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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The hunt. Sure, there are a few other minor annoyances, but the part of the before world that I probably miss most often while living in a plague year is regularly hunting for books. I’ve filled that particular gap by rounding out a couple sets and picking up some harder to find titles through online orders, but waiting for something to arrive in the mailbox lacks the more visceral element of finding just what you were looking for “in the wild.” There’s something special in finding that clean first edition or autographed copy laying at the bottom of the bargain bin or in someone’s yard sale clearance. I’m still gad that there’s a first edition/first printing of The Last Kingdom finally headed my way, but paying full retail and shipping definitely rankles.

2. Bloody wankers. My personal politics have always tended towards the conservative and/or libertarian. There are currently, though, whole swaths of people in that general demographic that I no longer know how to talk to. We may agree on issues of taxation, personal liberty, defense policy, and a host of other issues – but if you start any conversation or social media post proceeding from the proposition that science is in some way “out to get us,” I don’t know that we have anything further to say to one another. Science isn’t a fixed body of knowledge inherited from the ancients, unchanged and eternal. It’s an ongoing process of testing, probing, and adjusting to new facts as they develop. If, as we sit now in July, your argument against science is “that’s not what they said in March,” please just stop talking now before everyone near and dear to you realizes you’re a bloody wanker.

3. Waiting. There’s a skill to being able to wait patiently. It’s not a gift I’ve ever had, but I recognize that it is one. One of the hardest aspects of largely being able to set my own agenda over these last four months is clearly that I respond even more poorly than usual what all that’s left to do is sit around waiting for something to happen, particularly when the results are completely dependent on the actions of others.

What I learned this week…

I spent the day Thursday scouring the dark recesses of used book shops. I didn’t find any treasures, but made off with a fair few reading copies of things that looked interesting. I spent the night Thursday reading books and dispensing ear scratches between three critters.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that my natural calling in life was to be a used book shop owner. Then, of course, I remember that particular line of effort would mean daily interaction with customers, who I would in no way be able to treat as “always right.” Putting me anywhere near the general public could only result in disaster for everyone involved.

So this week I learned the thing I’m probably most suited to do by inclination is something I’m utterly unsuited to do by temperament.

Not all learning is helpful.

Birthdays in a plague year…

Let me start by saying this most definitely wasn’t the birthday I planned to have this year. Like most else in 2020, my plans have been cut down by the Great Plague. There’s nothing to be done about that, of course. It’s the year of grit your teeth and bear it. 

I planned on spending my birthday week happy picking through shelf after shelf of used books, poking around junk shops for long forgotten treasures, and expanding my ongoing search to find Maryland’s most perfect crab cake. Instead, I’ll spend the week splitting my time between working from home and schlepping around a mostly empty auditorium in a surely vain effort to deliver a project that the Gods on Olympus won’t find inordinate reasons to pick apart.

The fact that instead of lost in a world of books and with a belly full of crab cakes, I’m spending the day working furiously on a project that I loathe with the burning passion of ten thousand fiery suns and that I’ve actively advocated killing for years now has not exactly done wonders to improve my mood over the unavoidable cancellation of the previously scheduled week off. It’s mostly just adding insult to injury. And with my general lack of enthusiasm about birthdays that’s really saying something.

In any case, I guess this is 42. Maybe the whole point of your 40s is for the universe to throw down regular reminders that “fuck your plans.” If that’s the case, message received. Seriously. I got it. 

Even with all the insult and injury going around, I really do appreciate everyone who took the time out of their day to pass along your well wishes. They definitely did not go unnoticed or unappreciated, so thank you for that.

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.

What I learned this week…

Ok, do you want to know the truth? I didn’t learn a damned thing worth mentioning this week. I did the work, I read some books, made some meals, played with the critters, and mostly avoided anything related to thinking deep thoughts.

Some weeks are like that. Maybe I could have made more of an effort – maybe I even should have, just for the sake of putting on a good show, but as they say the juice didn’t feel worth the squeeze. And that leads us directly to where we are now, with me sitting here pecking at the keyboard without much of anything at all to talk about.

I’ve been reading some solid books though – terrorists and silver mining and roman legions taking on American Indians. That’s some happy-making shit right there. Maybe this week that was far more valuable than learning something. Even if it’s not, I’m well satisfied.

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.