Annual dusting…

I love books. I love the way they feel in my hand. I love the way ink looks on the page. I love the entirely unique smell a room takes on when it’s full of books. 

Much as I love them, there’s one book-related task that I dread among all others. It’s the annual dusting of the books… and I’m in the midst of that particularly onerous task now. That means physically taking each one off the shelf, dusting it, making sure there’s no unexpected wear or damage, and putting it back. It’s not a complicated endeavor, but it’s intensely repetitive – one that I’m bound to repeat at least 1100 times across 15 different bookcases over the next few days.

It would be easy enough to let it go. I mean with very few exceptions you can’t even see the top edge of a book sitting on a shelf. The dust finds its way in there though… and I shudder to think what that build up might look like in another ten or fifteen years when I have a reason to do another wholesale move. I’ve seen too many books offered for sale, otherwise pristine, that were caked with top edge gunk from untold years of not being tended.

I like to think that these books will outlive me – going on to reside elsewhere, with someone who values them as I do, on the inevitable day when this collection must be broken up. Unless I come up with a better process, it means keeping up with the dusting.

From my admittedly biased position, it’s literally the only down side of having hundreds or thousands of texts at your fingertips. 

A rare bit of truth in advertising…

Today was my first planned “day off” in 2021. It was, in part, intended as a day to catch a deep breath before diving in to what are historically my most ridiculous two or three weeks of my year. It was also an opportunity to celebrate having all my shots and getting back to doing one of the few things I like doing that doesn’t involve staying home with the critters.

I didn’t plan a lot of these “one off” days during the plague year. A long weekend when things aren’t open or when going anywhere there might be people is ill advised felt a bit superfluous. Better to hold the days while I wait and see.

Today wasn’t actually the day I planned. I was going to troll through a couple of local used book shops, maybe do some antiquing, and call it a triumphant return to normalcy. A week or two ago, though, a friend inadvertently reminded me of a shop about an hour away that I’ve long had my eye on, but had never visited. What better way to note my newly acquired immunity than heading out to a new place?

The Baldwin Book Barn promises 300,000 volumes across four stories of a former dairy barn. A family run bookseller since 1938, I could hardly expect to find the dollar bin wonders I turn up from less specialized places. Still, the Baldwin’s place didn’t disappoint in any way. It was exactly as advertised in all respects. 

I walked away with half a dozen books – a few hole fillers, a few that drew my interest in the moment, and one rather nice 100+ year old history of colonial Maryland. A few others were a treat to hold and page through, but would have outstripped my merger book budget by about 1000%.

I got to spend the morning awash in a sea of books and as a bonus had a pleasant drive through southeastern Pennsylvania horse country. I’d be hard pressed to think up a better way to spend a Friday… even if it will take me weeks to recover from being in the same room with as many as ten people simultaneously.

It’s been two weeks…

So, it’s been two weeks since gleefully getting my second jab in hopes that my body would learn to treat COVID like a mild annoyance rather than a deadly virus. It’s been two weeks since my Saturday of discontent when three layers of wool wasn’t enough to make me feel warm. It’s been two lingering weeks waiting for what the virologists say is the time it takes for a body to build up full immunity.

Not being a virologist myself, I’m in a position of largely just needing to trust what they say is true, which is fine since it’s what I’ve been doing since the beginning of the Great Plague. I mean in a contest between believing politicians and believing people who have spent their entire careers working in a particular, demanding field of study that calls for them to be, by definition, highly educated, I’m not sure why anyone would default to believing politicians.

The number of new infections is now heading back up – utterly predictable when the politicians used the decline following the winter surge to make a few long steps towards “business as usual.” If I had to guess, it looks like the trend will settle somewhere above what we adorably considered the “peak” back during the second wave. Hardly a good news story, but whatever. People, or a large portion of them, seem to have lost interest and are ready to play the odds.

In the absence of a test to confirm that my blood is swimming with antibodies, I suppose I’m playing the odds too, but it feels like I’m doing it with more reasonable justification and likelihood of success than if I were doing it purely “because I want to.”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a book buying binge of monumental proportions coming on… but there’s no part of me that regrets waiting for it to be legitimately safe for me to take on that project.

