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.

My new obsession…

Some people have used the last few months of forced disengagement to learn languages, write their great American novel, or somehow make themselves into more productive human beings. Meanwhile I’ve been over here mostly living the same life I’ve lived for years.. with the exception of developing a new minor obsession. I now find myself spending at least a few minutes every day looking over floorplans of houses I’ll never build.

I’ve spent time looking at floorplans for old houses, new houses, prop houses from TV series and movies, castles, Roman villas, and family compounds. At first blush, it doesn’t make much sense, but hear me out.

Even though the Tennessee house was “new construction,” the only personalization came in picking the finishes. The bones of the house were all pre-determined by others. Every other place I’ve lived was designed and built originally to meet someone else’s expectations and needs. In every one of them, I’ve found myself asking often, “Why the hell did they do it this way” as opposed to in an alternate way that would make more sense to me. Having spent my life living with other’s decisions, the only grand ambition I have left at this point is to build a house from the basement up – Fortress Jeff achieving its final form that puts walls, switches, and doors exactly where I want them and all with a general layout that makes sense for how I intent to live in it.

Even though I’ve spent months looking at floorplans, none of them has been quite right. Most of them have been miles off. Many of them, though, have had distinct elements that are perfect – or that could be perfect with just a bit of architectural rejiggering. I’m keeping an open file (a self-contained Pinterest board?) with screen shots and notes about each of them. That goes a long way towards showing what right looks like from my perspective here and now. We’ll see what right looks like after it’s had a decade and a half to percolate.

So, what does this perfect place look like? Well, my current kitchen layout basically gets transposed into a new setting, the front door doesn’t dump directly into the main living area, there’s a room for dogs – tiled and suitable for hosing down – a pocket office to keep the computer and other bits that keep the household running from dominating whatever other room they’d be in, three garage bays, and some bedrooms, I suppose. Forgive me, please, but I haven’t put much brainpower into the rooms whose purpose is largely to be places to go lay down in the dark with your eyes closed.

I know, describing it doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing in my head. Sorry about that.

The heart, though, of any house I would ever build is almost certainly a “great hall of books.” You know, something medieval, but with excellent shelving. In fact, if the construction budget looks thin, you should probably just expect a library with a monk’s cell bedroom and kitchen attached… although giving up the garage would be extraordinarily painful.

The real trick, of course, will be figuring out how to cram everything I want into a footprint that doesn’t go sprawling across the countryside and send me into bankruptcy. Those details, though, are far less interesting than where, exactly, to put the inglenook. Hopefully my next obsession will be a self education in creative construction financing.

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.

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.

Just one more…

One of the great problems I face with reading is that I’ve done enough of it over the years to start racking up a number of favored authors who I love for their writing or their area of focus or both. If those authors are still alive and active, I have a tendency to want to read whatever new material they publish. I suppose that’s only really a “problem” if you already have 150+ books sitting in your “to be read” pile… that didn’t cost $20 or more to order new from Amazon.

That’s not in any way an admission that I didn’t just pre-order the new Harry Turtledove novel, but I will confess to feeling mildly guilty about it. Although you shouldn’t think for a minute that it’s anywhere near the level of guilt that might result in cancelling the order.

I love to read, but I’m not a speed reader by any stretch of the imagination. In an average year I get through 50-60 books. At some point, I’m probably going to have to come to terms with the fact that there simply isn’t enough time to read everything I want to get through. There probably isn’t time for that in several dozen lifetimes.

A less acquisitive person might see this realization as a reason to slow down on purchases and maybe try to catch up – just a little bit – on what’s already stored for future reading. Me? Well, I prefer to just go ahead and rationalize my behavior. I’m fortunate to not have particularly expensive hobbies. I’m not pouring away money on golf or boating. I mean, it only stands to reason that I’m more likely to get to something that’s already in hand, so really I guess there isn’t a problem with tucking just one more thing onto the stack.

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.

Shelving crisis…

Some people mount animal heads on their wall as trophies. Other people fill their walls with art as artifacts of their travels. Me? Well, I tend to acquire books at a prodigious rate. I seem to be acquiring them now at a far faster rate than I can actually read them, which leads me to my current troubles.

While the books I’ve read are happily filed and displayed on shelves in nearly every room, the growing “to read” stack has become something more like a “pile.” When doing most of your shopping at Goodwill or flea markets or used books shops, the time to buy is when you have it in your hand for $.50 or $1. The troublesome part, at the moment, is just what to do with this excess before allocating them “trophy” status on the display shelves.

