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. 

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.

Second week…

I’m now into the second week of this long Christmas break. I’m quite sure I feel more relaxed, though probably no better rested than I did a few weeks ago. Lying about in bed or whiling away the hours snoozing on the couch aren’t really in my repertoire. The psychological imperative to “do something” is far too strong, even if that something is just tinkering around with truly minor repairs or sticking my nose in a book.

I’d usually spend this week chasing down new (old) books for the collection or running errands/tackling projects that are more involved than is convenient to fit into typical weekends. Life in a plague year has given me ample opportunity to take on those projects already – or at least the ones that don’t involve any specialized skills or abilities and therefore need to be farmed out. The search for books, of course, will have to wait for a bit yet, despite the almost overwhelming temptation to mask up and roll the dice. I could plug in some online orders to scratch that itch, but seeing them fall into the black hole of the US Postal Service for delivery God knows when feels like it would do the exact opposite of improving my sense of relaxation.

Probably more than anything else, what this two-week reset has done is reaffirm my firm belief that I’ll be beyond satisfied not schlepping to work (either in office or virtually) at the moment I reach that magical congruence of age, years of service, and fiscal sufficiency. Even here, in the belly of a plague year, when I can’t or opt not to do many of the things that I so heartily enjoy, time is better spent than it would be knocking together version fourteen of a random set of slides or flinging email into the bureaucratic void. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.

3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.

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.

Bookshelves and gin…

The wind is absolutely screaming through my woods this morning. The sky is the kind of blue you only find on fall mornings and the sun, after days of gray overcast, is dazzling. It would be a beautiful day, but that wind, though. 

The wind is the game changer for today. I’d planned on trekking south through the plague lands to secure the first couple of bookcases I need to start the long toyed-with idea of bastardizing the formal dining room into a proper library that just happens to have a dining table in it. Getting the bookcases here today was prelude to moving other furniture, doing assembly, and starting to reorient the room next week during another long stretch of days off. 

I’ve got about a year’s worth of open shelf space with my current set up. That’s room for about 60 mid-sized books. Although the shelves have been filling faster than normal thanks to the Great Plague leaving loads of extra time for reading. I don’t quite need the extra shelf space yet, but I’ll need it soon enough. 

I want to get the new flat packs on hand and ready mostly to ensure I’d have something to do during the coming nine-day weekend. I’m also enough of a forward looker to see that there’s a time in the not too distant future when I might not be able to get them in a timely manner. A time when we could find ourselves once again faced with the closure of all but essential businesses. It’s not far from the realm of the possible that we’ll follow Europe’s lead in the fall and winter as we did this past spring. I’m increasingly a fan of having anything I might need already on hand instead of hoping a beleaguered supply chain can keep up.

The wind itself isn’t the problem with today’s plan. The issue really is not wanting to find myself on the wrong side of the Susquehanna during a “wind event.” Should the windspeed touch the numbers that trigger restrictions or a closure there’s simply no good way to get back from the other side of the river. Driving deep into Pennsylvania to find a low bridge crossing simply isn’t part of today’s plan. Better to let the wind blow itself out and try again tomorrow.

It’s election eve here in America anyway. I have enough of almost everything to ride out the election and its aftermath in comfort, but I find I’m running dangerously low on good gin. Today I’ll focus on correcting that shortcoming and get back to my relentless pursuit of more bookcases tomorrow while everyone else is holding their breath. At least this way I’ll be putting both vacation days to good use.

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.