The year in books…

This morning, Goodreads helpfully provided a summary of “My Year in Books.” It turns out that I’ve churned through 77 books and 32,168 pages this year. If I can keep up the pace between today and tomorrow, I’ll add one more book and 358 more pages to that total before we formally close out the year. Those are respectable numbers, but I’m a little surprised that they weren’t higher, being in a plague year and all. All in, I’ll have exceeded last year by 12 books and 5,000 pages, so the Great Plague earned me one additional book a month.

For purposes of not wanting to sound like a lunatic hoarder, I don’t formally keep track of the number of books that end up in the to-be-read stacks over the course of the year. I suspect that number might actually be lower than the number I read this year. That’s an unprecedented situation, at least in recent memory. 

As far as what I’m reading, that ebbs and flows between obscure histories to pop fiction, with a healthy dose of anything related to Buffy thrown in. I make absolutely no apologies for the eclectic nature of what ends up filling my bookcases, because I love them all – even if I love some of them more than others.

So, what do we expect from 2021? More of the same feels likely. Maybe in the back half of the new year I’ll get back to making the rounds of local (and a few far-flung) used book shops on a semi-regular basis. Maybe I’ll even take a long look at what’s currently on the shelves and make some hard decisions about titles that seemed interesting when I browsed them for a $1 a piece at a neighborhood thrift shop, but are unlikely to ever drift to the top of the pile. Then again, maybe I won’t do that at all. Surely there’s a way to just add some more bookcases to that back bedroom without hiring a structural engineer to check out how much dead weight the floor will actually hold before everything ends up in the crawl space.

The only thing I know with certainty, that was true in 2020 and will be true in 2021, is that no matter what the year looks like, there will always be more books I want to read than there is time to read them.

With all respect to The Twilight Zone, even when there’s “time enough at last” and your glasses work fine, it’s not nearly enough.

Library….

Sometimes the most dangerous thing I can tell you is “I’ve got a plan.”

I’ve always wanted a library of my own. A place just for books. Space, money, and the knowledge that I’d be moving again soon always conspired to make it impractical. Now that I’ve settled in to a house I plan on being in for the next 15 years, that calculus changed a little.

I’ve got the old bookcases rearranged and freed up space for two new additions.  I’ve also stumbled into the first of what I’m assuming will be multiple problems as the room comes together.

It started life as a dining room and has doors on two walls and a triple window on another wall. Proper built ins would be better, but I’m going to want to sell this place one day. As much as I’d like to imagine otherwise, an operational dining room is likely to be a better highlight than a full library for the average buyer. Sure, I’d like to imagine selling the place someday who shares my slavish love of books, but I’m a practical home seller with far more concern about ending up with the biggest pile of cash possible once all the paperwork is signed.

Since doing the full conversion is out, I’ve accepted the idea that IKEA makes serviceable shelving at a price that’s not cripplingly expensive. My room will hold a lot of their units, but being fixed width, there will be some gaps and a bit of downright weird spacing. Add in the just confirmed fact that the floor is half an inch out of level in places and some of the things I need to do to make the shelves look level is downright wonky. This room seems determined to teach me the art of the compromise.

Before I started the “great rejigger” of furniture this week, I thought I’d be able to squeeze a good comfy reading chair into the corner of the room that gets the best evening light in the summer. A quick look now with everything in place shows that was a pipe dream. So the options are either keep the shelf space as planned and lose the corner with the good light, lose the shelf space completely to keep the good light, or shoehorn the bookcase back into the plan on one of the “short” walls to keep both self space and the ideal spot for reading. Right now, the leading contender is adding the chair and skipping the extra shelf. Books and direct sunlight are poison, anyway, so I’d probably be doing my future self a favor.

The next time I move there’s going to be a room designed specifically for this, but even making do with slightly odd spacing and what fits where, I think this new incarnation of the old room will be well enjoyed when it’s finished. Come to think if it, I’m pretty pleased as it’s sitting now at a touch less than half the final plan. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

What I’d rather be doing…

I’m not working this week. It’s the first time in this plague year I’ve taken a block of days off in sequence. I’ve spent the last couple of them knocking around the house, cleaning, and running errands. It’s nothing spectacular, but all things that needed doing. Here on Tuesday, we’ve arrived at the point in time where I have nothing particularly pressing to do.

