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.

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.  

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The White House Press Office. I’ve never been a public affairs officer. I haven’t even pretended to be on at the behest of our wealthy uncle. Still, in my bones I know that setting up my principle with over a dozen phone interviews with a journalist who hates his living guts is probably not going to end well even if my guy is the most articulate bastard to ever give on the record remarks. You can make what you will of the president’s recorded statements, but whatever staff puke from the press office decided an interview series with Bob Woodward was a good idea gives staff officers a bad name… and that’s saying something.

2. Questions. Look, if there’s a point of contact listed and it’s not me, there’s really absolutely nothing I’m going to be able to tell you about whatever topic is on your mind. Maybe you should just go ahead and read to the end of the message and send your question to the person who’s actually running that program. You still might not get a good answer but it will be miles better than anything I’ll send you… and even if it wasn’t, going direct to that person would have kept you from making me take the time to drop you back in the proper lane. We all win, when you read the goddamned memo.

3. Risk. People, as a group, do a really shitty job of assessing risk. The way we respond to natural disasters like fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes seem to bear that out. For as long as I can remember, summer in the west has been “fire season.” It’s also “hurricane season” along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In the long history of humanity, fire has scorched the western sections of the North American continent. Water has always run downhill, occasionally turning normally babbling brooks in the valley bottom into torrential rivers sweeping all before them. Every time a fire or a flood or a hurricane hit, we collectively look around shocked that such a thing could happen. Except none of us should be shocked at all. We built our communities in dry areas historically prone to fire, or we built them along the coasts or in bucolic valleys that are prone to flooding. We built there because the scenery was nice or because there were local jobs – but almost never because the area represented a relatively low risk to life, health, and safety. As soon as the smoke clears or the water recedes, we’ll go right back to building up the same areas and then being “surprised” the next time the worst happens… because we do an amazingly shity job of assessing risk.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Having no room for subtlety. If the internet wants to agree that all cops are bastards, then by extension we should also agree that it’s ok to define other populations based on a small percentage of the total. Based on this kind of bizarre internet logic, we can also accept, without further discussion, that all whites are racist, all blacks are lazy, all Jews are greedy or whatever your favorite stereotype happens to be. I just don’t have the time or energy to pretend that the world’s great complexities can be distilled down to snappy sound bites or funny, funny memes. The world is too damned complicated for that abject fuckery.

2. The moment before. I can tell the “big thing” is getting close. The phone has mostly stopped ringing. The torrent of email has turned into a trickle. A year’s effort is poised at the edge of the precipice that we must surely tumble down in just a few more ticks of the clock. I love this part because it means the big thing is almost over. I hate this part because there’s virtually nothing to be done now to change the direction we’re headed or the outcomes we’ll experience.

3. Reduced page count. Being back in the office this week has noticeably reduced my daily page count. Losing that hour in the morning and hour in the afternoon that are the daily commute is drastically cutting into my reading time and honestly I’m not a fan. I can’t help but think getting my nose into a book is, frankly, a better use of the constrained resources that is available time. Going back to doing this every day for real until the next plague comes along is just depressing.

What I learned this week…

I’ve never picked up a book that I didn’t learn something from it. One of the most unexpected things I’m learning due to my enormous “to be read” pile is how much more I enjoy reading history written in the 20th century than I do many of the modern reinterpretations. That probably shouldn’t be surprising given my general intolerance for most aspects of the 21st century. I’m fortunate though to have a keen interest in topics – the world wars, the Roman republic and empire, England from prehistory to the present – that have already been extensively plumbed by some of the true giants in those areas.

While I’ll pick up some of the new releases, I don’t find myself particularly enjoying many of them – or the modern historian’s penchant for wanting us to believe that everyone who ever carved their name into the historical record is evil and we should all feel badly about it. It makes me wildly appreciative of having such a wide selection of the older works that don’t nearly as often read like someone’s effort at forcing the past into a mold that supports the social agenda flavor of the week. I like my history a little less preachy.

