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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

Problems in the stack…

There should be someone whose job it is to follow me around and keep me from wandering in to used book shops and spending a ridiculous amount of money. Since that job apparently does not exist, I’m left to my own devices… and since there are so very few things that truly spark joy in my heart, the chance of my ever willingly turning this one off feels awfully slim.

Since I’m not going to stay out of book shops and I’m definitely not going to hire someone to slap books out of my hands, it seems my dad plans on filling in the gap a little bit. We talk just abiout every weekend and one of the first questions he asked this past Sunday was when the hell I’d actually be reading the three boxes of books I brought home on Saturday. Uh. Well. Eventually. Probably. It definitely wasn’t the time to admit to the books that have been lurking around on my to be read shelf for years already. I had been seen, no question about it.

The sad fact is, the “to be read” stack – TBR if you spend time in the subreddits on book accumulating – has grown so quickly over the last two or three years that I really do need to slow down the pace of acquisition… and I think I’ve come up with a plan on how to do that without pretending that I can just stop cold turkey.

Now that I’ve admitted there’s a potential problem, the most likely way ahead is to narrow the apparure of what’s coming in to the collection. I can get after that in two ways – first, by concentrating on finishing out sets of authors I know I enjoy reading and second, by increasing the mimimum acceptable condition of what I’m putting on the shelf. Neither of those constraints will stop the flow, but combined they should slow it down to a more manageable level.

So now that I’m resolved to be a more targeted buyer, there’s also the possibility that I’ll wade into the stacks and cull some of the one offs, random books, and items I’ve intentionally passed over for years. It shouldn’t be terribly hard to pick off 20 or 30 titles that looked terribly interesting at the time, but that have been overwhelmed by the incoming tide since then. At this point anything that frees up shelf space and gives the collection a bit more of a focused feel is probably a good thing overall.

So this is my life now…

I picked up a dirt cheap pressboard bookcase at Walmart 18 months ago that has already started falling apart. I added another, bigger, better unit a while after that, but the anti-library, the books I’ve got stacked up waiting for a chance to read, is once again spilling off the shelves and creeping ’round the walls in the spare room. Sure, you might say I have a bit of a problem, but when I’m picking most of these books up, in hardback, for a buck or two a piece, it’s not exactly like I’m out on the streets looking for heroin. In terms of problems, it’s hardly the worst one I could find myself suffering from.

A reasonable person would probably just slow down a little – maybe work through some of the backlog before bringing anything new into the inventory. That’s a sound, logical approach. And it’s not at all how the mind of a book collector works. I’ve already had to take a pass on sifting through a couple of collections for the gems and that mostly just breaks my heart.

The time to make a purchase, especially those from yard sales, thrift shops, estate sales, and used book stores, is when you see something. A piece of any quality is almost sure to be gone the next time you walk through the doors. Some items you’ll probably never lay eyes on again given the vagaries of how things ebb and flow into the secondhand marketplace. Miss them and they’re gone.

I’ve been hoping to pick off some bookcases of opportunity from yard sales or junk shops for the last few months, but haven’t found anything that really suits the requirement. Unfortunately, I think that means this weekend I’ll be giving in to the home storage juggernaut that is Ikea. I don’t particularly love their stark white aesthetic, but the kind of cabinets I desperately need right now aren’t for display purposes. I need storage space measured in linear feet, capable of gulping down fifteen or twenty hardback books at a time. The standard Billy bookcase isn’t what I’d call pretty, but it’s functional, expandable, and affordable, which is precisely the niche I need to hit at the moment.

So it turns out this is my life now – the relentless pursuit of books and bookcases in which to store them is how I’ll be spending the rest of my days.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s bullshit advice when it comes to buying books (and probably when it comes to judging people too). The cover is literally attached to the book there to help you judge it. The front flap gives you a synopsis and the back flap tells you about the author. Why the hell is that information there if not to assist someone in judging the book? If I only decided to read a book once I’d already read it, then gods, I can’t imagine how much time I’d have wasted reading truly awful collections of ink and paper.

2. Booksellers who don’t marking used books as “ex libris” when they’ve clearly been de-acquisitioned by some institution. I’ll be the first to admit that my tastes in reading tend a bit towards the eclectic – volumes on the rise and fall of the British Empire share shelf space with a growing allotment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer young adult novels. My collection has definitely built up some less common volumes because of my interests. They’re not necessarily expensive, but they can be hard to find especially in any kind of condition to make them worth having on the shelf. It seems like the very least a retailer could do is give me a fair assessment of the book’s condition up front and let me make an informed decision. Sometimes, for some volumes, I’ll tolerate a copy smothered in library stickers and stamps that’s hard to find or too expensive otherwise… but it would be nice to know that’s what I was getting before is shows up in my mailbox looking all dogeared and sickly.