The making of a complete works set…

After finishing up the refinancing of the current homestead, the bank owed me a few hundred dollars. Sure, I’m a grown adult and should have done something responsible with it. I could have topped up the emergency vet fund, sent it off to the guy who’s trying to make sure I have enough money to retire on so he could buy a few more shares of whatever, or saved it for the impending bathroom renovation. All of those were possible options. All, in my estimation, worthy causes in their own right.

I don’t feel like it’ll be any surprise that instead of doing any of those things, I hit up one of my favorite websites and ordered up some new (old) books instead. Yeah, I know. That was entirely predictable. 

The good news, though, is that sometime in the next 14-30 days, I’ll have rounded off my first edition set of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Yes, including the three short stories. It’s still a bastard set, combining true UK first editions and American firsts. Purists will tell you that it’s not a proper “set” because of that. Technically, they’re not wrong. 

Because of its popularity, a really good set of Sharpe novels is a pricy bit of kit by my standards. Thanks to finding a number of my copies through thrift shops and the odd yard sale, my overall price is fairly reasonable. I think that over time I’ll be able to find some of the “upgrades” I need at something other than full retail pricing once I’m back to proper book hunting. For now, I’ll be reasonably satisfied with having all the titles lined up in “very good” or better condition.

Rounding out the Sharpe titles leaves me with just a handful of books I need to put together a “completed works of” collection for Cornwell. Knowing that I have far fewer of his delightful stories ahead of me than I’ve already read is bitter sweet… but I’ll still be glad to finally have them all gathered up in one place. 

A more tolerable gamble…

So here we are heading into the end of March. It’s been a full year since I made the last grand sweep through my normal haunts in search of just a few more books to top off my shelves. Not knowing when I’d get back into the shops – or whether the shops would be able to stagger through closures and restrictions – I risked a last book buying binge when COVID-19 positivity in the region was first taking off. Since then, I’ve limited myself to what I could find online not listed at absurdly retail prices.

I’m happy to report that this week, I’ve shuffled in the paperwork for the first bit of vacation time in 2021. I’m still trying to hold back most of my leave this year for after the inevitable Operation Return to the Office, but burning off a day to reacquaint myself to scouting books in the wild fells like time well spent… and just about the only reason I could gin up enough interest to leave the house with or without the Great Plague. 

I think this preliminary outing will be a bit of relatively close to home scavenging. There are (or at least there use to be) five or six spots in a 20- or 30-mile radius that regularly produced quality finds during the Before Time. That should be sufficient to scratch this very specific year-old itch for the time being. I’d like to go on a real ranging tour of some of my favorite shops, but that will probably have to wait until I have a bit more time built into the schedule. June and July will offer plenty of blank calendar space for searching out some of those more far-flung destinations.

I promise, this post isn’t doing justice to how thrilled I am at the prospect of once again pawing through shelves and containers of cast-off books. Yeah, I’ll still be bothered by the mask, but expecting people to stay at least six feet away from me is the kind of new normal I’d be perfectly fine hanging on to forever, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff there. I could have been out doing this all along, but shlepping out for books, didn’t rise to the level of essential business in my estimation. Much as I love spending time in whole buildings full of books, the possibility of being strangled to death by my own lungs was more of a price than I was willing to pay

After giving my booster the requisite two-week soak time, though, I’m willing to test my luck. Risk of minor illness is a far more tolerable gamble from my perspective.

A non-fiction problem…

I’ve got a problem with non-fiction. Well, technically that’s not true. I’ve been devouring non-fiction since I was a kid. What I have a problem with is my own non-fiction section. Aside from the decided focus on Western Civilization that’s sure to mark me out as an unenlightened, un-woke heretic of the modern era, titles are wildly wide-ranging. I have books in the to be read stacks ranging from the Greeks and Romans to biographies of Thomas Wolsey to volumes on the western water crisis to sweeping door stops covering Imperial Russia. It’s an embarrassment of riches at my fingertips. 

I wonder, though, if it’s not time to close the aperture a bit and pick a few periods on which to concentration my interest. Is it time to shift gears from being a generalist consumer of history to something more focused?