I welcome and encourage everyone to read what interests them, but I’ll stick with delving into the saga of great men and great deeds. I guess it’s my own variation of dancing with the one that brung ya.

What I learned this week…

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

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

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

I spend more time pondering shelving than is strictly reasonable…

I had one of those awkward moments this weekend. It was triggered by trying to add a book to the case and finding that particular shelf of one of my favorite authors was filled. That’s where I realized that the new bookshelves I bought for the dining room 18 months ago probably have no more than 18 months worth of space left on them. Same with the shelves in the living room. The non-fiction section in the office is all but full. No more than a years worth of space left there. So maybe 3 years of storage left between the lot of them. It’s likely less because if my habit of always having one fiction and one non-fiction title going simultaneously. None of this even takes into account the dearth of space now available on the recently installed “to be read” shelves.

I know it won’t seem like it, but I really have already curtailed the pace with which I’m adding new books to the collection. Sure, cutting that number to zero and de-accessioning some of what’s already there would resolve the ongoing issues with storage… but I’m trying to come up with solutions that I can actually live with, and not some kind of ridiculous, pie in the sky plan that has no hope of getting off the ground.

I’m left considering two long term options. Both involve, not surprisingly, adding extensive new shelving – either replacing and expanding what’s currently in the dining room or along the wall where my couch is currently situated. There’s enough space in either spot to buy a decade or more of storage at the rate I’ve been working through the collection in the last few years – about sixty books a year, or three individual shelves worth of reading material.

In my heart, it’s an easy decision – call a cabinetmaker and order up 70-100 linear feet of built-in shelving for the dining room. The heart’s bill could easily run to $5,000 or more to make it look good. My head, knowing that the current house is most likely temporary (although long-term temporary), would advise just laying on ten more Billy’s from Ikea – a cost that we could reasonably expect to hold under $1,000… although it would never look as nice as having the job done properly.

If you think I don’t have doodles showing the library with a few attached bedrooms and a kitchen I want to build in retirement, you likely haven’t ever heard me talk about books. I’m going to live here in this house for another 16 years, though. As much as I’d love a room filled with built-ins, what losing a dining room to gain a proper library would mean when it comes time to sell weighs on me. More shelving is going to happen, the only question really is whether I can get past my inherent reluctance to tinker permanently with bones of a house that eventually will need to appeal to more than my own sense of what goes where. Fortunately, I’ve still got a little time to consider the options.

What to watch…

There are maybe half a score of people whose judgement about “must see” TV I trust. Being that we live in the golden age of at home entertainment, they do their best to keep me well advised about what’s new, exciting, and generally worth the investment of time to see. Sure, most of the fandoms I subscribe to are well into their second or third decade now, but, I appreciate others proselytizing programming that I probably wouldn’t even consider otherwise.

The thing is, I’m quite sure I’m letting most of these people down. They always sound just a little bit crestfallen when I admit that no, I haven’t watched whatever show they recommended a few weeks ago. I promise, friends, it’s not you, it’s me.

Yes, if I’m awake and at home, the TV is almost always on… sometimes more than one of them. It’s usually tuned into something that passes for news or edutainment. Most of the time it’s purely there to be a dull hum in the background while go about doing other things. With the exception of whatever is featuring in the evenings when I sit down for dinner and actually focus in on a program, I’m rarely actually watching the television at all – and often enough that dinner hour watching is given over to old favorites like Buffy, West Wing, or Seaquest (Shut up. Don’t judge me).

There’s a wealth of television worth watching out there right now. I’m slowly getting through some of it, one or two episodes at a time. The simple fact is that when I do have long stretches of free time at my disposal, I’d rather allocate that most limited resource to sticking my nose in a book than binging whatever the cool new show is. I’ll see a good portion of them eventually – one episode at a time scattered over a period of weeks or months – but the chance of me sitting down and charging through eight or ten episodes at a time is hugely limited except under some pretty exceptional circumstrances.