3. Jorah the Dog. My not-so-new-anymore puppy has been more of a handful than I was expecting. Going a decade without a puppy in the house gives you time to forget the mayhem and chaos that comes with them. The furry little bastard can be quite the charmer when he wants to be, though. We seem to be getting out of the phase of life where he wants to pee on the kitchen floor every 26 minutes… but his new interest in overnight bathroom breaks at 12:30 AM and again at 3:30 AM are going to need to come to a stop with haste. He’s proven consistently that he can hold it all night… getting him to want to hold it, however, could be a whole separate fight.

The catalog…

I’ve been going through a period this last year or two where I’m acquiring books far more quickly than I can reasonably expect to read them. Most aren’t anything special – well preserved reading copies, hardbacks that will look good shelved as display items once I’ve read through them. More than a few are “modern firsts,” very clean, semi-collector’s items. A bare handful are legitimate rarities – perhaps signed by the author, or the first printing of a series that would go on to be wildly popular. My little collection doesn’t discriminate, except that I expect to be able to hold, fondle, and read every single item in it rather that treating it like archival material.

The most significant problem, aside from storage of the books I’m waiting to read, is honestly keeping track of of the growing collection – a particularly troublesome issue when it comes to books that are part of a series I’m trying to round out. The nice people at Goodreads give me a solid baseline, but I’m kicking around the idea of using it to create something that gives me a little more granularity and control over fine tuning – a true library catalog that I can use to manage the collection… since keeping massive stacks of books around doesn’t feel like a habit I’m going to break at any time in the foreseeable future.

I’m even toying with the idea of taking it all the way back to basics – a simple spreadsheet. One book, one line with key details. Rackable, stackable, and searchable based on whatever criteria I eventually settle in on needing to know for every single title in the stacks.

It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes my geeky little analyst’s heart happy.

Truth is, the idea of building out that kind of information is a little bit daunting, even with Goodreads doing a lot of the heavy lifting to get things started… although the idea of building out the definitive catalog – stored on my own system – of what I have in hand, what I want to acquire is probably less fear-inducing than the idea that at some point in the near future I’m going to have to clear the shelves and reorganize everything so the whole works has just a little bit of coherence.

Sigh. These are the ideas that plague me on Tuesday evenings.

That book life…

Last week I finished reading a book, The Gentle Madness, that outlined the lives of some of the great book collectors and personal libraries assembled over the last five hundred years. It also covered how many of those libraries were broken up over time – sold off in toto or in part, lost to fire, stolen, gifted to public institutions, or released back into the wild through glittering auctions. These were the “important” libraries of history – the first printed books, manuscripts on velum, hand-copied tracts carefully illuminated by monks in the Middle Ages – the incredibly rare and the magnificently expensive. These were the libraries of royal dukes and titans of the industrial age.

It makes me extraordinarily happy that such collectors and such libraries even exist. Even so, I walk away from that read feeling just a little bit sad – mostly because, unless there’s a multi-state lottery jackpot in my future I’ll never be able to possess books like that. I’ll never have the opportunity to walk into a room filled with five hundred year old volumes and revel in their smell and feel and the sheer joy of knowing that for just a short slice of history I am custodian of such rarities.

I love books. I love being surrounded by them. If I had but the funds, I’d like nothing more than to assemble a first rate, proper library – old classics well made and maintained dating back from the dawn of printing and beyond. Given the reality of not having fabulous mountains of wealth, mine is a simple working collection of books.  It’s hardly worthy to be considered a library at this point – just 500 or so volumes of history mixed with fiction, some government and politics, and a few outliers straying into sociology. Hardly a blip when compared to some of the lions of book collecting, whose personal libraries swelled to hundreds of thousands of books.

I read what interests me at the moment, acknowledging that it would be impossible to dive down every rabbit hole – or even one tenth of the rabbit holes given the limitations of time. Sure there are a few modern first editions living in places of honor on my shelf. There are a few well worn favorites that I keep coming back to time and again. If nothing else, I can at least claim that every book that ends up on one of my shelves is one that I’ve read. Nothing earns its spot there simply for decoration or adornment.

I could save a shitload of money if I were just able to borrow books from the public library like a normal person. I’m touched lightly by that gentle madness, though. The books possess me at least as much as I possess them… and I don’t mind it even a little bit.