What I’d like to spend this new-found free time doing, is digging around some of my favored used book shops and carrying home untold treasure. What I am doing, as you can see, is sitting here at the keyboard writing about what I’d rather be doing. 

There are, of course, reasons for this. Perhaps I should say there’s one main reason that’s not happening at the moment… but to tell that story, I have to first tell you a bit about my general philosophy of acquisition. 

Some collectors focus on a particular author, a genre, a time period, or topic. They might want signed copies or first editions. Me, well, I want nice copies, firsts if I can get them, but ultimately, my focus is on bringing in books I actually want to read. That goal has been achieved in spades. There’s literally nothing on my “to be read” shelves that I don’t want to read. 

With 500+ volumes now lingering on those to be read shelves, though, I’m beginning to feel like a victim of my own success. Based on my average yearly reading rate, I’ve built up a slightly less than eight-year backlog… and because I keep the to be read anti-library separate from the ones I have read, space is becoming something of an issue… again. I’ve lost track of how many times this has been the case already. This time, though, I’m running up against a physical limit on available wall space for more shelving in that particular room.

With all that being the case, it seems that I have a couple of possible courses of action: 1) Dramatically reduce the number of books being brought in until I’ve freed up space; 2) Viciously cull the to be read list with a goal of jettisoning somewhere between 25-50% of titles that are “below the line”; 3) Let the to be read pile bleed out into new space; 4) Box up titles I’m not likely to get to any time soon and allocate them to deep storage in an under-utilized closet; or 5) Accept that this is just life now and buy a warehouse.

So, I’ve got some decisions to make. I like the idea of bringing some discipline to the collection – of focusing in my reading on whatever I decide are the highest priority books. I absolutely hate the idea of conducting a great cull. It’s an admission of defeat – that no matter how interesting, I’m accepting that I’ll never, ever get to it. It’s even worse knowing that a year or two from now I’m likely to be in the same position… although it guarantees that after a few cycles of binge and purge, I’d have a heavily curated reading list with every title intensely focused on what appeals to me in a book. There’s an appeal there, to be sure.

Right now, at this minute as I’m writing, I fully intend to drastically slow down the number of books arriving until I’ve made some decisions. That’s not saying tomorrow I won’t be schlepping through a used book shop fondling a new box of books I just couldn’t live without. Still, I feel like I deserve some credit for even considering the issue in depth.

When interests overrun time…

I’d like to get back to writing. Not just blogging, which I love, of course, but proper writing – telling stories and building worlds. I won’t claim to be particularly good at it. Perhaps that’s a failure of imagination on my part, but it’s honest labor that I enjoyed.

Time, as always, is my eternal enemy. Even in the midst of a plague year there isn’t enough of it. What time there is, I spend with my nose in a book someone else wrote… Because there’s always one more thing I want to read. In fact, there’s somewhere north of 500 somethings I want to read already here, shelved, and waiting for me to get to them.

The secret to really getting things done, I’ve always suspected, is not sleeping. Although I have grown increasingly fond of those six hours a night. I wonder how well I could get by on a little less. given my already surly mood, the answer is probably “not well.”

At some point the only reasonable thing to do is accept that X number of interests don’t fit into Y amount of time and descope where I’m trying to spend my hours. It makes perfect sense, but I’m not quite ready to make that decision. Maybe I’ll never be… and maybe that’s the point.  

Fall or: Embracing the worst season…

I hate that we’re losing a few minutes of daylight every day. The older I get, the less enamored I am with the onset of cold weather. Fall, as a season, doesn’t have much to recommend it. Even so, fall is a happy time of year. 

Aside from fresh apples, fall really only has one major factor in its favor – the fact that so many of my favorite living authors seem to have themselves plugged into a fall release schedule for their newest works. The first of many pre-orders has started hitting the streets and will be showing up on my doorstep in dribs and drabs between now and early December.

There aren’t many things I’d rather be doing than settling in with a good book and some spiked apple cider, so despite its other clear down sides, I’ll be firmly embracing the season’s slow descent into seemingly perpetual darkness.

Formative reading…

Books have always had a sort of power over me. I spent my formative years in elementary school reading books about orphans who live in the woods in an old boxcar. Later, I found a nice shady spot on the cafeteria loading dock to read about MacArthur and Patton. That’s probably where my never-slaked thirst for history was really born. It was infinitely more interesting than kickball or whatever else younglings were expected to do during recess back in the mid-1980s.