If so, what periods? Republican Rome though the fall of the western empire surely make the cut. Britain from the age of Victoria back to the dawn of time for sure. America from colonization through the Federalist era. The age of fighting sail. World War II. The American presidency. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed at first blush. I know that doesn’t feel particularly focused, but all things are by comparison. 

I’m sure this is just a revisiting of the minor panic attack I had a few months ago about the fiction section being too wide ranging. Still, I think it’s worth considering if and how I should reevaluate what I’m reading. Time, by definition, is limited… and unless we stay in plague mode indefinitely, I won’t have a year to match the reading I did in 2020 and 2021 until 2035 at the earliest. That’s a depressing thought – oddly more depressing in my mind than the idea of quarantines and lockdowns continuing into the future.

I suppose all this is just another reminder that I need to do another round of curation, free some titles back into the marketplace, and relegate others to deep storage in anticipation of the day when I won’t have to be quite so selective about what book comes off the shelf next. 

When determination isn’t a virtue…

I love books. I love how they look on the shelf, the smell of ink and paper, and the heft of a 900-page doorstop in my hand. With that said, I absolutely do not love all books equally. 

Some books, I pick up after reading a positive review or finding something interesting on the front flap. I’ve gotten to be a pretty decent judge of what I’m going to enjoy and what I won’t based on a quick assessment – even if that means literally judging a book by its cover. Sometimes, though, I get it wildly wrong. 

I’ve heard that some people can just stop reading a book they find they’re not enjoying. Being able to just walk away and find something more interesting feels like it must be awfully freeing. I can only wish I was that kind of person. You can probably count on one or maybe two hands the number of books I’ve ever just given up reading because it turns out I have no real interest.

Me? Yeah. I’ll grind through a book, no matter how dull, just because I’ve started it. Once I’m a chapter or two in, I’m going to finish even if it’s an absolute slog. Sure, even from these books I pick up a few worthwhile nuggets, but finding them is more chore than joy. 

As it turns out, there are occasionally times when raw determination to see things through to the end is not in any way helpful… I don’t suppose you’ll see that little gem on a motivational poster, though.

That time I was attacked by Churchill…

I pulled the first volume of Churchill’s Marlborough off the shelf last night. It’s been on the “want to read” list for a long time. I picked up this copy for $1 at a thrift shop eighteen months or two years ago. It was missing its dust jacket, but looked otherwise in fine shape. It came from a massive haul of books they’d cleaned out from an estate, all of them sans dust jackets. Some collectors are like that… for reasons I will never grasp.

I couldn’t help but notice as I plucked the book from the shelf that the binding of this particular volume was slightly… fuzzy. There were spots of white “fuzz” happily growing on the cloth cover. Like a peach. Except not at all, because it was awful.

It’s the undeniable presence of mold. Mold. In my stacks. Attacking at least one of my books. Bloody Norah. If I sound only mildly outraged, believe me that it’s simply because this method of communication is not fully expressing the depth of my agitation.

The book is perfectly dry. It’s not got any signs of water damage. It doesn’t even have the telltale stench of molding books. But it must have been stored in the damp somewhere, somehow long before it arrived home with me.

It could probably be saved, but it’s a later printing and not particularly worth the effort or potential danger of it further spreading the mold of the cleaning is less than perfect. It had to be culled and turned out to where it can do no more damage.

Good copies of Churchill’s books, particularly the early editions, race upwards into four and five digit territory very quickly, even for copies that have been battered a bit. This isn’t one of those, so it’s not much of a sacrifice. Maybe casting it out will give me the chance to scout out a rough survivor from the 1930s at something approaching a “reasonable” price.

With that said, if anyone wants to start a GoFundMe, I do know where there’s a very pretty four volume set of first edition Marlborough’s for just $5,500. If you’d like to spend $2,000 more, we could have the set inscribed by WSC to his godson. Alternatively, should anyone feel particularly generous, during this, my time time of need, we can shoot for the 49 volume, uniformly bound first edition collection of his major works currently on offer for $54,000 and change. I’d even be willing to pick up the $19.61 shipping to bring them over from London.

It’s a happy dream… but in reality I’ll be spending a good portion of this weekend pulling things off the shelves to make sure nothing else has been infected or stopping it before it spreads any further. To think that some people say I don’t know how to have a good time.

