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.

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.

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.