In middle school, I devoured books about Nixon, Kennedy, and, yes, even Trump. That was back before he was a politician and even before he was a TV personality, of course. I was deep into historical biography and assorted non-fiction.

Finding a tatty copy of Atlas Shrugged on a shelf in my junior year English classroom changed my life, setting me on a course to ask questions about the proper role of the state – what government can do versus what it should do.

Down all the years from then to now, books have been just about as formative to who I am as a person as it’s possible to be. I take comfort in their presence, even if they’re a towering reminder of how little I know even about subjects I know well. It would be absolutely impossible to do without them.

The first step…

After a not inconsiderable amount of time spent trying to find a vendor who wanted to take my money, window blinds, at long last, have been ordered for the current dining room. I’m told things are a little backed up from their manufacturer and it could take 5-6 weeks for the order to come in. It’s a plague year. Five days. Five weeks. Whatever. Time now is uniquely fluid.

Ordering up three blinds to match what the previous owner put in every other room in the house doesn’t sound like a particularly important accomplishment. On its own, of course it isn’t… It is, however, the first step to turning the dining room into a proper library. Or at least as proper as it can be in the absence of built in shelving. Abandoning the idea of running floor to ceiling shelves around the entire room was a concession I finally convinced myself to make because in fifteen years or so I’m going to have to convince someone else to buy this place – and the demographic that wants a dining room is likely larger than that which wants storage for 3500 books.

Making the dining room into actual useful space is a not-so-secret desire I’ve harbored almost since the day I moved in. The afternoon produces long hours of nearly perfect reading light in there, but direct sun and old paper and deadly enemies. This little project is the first critical step to help reduce that potential sun damage while opening up vast new shelf feet of space for proper storage and display.

As for the rest of the plan, well, it’s a work in progress. The first really heavy lift effort will be moving the three existing bookcases to free up the longest uninterrupted wall in the room – making it ready to take four new, much larger bookcases to take their place. The three small units will still have a place in this new arrangement – at least for now.

There’s one bookcase, simple pine, currently doing duty in that room that isn’t particularly impressive, but remains sentimental because it was built by a great uncle who departed long before I made the scene. It will likely end up in my own bedroom or relegated to service in the laundry room to replace an aging particle board bookcase holding assorted canine-related odds and ends. In either case, it’s purely a matter of rank sentimentality winning out over design sensibilities and I don’t begrudge it that in any way.

The dining room table, another heirloom that couldn’t be prized from my hands for love nor money, will stay put, being pressed into service as a passable library table once its leaves are dropped. Add in a club chair or two, a low side table, maybe a Tiffany style lamp for a little glow and this place could be a respectable long term home for my fiction section. It feels like a good use of space that otherwise has virtually no function at all.

I’ve got some thoughts on replacing the current hanging light, direct and indirect lighting for the shelves, and outlet locations that will need moved, but those can wait until I can put everything else together and get a sense of how the room will work in its new role. Then we can bring in someone who’s far more competent than me to figure out the electricals. Don’t ever let it be said that I’m a man who doesn’t know his own limitations.

I’m in no great rush. Aside from adding 62 linear feet of shelf space, which is ultimately the only real critical update, I’ll bring in everything piecemeal as I find just the right bits. I’d say in a year or maybe 18 months at the outside it should be in reasonably fine shape. I won’t guarantee this will buy me another 15 years of storage space, but it’ll get me a large fraction of the way there… by then I should be next deep in planning where this whole mess ends up when we achieve our final form.

The up side of the Great Plague…

My undying love of all things Buffy the Vampire Slayer is well known. I suppose it was only a matter of time before that abiding adoration found its way onto my book shelves.  A fluke thrift shop find about a year ago spurred me towards putting together a complete set of Buffy novels. Let me start off by saying there are a lot of them – and I mean an absolute shit ton – and that’s before you start into the cadet branches of the written Buffyverse. They’re short, written for the young adult demo, and don’t take up all that much space on a shelf. War and Peace they aren’t, but they’re fun reads layered on to a fictional universe that I enjoy spending time in. 

One of the keys to collecting (as opposed to hoarding) is starting off with some idea of what the final collection should look like. I opted to focus my attention on the “main stem” books – and excluding the novelizations of the actual TV show, books from the Angel series, and a handful of choose-your-own-adventure style books (that were wildly overpriced in fine condition anyway). I closed the loop on that collecting effort about a month ago. A few pieces are in rougher shape than I’d like – cracked spines, loose pages, etc. – but I found them cheap and they’ll do until I can replace them with better copies. In any case, now that I have them, I’m slowly enjoying injecting these books periodically into the reading list.

