A bit too high…

I’ll be the first to admit that my Instagram feed is not generally what most people would consider “wholesome.” It’s thick with porn stars, egirls, and instathots. Thankfully I don’t subscribe to that particularly American brand of puritanism that shrieks and clutches its pearls at even the mention of the human body. 

Occasionally, though, some other things break through the Insta-clutter. A couple of nights ago I was scrolling through my feed and I landed on a photo of row after row of books. It was a real thing of beauty – formal, but comfortable; well loved, but equally well maintained. 

“I want something like that when I build a house,” I mumbled to myself before filing it away for reference should the occasion ever present itself to build my own book room from the foundation up. 

Upon closer inspection, of course I want something like that. The picture that so fascinated me was of the royal library in the Palace of Versailles. 

It’s good to be ambitious. Goals beyond food, shelter, and procreation are what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. I fear, however, in this case I may have set my sights just a bit too high. 

Culling the stack…

Before I fell ill with whatever crud wore me down after Christmas, one of the major items I managed to knock off my to do list was culling the to-be-read shelves. You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly let things fall out of the collection. Buy enough books over enough years, though, and things have a way of accumulating. Despite your best efforts, some of those things turn out to be real dogs. 

I’ve never been shy about buying a nicer volume to replace something I already have on the shelf, so some of them were duplicates I was happy to move elsewhere. Occasionally I’ll look at something occupying shelf space and realize no matter how much time I have, I’m never going to read it. I hate to admit it, but when you start approaching 2000 volumes in your average home, space starts to become something of a premium. That’s all a way of saying that even for me there are good reasons to sometimes get rid of books.

I filled the back seat of the truck with my culls and cast offs. I’d waited until the volume justified taking a minor road trip. The local shop might have offered a few dollars for the lot – hardly worth going there versus just donating the bunch to Goodwill. I don’t blame the local shop owner. He knows his business and that he’s the only game in town when it comes to buying used books. Judging from the unopened boxes sitting in his aisles and stacked in every foot of space the fire marshal will let him get away with, getting inventory is never a problem.

The trade off with taking my batch on the road is that I’m sure to spend far more filling the gas tank than I’ll recoup from selling everything I’m hauling with me. There was nothing special or rare in the mix and the return on most used books is pennies on the dollar. It’s just part of the obsession that you accept when you’re into it deeply enough.

Knowing I wouldn’t even recoup my travel cost was worth it though, to hand them off to a proper bookman at one of the great east coast used book shops. They’ll get most of these good reading copies placed into the hands of someone who will appreciate them. Better that than dropping them somewhere where they’ll inevitably end up turned to pulp in the hands of a paper recycler.At my level of collecting, it’s not about turning a profit. With the exception of a few high points, all I’ll manage to do is make sure most of the books here are able to survive another generation or two into the future. If I’m lucky, one or two of them might survive to have a bicentennial and find their way into the hands of someone who loves them like I have. That’s not bad compensation for the time, effort, and expense. 

Of scouts and resellers…

I go to a respectable number of book sales each year. It’s not an every weekend thing, but six or seven times a year, one catches my attention sufficiently to make venturing off the homestead for it potentially worthwhile. The ones I like to dig into are usually put on “friends of the library” or other organizations who specifically take in book donations – they’re specialists rather than “used stuff” generalists. If I happen to be passing by an estate sale or yard sale, I might stop out of curiosity. I don’t generally seek those out even when someone advertises “lots of books.” It seems my definition of “lots” is wildly different than the average person’s. Nine times out of ten, what’s on offer is a box or two of kids’ books or beat to hell paperbacks.

There used to be a breed of person who frequented these sales called a book scout. They knew their business. They knew their points, editions, conditions, and values and could evaluate a book on sight. The best of them seemed to have a sixth sense about whether there was real value in a book – whether even the newest ultra-modern was a $2 reading copy or a $200 first edition.

Time seems to be replacing proper book scouts by roving bands of resellers. They ply their trade online, making their money in arbitrage – buying for $2 and selling for $3. Their business seems to be one of volume over quality. They’re hell with a barcode scanner and figuring out the spread on Amazon. They collectively seem to know price, but not value. 

These resellers are in there like vacuums sucking up all oxygen in the room – sitting on the floors, sprawled out, making obstacles (if not spectacles) of themselves, trying to scan every barcode in sight. It feels tawdry somehow. There’s not a bit of old-fashioned book scouting about any of it. They surely passed over the $200 book I walked out with for $10 last weekend because it simply didn’t have a barcode to scan. It must be more cost effective to sell 200 books on a $1 margin, but there’s no soul in it.  

I don’t think these guys are evil. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if there wasn’t a market for the $3 book. Increasingly, though, I wonder if my days at the sales are numbered. At some point the sheer aggravation of dealing with them won’t be weighed out by the utter joy of making a real score. There’s a big part of me that would rather just pay a dealer something close to retail than continue to trip over 101 resellers.

