What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Cicadas. I’m adding “cicada free zone” to my list of requirements for the day I start really assessing potential locations for retirement living. Here in my bit of woods they’re now loud enough to clearly be heard inside the house… with the television on and washing machine running. I’ve heard it said that people who live near Niagara Falls don’t even notice the roaring water. Maybe it’s true of cicadas too… but they won’t be around long enough to get used to… and in the meantime they may drive me perfectly mad.

2. One specific bookseller. I ordered three books from a reasonably well rated online bookseller on the west coast back on May 20th. On May 21st, they created a shipping label. After that there have been no further updates. As far as I can tell, there has been no movement on this order and the retailer has not responded to my inquiries about the status of my shipment. This morning I handed the situation over to the platform the retailer uses to facilitate sales and await their response on what resolution I can expect. I’m often willing to overlook misfires on random dollar paperbacks or reading copies, but with real folding money tied up in these particular books, I’m afraid I’m going to have to get belligerent.

3. Wait and see. I don’t have a brain that’s particularly well wired for patience. It’s a skill I’ve managed to teach myself, but not one that I’ll probably ever be entirely comfortable with exercising. I’m perfectly willing to sit through long periods of inactivity when there’s nothing that needs doing. That shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness, though, because when the bell rings and something needs done, I’ll come charging from my corner like the last angry man in America. I don’t like things that need doing when they linger about. There are times, though, where there are things that need doing and I lack the knowledge, skills, ability, or access to do anything about them. The ones where I’m nothing but a deeply interested observer are absolutely the worst of the things.

The only reasonable thing…

I make no apologies for the length and breadth of my to be read pile. Admittedly, my “pile” occupies a 7×14 foot wall now… with the nonfiction section bleeding over into another room, but seriously, no apologies at all. I like having options from the kings of Wessex to Buffy at my fingertips.

I’ve posted before about the ever-expanding need for shelf space. More is never quite enough. Knowing that, I’m going to do the only reasonable thing I could think of.

Over the next week or so, as I’ve been threatening for months, I’ll be culling the shelves. Every book in the pile is one I looked at least once and thought would be an interesting read. Time passes and other, more interesting books arrive. Some book is always lingering at the very bottom of the pile – a book that standing on its own I’d likely find entertaining or informative, but that as part of the wall of text will probably never be the next book I actually read. It’s a regrettable side effect of time being a finite and regularly diminishing resource.

Some of those titles, though, are still things I’d very much like to read, even if it’s at some ill-defined point in the deep future… like sometime after 2035. Other things in the pile won’t even make that cut. Those, I’ll shuffle off to Goodwill or maybe sell off to Wonderbooks for pennies on the dollar. Either way, some of the collection will work its way back into circulation next week.

For the rest, maybe four or five individual shelves worth, I’ve ordered up a bundle of banker’s boxes and acid free packing paper. Those will be going into long-term storage. It may be decades before they see the light of day again… but having spent no more than a dollar or two on any one of them, keeping them around doesn’t cause me any particular heartburn aside from needing to free up some floor space in one of the closets. That’s not too high a price to pay to make a bit more prime space available for new additions of more immediate interest.

It’s times like this I deeply regret not buying the house with a finished basement or a 4th bedroom.

Utterly impractical, but yet…

My mother made the trip down to Fortress Jeff a few weeks ago. It was the first visit since the Great Plague kicked off fifteen months ago. I suspect that anyone who has moved away from home will recognize that it’s the kind of visit that can be fraught with opportunity for… uhhhh… “adventure.” 

A few days into her visit, I pondered aloud about re-organizing the living room to free up an extra wall to install bookcases when the collection eventually overruns the newly designated library area that formerly did business as an ill-used dining room. That comment earned me a long look…. And yes, it was most definitely that look. The kind we’re all familiar with from growing up. 

The look™ lead to a perfectly reasonable discussion of why it would make the room look too crowded, not match the rest of the furniture, and in general be a bad idea. She wasn’t wrong. At best, it would make the room’s layout vaguely awkward. It wasn’t a project on my short list anyway – more something to be pressed into service only if all other blank wall space was consumed. 

Leaving the assessment of too many bookcases already, and too many books, and why don’t you just use the library like a normal person (Answer: Largely, because the average local library doesn’t carry much in the way of older, more obscure titles that I’m lucky to have lurking on my own shelves), I really expected that particular conversation was over. It probably should have been…

But then, a completely offhand remark, probably in jest, suggesting that if I just moved into the guest bedroom, there would be room in the master bedroom for at least a dozen bookcases around the walls with another dozen in aisles down the center. 

Yeah, that one sent my head spinning off to places it really has no business going. It’s a ridiculous idea, obviously. I mean just hiring a structural engineer to assess the dead weight load the floor in there could take is going to be an effort… Maybe I’ll roll that in to the bathroom renovation plan. You know, just to have the information in my hip pocket if I ever need it.

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.

What Annoys Jeff This Week?

1. Shady book shops. I’m not generally the kind of guy who walks around expecting something for nothing, but when I spy a deal, I like to snap it up… Which is what leads to the frustration of online booksellers who don’t realize they’ve underpriced a particular volume by about 2/3s of its actual retail price until someone comes along and tries to buy it. At least they were nice enough to immediately repost it for sale at a much higher price. That’ll be a hard pass from me. I’ll buy it from a competitor and even pay a bit more for the privilege since they’re not doing shady shit.

2. For reasons surpassing my limited efforts at understanding, my Twitter feed this week has been filled with posts saying something like “Stop doing x thing that makes y people feel uncomfortable.” Ok, I guess, except that in this little passion project of theirs we find that “X” is an absolutely normal, everyday activity and “Y” is some random bunch of wackjobs with perpetually hurt feelings. I assure you, if you’re planning to go through life expecting everyone to make you “comfortable,” you’re in for a great deal of both butt hurt and disappointment. But hey, good luck with that.

3. Friends. Friends are good things to have, I suppose. The simple fact of being a friend doesn’t, however, make you immune from criticism. At least it hasn’t in my experience. Some of my closest friends are the first to tell me when I’m heading off the rails. It’s not always a fun experience, but getting a third-party perspective has often served to be awfully instructive to me. If you’re looking for someone who will be nice just to be nice or who wants to go along to get along, I might not be the one for you… and that’s OK, too.

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.