A few days ago, I noticed something unusual happening. The collector sites were starting to show an unusual volume of items for sale rather than just collectors showing off their finds for one another. Some heavy-duty collectors were slowly starting to turn loose of their wares – and the prices were maybe not quite at the fire sale level, but they were markedly lower than the same items would have commanded months ago. In light of the current situation, I’ve opened the scope of my hoard collection to encompass many of those titles that I had formerly excluded. A few of these them are currently trundling towards me via post even as I write this.

So, the Great Plague is bad, sure, but let us not completely ignore its up side here. Now I just need to find someone who needs to turn loose of their prop replica Scythe at a price that doesn’t require drawing a personal loan. Sure, a scythe doesn’t exactly fit into a book collection, but if people are determined to sell off the good stuff I’ll have to do my best to be a buyer and prop up the economy where I can. 

What I learned this week…

I’ve never picked up a book that I didn’t learn something from it. One of the most unexpected things I’m learning due to my enormous “to be read” pile is how much more I enjoy reading history written in the 20th century than I do many of the modern reinterpretations. That probably shouldn’t be surprising given my general intolerance for most aspects of the 21st century. I’m fortunate though to have a keen interest in topics – the world wars, the Roman republic and empire, England from prehistory to the present – that have already been extensively plumbed by some of the true giants in those areas.

While I’ll pick up some of the new releases, I don’t find myself particularly enjoying many of them – or the modern historian’s penchant for wanting us to believe that everyone who ever carved their name into the historical record is evil and we should all feel badly about it. It makes me wildly appreciative of having such a wide selection of the older works that don’t nearly as often read like someone’s effort at forcing the past into a mold that supports the social agenda flavor of the week. I like my history a little less preachy.

I welcome and encourage everyone to read what interests them, but I’ll stick with delving into the saga of great men and great deeds. I guess it’s my own variation of dancing with the one that brung ya.

I spend more time pondering shelving than is strictly reasonable…

I had one of those awkward moments this weekend. It was triggered by trying to add a book to the case and finding that particular shelf of one of my favorite authors was filled. That’s where I realized that the new bookshelves I bought for the dining room 18 months ago probably have no more than 18 months worth of space left on them. Same with the shelves in the living room. The non-fiction section in the office is all but full. No more than a years worth of space left there. So maybe 3 years of storage left between the lot of them. It’s likely less because if my habit of always having one fiction and one non-fiction title going simultaneously. None of this even takes into account the dearth of space now available on the recently installed “to be read” shelves.

I know it won’t seem like it, but I really have already curtailed the pace with which I’m adding new books to the collection. Sure, cutting that number to zero and de-accessioning some of what’s already there would resolve the ongoing issues with storage… but I’m trying to come up with solutions that I can actually live with, and not some kind of ridiculous, pie in the sky plan that has no hope of getting off the ground.

I’m left considering two long term options. Both involve, not surprisingly, adding extensive new shelving – either replacing and expanding what’s currently in the dining room or along the wall where my couch is currently situated. There’s enough space in either spot to buy a decade or more of storage at the rate I’ve been working through the collection in the last few years – about sixty books a year, or three individual shelves worth of reading material.

In my heart, it’s an easy decision – call a cabinetmaker and order up 70-100 linear feet of built-in shelving for the dining room. The heart’s bill could easily run to $5,000 or more to make it look good. My head, knowing that the current house is most likely temporary (although long-term temporary), would advise just laying on ten more Billy’s from Ikea – a cost that we could reasonably expect to hold under $1,000… although it would never look as nice as having the job done properly.

If you think I don’t have doodles showing the library with a few attached bedrooms and a kitchen I want to build in retirement, you likely haven’t ever heard me talk about books. I’m going to live here in this house for another 16 years, though. As much as I’d love a room filled with built-ins, what losing a dining room to gain a proper library would mean when it comes time to sell weighs on me. More shelving is going to happen, the only question really is whether I can get past my inherent reluctance to tinker permanently with bones of a house that eventually will need to appeal to more than my own sense of what goes where. Fortunately, I’ve still got a little time to consider the options.