Closing a gap…

I’ve been chasing one particular book for about eighteen months. First edition later printings seemed to have a floor around $100. True first editions in fine condition regularly list in the range of $400 and up. I could have snapped one of those up, but it would have blown the book budget for several months all to hell and back.

I have auto-searches on several used book sites that send me periodic emails on when this book shows up for sale. A fresh 1st edition (albeit a 5th printing) showed up on the list this morning.  With an asking price of a mere $65 it’s obviously not the perfect copy I’d like to have, but it is signed, so there’s that going for it. 

I’ve dealt with this particular bookseller before. They’re a reputable outfit running both a respected storefront in the District and a vast discount warehouse I’ve come to love picking through when I have hours to spend wandering their stacks. That’s pretty much the only reason I took a wild chance on a book that otherwise seemed to be markedly underpriced based on its description and photos. 

The trouble with online book sales, like everything else that arrives in a cardboard box, is that you never really know what you’re getting. Based on past experience, I’m cautiously optimistic that what shows up will be something close to “as described.” Worse case, in a week or two I’ll have slightly overpaid for a nice, signed reading copy of Dunning’s Booked to Die… and the search can continue for a true first that doesn’t crush the budget. It doesn’t seem like I’ll have any trouble selling off my new copy to help defray the cost if I ever run across a reasonably priced copy.

As always, I stumble along the fine line between wanting a collection that looks good on the shelves, but that I’m not afraid to take down and fondle a little. At least now my Cliff Janeway series won’t look like a gap-toothed smile. 

Expansion pack…

I’ve had to expand the nonfiction holding section (also known as the spare bedroom). I’m a lot more selective about the history that comes into the house than I am about the fiction, but even so, the two small bookcases were literally bent under the weight of things and books were spreading out to occupy every flat surface in the room. As much as I love books, it just isn’t a good look on those rare occasions when the hospitality of the homestead is offered.

All this, of course, meant a flying trip to IKEA to bring on two new, larger bookcases. Now it’s a simple matter of getting them assembled and reordering the current mess. That can wait on a day that’s not quite so conducive to being outside… but thanks to the eternal shortage of everything, grabbing the flat packs when I had the time and they were in stock was a necessary evil. 

Overall, the questions of books and book storage here are now taking on a Jenga-esque feeling. Where new bookcases will go, if I’ll move ones I currently have, and how they’ll all fit together involves more thought than you’d strictly think reasonable.

My first thought to shore up the nonfiction front was to simply move the smaller shelves out of the library and put them to work in the guest room – replacing them with bookcases that match the two large ones I loaded into the library last year. The trouble is, the smaller cases are already earmarked, eventually, for my own bedroom. Their dark finish fits better there than the guest room. I’m not yet ready to put them to work in my bedroom there yet, though, and I’d really like to avoid cleaning them off and moving them on two separate occasions. It’s a surprisingly awkward and time-consuming process.

So the guest room, otherwise known as my nonfiction to-be-read pile, gets the benefit of two new Billy’s (in birch veneer since basic, and cheap, white has been going out of stock as soon as it shows local availability). Everything else stays put for the time being – and least until after the bathroom renovation is over and I make a decision on new flooring for the master bedroom. It’s not one of those dramatic improvements I’ll see and appreciate every day in passing, but it will be a decided improvement in managing and protecting a large and ever-growing book collection.

Call it money well spent.

Professional development reading…

I want to normalize reading at the office. No, not memos or email (although it would be helpful if people would start reading those for understanding too).

First, let me ask that we be very honest for the purposes of this discussion. In all my years as a cubicle dweller I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t dick off some (or most) of the eight hours of any given work day. My best estimate is that in a standard 40 hour work week, most people might spend 20 of them actually knuckled down doing productive work, stuck in meetings, or otherwise engaged. The rest of their time gets pissed away in pointless conversations with people stopping by their cube, out wandering the halls, shopping online, fucking around on Reddit, or otherwise attempting to look busy without really doing anything.

The only difference between any of those time fillers and reading a book at your desk is that some of the other things people use to kill time can give the illusion of “working.”

As an office drone, “Time to lean means time to clean,” doesn’t exactly apply. Sometimes there legitimately isn’t anything that needs doing – or if there is you’re waiting on someone else to do their bit or send a response before you can take the next step. Some days are busier than others – some are jammed full – but there’s plenty of days where there just isn’t shit happening.

I have to think keeping a volume of Civil War history on my desk and reading a few pages in these down moments ultimately feels more workplace-relevant in my situation than chuckling through another post on r/amitheasshole or looping around the cube farm to see what kind of pickup conversation I can get into.

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.