Professional development reading…

I want to normalize reading at the office. No, not memos or email (although it would be helpful if people would start reading those for understanding too).

First, let me ask that we be very honest for the purposes of this discussion. In all my years as a cubicle dweller I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t dick off some (or most) of the eight hours of any given work day. My best estimate is that in a standard 40 hour work week, most people might spend 20 of them actually knuckled down doing productive work, stuck in meetings, or otherwise engaged. The rest of their time gets pissed away in pointless conversations with people stopping by their cube, out wandering the halls, shopping online, fucking around on Reddit, or otherwise attempting to look busy without really doing anything.

The only difference between any of those time fillers and reading a book at your desk is that some of the other things people use to kill time can give the illusion of “working.”

As an office drone, “Time to lean means time to clean,” doesn’t exactly apply. Sometimes there legitimately isn’t anything that needs doing – or if there is you’re waiting on someone else to do their bit or send a response before you can take the next step. Some days are busier than others – some are jammed full – but there’s plenty of days where there just isn’t shit happening.

I have to think keeping a volume of Civil War history on my desk and reading a few pages in these down moments ultimately feels more workplace-relevant in my situation than chuckling through another post on r/amitheasshole or looping around the cube farm to see what kind of pickup conversation I can get into.

The only reasonable thing…

I make no apologies for the length and breadth of my to be read pile. Admittedly, my “pile” occupies a 7×14 foot wall now… with the nonfiction section bleeding over into another room, but seriously, no apologies at all. I like having options from the kings of Wessex to Buffy at my fingertips.

I’ve posted before about the ever-expanding need for shelf space. More is never quite enough. Knowing that, I’m going to do the only reasonable thing I could think of.

Over the next week or so, as I’ve been threatening for months, I’ll be culling the shelves. Every book in the pile is one I looked at least once and thought would be an interesting read. Time passes and other, more interesting books arrive. Some book is always lingering at the very bottom of the pile – a book that standing on its own I’d likely find entertaining or informative, but that as part of the wall of text will probably never be the next book I actually read. It’s a regrettable side effect of time being a finite and regularly diminishing resource.

Some of those titles, though, are still things I’d very much like to read, even if it’s at some ill-defined point in the deep future… like sometime after 2035. Other things in the pile won’t even make that cut. Those, I’ll shuffle off to Goodwill or maybe sell off to Wonderbooks for pennies on the dollar. Either way, some of the collection will work its way back into circulation next week.

For the rest, maybe four or five individual shelves worth, I’ve ordered up a bundle of banker’s boxes and acid free packing paper. Those will be going into long-term storage. It may be decades before they see the light of day again… but having spent no more than a dollar or two on any one of them, keeping them around doesn’t cause me any particular heartburn aside from needing to free up some floor space in one of the closets. That’s not too high a price to pay to make a bit more prime space available for new additions of more immediate interest.

It’s times like this I deeply regret not buying the house with a finished basement or a 4th bedroom.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Maxine Waters. I called out Donald Trump when he used his official position as an elected official to incite violence, so it only feels fair that Maxine Waters gets the same treatment. Using threats of violence to score political points with her base is precisely the activity that she scorned Trump and Republicans for doing over the last four years shows clearly that she’s a politician in precisely the same mold. Her calls to “get more confrontational,” should be as roundly condemned as were Trump’s words… but they won’t be in the prevailing media environment. In my books, though, a demagogue is a demagogue regardless of having an (R) or (D) after their name.

2. Excess savings. A CNN article this week blazed a headline that globally, “Consumers have $5.4 Trillion in Excess Savings” and positing that we’re about to see a boom in consumer spending. I only mention it because CNN also likes to run articles highlighting how bad we Americans are at saving for retirement or even just saving in general. The American portion of this “excess savings” is estimated (again by CNN) to be $2.6 Trillion. It feels like a perfect (and passed up) opportunity to encourage our countrymen to do something radical like open a retirement account, hold that cash as an emergency fund, or otherwise think beyond going on a buying binge as soon as the plague is over. I suppose soon enough we’ll be back to the inevitable stories about how no one is saving for retirement or can’t afford a $37 dollar emergency.

