench pipes apart and rebuild a bathroom from scratch.  I’m referring to books, of course.  In order to write books you have to read books.

Long ago I gave up on trying to read everything in an area before writing.  There’s just too much published these days.  When I was teaching and actually had a modest book allowance I would attend AAR/SBL only to come back with armloads of books that I needed for my research.   Of course I had the backing of the seminary library as well, so I could find things.  As an independent scholar doing the same work, however, you have to do a lot more tool acquiring since no library will back you up.  Nightmares with the Bible came back from peer review with a standard-issue academic who wanted me to “show my work.”  (I.e., document everything.)  Apart from slowing the book down (it is written), this also means acquiring tools.  AAR/SBL always reminds me of just how much is being published these days and that my toolbox, although already quite hefty, isn’t nearly big enough.

As I’m going through Nightmares rewriting and adding footnotes, I’m discovering more and more material that could be included.  As an editor myself I try hard to keep to assigned word counts, and the entire allotment could easily be taken up by bibliography alone.  I am very modest in my spending at conferences now—independent contractors have to be.  Nightmares will likely be my last academic book; I can’t afford to keep going like this.  I don’t plan to give up writing, of course, just academic publishing.  Both this book and Holy Horror were written for non-specialist readerships, to showcase my non-technical way of explaining things.  Both ended up with academic presses and are slated to be among those specialist tools that the beginning artisan covets but for which s/he has to budget.  And when this house is finished it will have an impressive, if most unusual, private library.


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.