The only logical thing to do, of course, is go out and find some inexpensive shelving that I can install in one of the spare bedrooms to serve as my own in-house book shop. Yes, I realize the far more reasonable option would to be get over my completely ridiculous desire to physically own the books I read and start drawing reading material from the local public library… but that doesn’t feel like something that’s actually going to happen. So, really using some of my newly found time off this week to rig some shelves and un-cluster the home library feels like something I can reasonably expect to accomplish without adding undue stress.

The case of the mysterious disappearing playlists…

One of the many wonderful things I’ve found myself able to do while working from home is to set up my personal computer to do some of the tedious update activities so that I can click “next” and “ok” in the background while hammering out the next great PowerPoint briefing or staff memo on my work laptop. It’s become an awfully convenient method of making sure I’m running the latest version of applications, everything is backed up, and my tired old Mac Mini is in as good an operational condition as possible. Up until today the process had been a happy and productive one.

Today, though, some combination of changes in iTunes and on my phone conspired to delete all of my hard built playlists from both the computer and the phone simultaneously. The music files are still sitting safely in iTunes, thank God, but such playlists as “Angry,” “V. Angry,” “Sleepy,” and “Depress me,” are nowhere to be found. I’m left with just the main list of everything from Music for the Royal Fireworks to songs that are so filled with pop goodness that I’m not even going to mention their names here.

I know I should just get with the program and stream my music like a normal person. You see, although I live among the millennials, I’ll never quite be one of them. My music habits were formed at a time when you went to a store for your music – and you came home with a shiny new jewel case filled with liner notes (and you got the privilege of slicing the hell out of your finger trying to get all of the security packaging off the product). Even though I don’t buy music on physical media much anymore, I do like the idea of knowing that I have all the correct files sitting on my hard drive waiting to be served up to me instead of just expecting them to live forever on someone else’s cloud. Maybe it’s the last vestigial piece of my analog self in the digital age.

So now I need to rebuild my playlists. It’s daunting, but perhaps guided by the spirit of WinAMP it won’t take five years to get things sorted and back in service just the way I like them. I know listening to music doesn’t need to be this hard… it’s just another fine example of liking what I like with all logic and simplicity cast aside. If that doesn’t give you a deep look into who I am as a person, I don’t know what will.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

Presented for your approval, a mélange of topics that have made me want to alternately gouge out my own eyes, bludgeon others to death where they stood, and curl up in the fetal position and just have a good cry…

1. Being a whore. I sell my body for money, well, the brain part of my body anyway. I don’t usually give any particular thought to how my John wants to use me for the eight hours he pays for, but sometimes it’s just damned hard to ignore. I’ve run across very few things in my professional life that are more annoying that spending hours, days, or months working on something only to get told “woops, looks like we won’t need that now.” Whether what I’m working on ever sees the light of day or not, my time is reasonably well compensated. Still, it would be nice to know you’re whoring yourself out for something that’s actually going somewhere. You’d think a decade on, I’d be use to just lying back, opening my brain, and thinking of England, but I don’t seem to quite have the hang of it yet.

2. DVDs. Between movies and TV show season, I’m guessing that I have something like 500 disks that spend 99.999% of their time doing nothing but taking up shelf space. For all but a few favored movies or shows, they might only see the light of day once a year or less. The logical solution to no longer wanting these DVDs sitting around occupying limited storage space is to rip them to several large hard drives and serve them up through iTunes. That would be the logical solution except, of course, for the part where no one in the world offers a convenient method of extracting large amounts of data from DVD and converting it to an iTunes-ready file… and no, I don’t consider ripping and encoding one or two at a time to be a convenient method. Sadly, a quick cost/benifit analysis telles me that with the vast amount of time and effort involved in getting my movies from Point A to Point B the hard way, it might legitimately be more cost effective to just put all my DVDs into long term storage and build a new collection from scratch when I want to watch something. Just the thought of having to go that route annoys me to no end when there’s a far far less expensive, but ponderously over complicated solution to be had.

3. Walmart Pharmacy. I don’t know who gave these jokers my office phone number, but rest assured, I will not be coming in to pick up “my” two prescriptions no matter how many messages you leave. Even if they were my prescriptions, when you told me the bill was $510.64, I’d point at you, laugh, and walk away.