3. Reading for comprehension. I’ve responded to approximately 200 emails from people who “can’t find the schedule” for this week’s event. Look, numbnuts. You literally had to scroll past the schedule to find the group email address that lands stupid questions in my inbox. If reading for comprehension is a measure of how qualified companies or individuals are to provide services under contract, I’ve got an impressive list of them that should be rejected out of hand as not meeting minimum quality standards.

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. 

A non-fiction problem…

I’ve got a problem with non-fiction. Well, technically that’s not true. I’ve been devouring non-fiction since I was a kid. What I have a problem with is my own non-fiction section. Aside from the decided focus on Western Civilization that’s sure to mark me out as an unenlightened, un-woke heretic of the modern era, titles are wildly wide-ranging. I have books in the to be read stacks ranging from the Greeks and Romans to biographies of Thomas Wolsey to volumes on the western water crisis to sweeping door stops covering Imperial Russia. It’s an embarrassment of riches at my fingertips. 

I wonder, though, if it’s not time to close the aperture a bit and pick a few periods on which to concentration my interest. Is it time to shift gears from being a generalist consumer of history to something more focused?

If so, what periods? Republican Rome though the fall of the western empire surely make the cut. Britain from the age of Victoria back to the dawn of time for sure. America from colonization through the Federalist era. The age of fighting sail. World War II. The American presidency. I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed at first blush. I know that doesn’t feel particularly focused, but all things are by comparison. 

I’m sure this is just a revisiting of the minor panic attack I had a few months ago about the fiction section being too wide ranging. Still, I think it’s worth considering if and how I should reevaluate what I’m reading. Time, by definition, is limited… and unless we stay in plague mode indefinitely, I won’t have a year to match the reading I did in 2020 and 2021 until 2035 at the earliest. That’s a depressing thought – oddly more depressing in my mind than the idea of quarantines and lockdowns continuing into the future.

I suppose all this is just another reminder that I need to do another round of curation, free some titles back into the marketplace, and relegate others to deep storage in anticipation of the day when I won’t have to be quite so selective about what book comes off the shelf next. 

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.

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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The office. Days I have to schlep over to the actual office to do things I’ve been successfully doing from my living room for a year are annoying. And not just for the usual reasons surrounding spending a day locked in cubicle hell. A not minor part of the annoyance package on those days is the fact that right out of the gate it means I’m losing 80-90 minutes of quality reading time just to get over there. It just adds insult to injury.

2. Emotional responses. It seems that Ted Cruz flew to Cancun while the power was out in Texas. Sure, the optics aren’t ideal, but if Ted stayed in Texas, do you really think he’d be sitting in the dark just waiting for the lights to come back on? Unless your senator moonlights as a power plant operator, electric lineman, oil well repairman, or LP gas tanker captain, there’s very little role for him beyond making phone calls and prodding the people who run the grid to get their act together, which could be done from Houston, Washington, Cancun, or the International Space Station. Honestly the last thing anyone needs in a disaster situation is one more politician wandering around getting in the way of emergency responders. Having worked a fair amount of my early career in emergency management, I can’t remember a single thing that was improved when the politicians showed up in the room for their photo op. 

3. Prediction. Let me start by saying that I recognize that “the weather” is a ludicrously complicated system. Predicting how it’s going to behave at one particular spot on the globe at any given time involves huge assumptions and massive amounts of computing power. With that said, three weeks ago the experts were calling for 4-6 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Last week the experts called for 4-8 inches of snow. We ended up with two inches of slush. Today, the experts called for another 4-8 inches of snow. Thus far, the results have been less than an inch of sleet, freezing rain, and snow. I’m not saying the daily weather forecast is absolute hokum, but maybe instead of trying to project exact details, we focus more on whether the storm will produce liquid or frozen precipitation and leave it at that since nailing the details seems awfully problematic.

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.

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.