Evolution…

Bernard Cornwell writes what are arguable the best battle scenes ever put on paper. The man is also prolific, having written dozens of books across multiple series. He’s been one of my favorite historical fiction authors for years.

I’ve successful completed my set of his Saxon Stories, Starbuck Chronicles, and Grail Quest series. I’m nearly there with the Warlord Chronicles, his five standalone nautical thrillers, and one-off novels. 

Assembling the complete Sharpe series, though, continues to be like chasing the white whale. Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to scrounge many of the newer titles in decent condition and at more than reasonable prices. I’ve been spoiled by being in striking distance of so many tremendous used book sellers.

I’m down to the last seven books of the 22-book series to make the set… and it seems that I’ve reached a point in acquiring Sharpe editions that I’m going to have to spend some real money. 

The American firsts in “collectable” condition range from $100-$125. The British firsts are a bit more. But if you’re already pushing towards $150, what’s a few dollars more to have the proper first editions, right? Right.

I have a couple of hundred feet of shelf space fill with books, all things I want to read, brought home for less than $5. Many of those were really no more than a buck or two. In the book space I occupy, $150 or $200 can buy a hell of a lot of good reading material. Alternately, it can bring you a pristine, “as new,” not price clipped or remaindered perfect specimen. 

I could round out my Sharpe collection with perfectly good paperback copies for a few dollars. It’s already a bastard marriage of UK and American first editions that would horrify a proper collector, but the paperbacks add a gap toothed look on the shelf that, to me, is visually unappealing. 

In some ways – or at least for some authors – it turns out I’m evolving from a simple acquirer and reader to a minor collector. It feels inevitable that these shelves of mine will increasingly find themselves being home to the fight between being a reader’s library and a proper book collection.

I’m not mad about it.

A note from the High Sheriff…

Back in the mid-2000s, I was on the road a lot for work. Flying in and out of Memphis to points unknown with a bag of books in addition to whatever else I needed for a road stand was, if nothing else, inconvenient. Fortunately, this was about the time the first e-readers were coming to market. They were a godsend – stowing hundreds of books in a space no bigger than a writing tablet. I was a fairly early adopter, though even the best “electronic ink” was never a full replacement for the look and heft of a proper book.

In the last decade, I’ve gotten considerably more settled. Not worrying about fitting things into a carryon bag or needing to box up hundreds (thousands?) of pounds of books every couple of years to move has allowed the collection to grow unchecked by considerations other than price. For the most part, that’s been a net good, save for one minor issue. 

Those couple of years of fully embracing e-readers have left me with some gaps on the shelf – mostly series I started reading electronically, but then picked up in its traditional printed format later. I’d slowly add in some of the “missing” books when I’d find them lurking in some dusty shop, but progress was slow and unpredictable. 

With the Great Plague still keeping me from ratting around used book shops, but the monthly budget line for books still being intact, it presented an opportunity. For the last few months, I’ve been focused on collecting up some of the print books missing from my collection, particularly two of my favorite historical fiction authors. I’m nearly there with Edward Rutherfurd, who writes huge, wonderful, wide-ranging, doorstops. Bernard Cornwell, the more prolific of the two, remains, at best, a very partial collection – though I’ve rounded out several of his series, as well.

It’s collecting Cornwell that sparked this post. The most recent addition, a middle book of his “Starbuck Chronicles,” arrived fresh from the UK last week. Tucked inside the front cover, was a handwritten note from the book’s original owner – Brigadier Charles Edward Wilkinson, CBE TD DL, High Sheriff of Derbyshire. It’s not finding Napoleon’s prayer book long forgotten in a Paris shop or a copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden in a portrait frame, but it’s a happy little reminder that these books have a history – even the ones somewhat derisively sneered at and labeled “hyper-moderns.” 

Their value isn’t just in what I paid for them last month or what they’ll command at auction next week or six months from now. If all I’ve done in aggregating these “new books” is ensure that a hundred years from now one or two of these copies make it into a future collection at the hand of someone who treasures them, it’s been time and money well spent. In the long history of the written word, it’s mostly been the random people with shelves packed tight with text that ensured that what are now our most rare works survived. I like to imagine, in my own small way, that I’m part of that unbroken tradition.