Escapism

I have not been bored since I learned to read. I would read anything and everything; and what with the public libraries and my family’s collection, I didn’t often run out of material. Unless there was a planning failure. If I forgot to stick a book in my pocket. Did you know other houses don’t have as many books? Did you know some have none?

Ours was a household of readers. We didn’t have a television until after I was the fourth grade, and that was a small black-and-white set kept in the spare room. Later, someone in the congregation gave us a cast-off color TV just before we moved back to Virginia. (My own sons are now that age. Time moved so slowly for me then.) I have few childhood memories of television shows; most are of books and places and playing. My grandparents’ houses were defined by smells and their libraries: brick, boxwood, and Classics Illustrated on Mom’s side; apples, bread, mathematics, photographs, and genealogy on Dad’s.

I would sit for hours and read, so deep in concentration that I couldn’t hear the world outside. Reading filled all the gaps in the day: walking down the street, sitting on the toilet, riding in the car, between classes. Still now when I finish a book I immediately look around for something else.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of doing something similar with other entertainments–grasping for the next movie, the next update, the next web page–until there are too many things all at once, pulling in a multitude of directions, and I feel torn limb from limb. I stay up late restless, unsleeping, unthinking.

What am I not doing?

An End is a Beginning

Time passes, and I feel a need to catch up with an old familiar friend. Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) passed on the 22nd. I can’t quite recall if I first met Rocannon’s World or A Wizard of Earthsea, though good money would bet on the latter. I imagined I had some other True Name, which seems the fantasy of a young boy. I almost wish I’d kept a diary of what I’d read when, as if these details matter.

Is there a book that changed your life?
Maybe the question should be: Is there a book that didn’t change your life? Reading a book is an experience, and every experience changes your life, a little bit or a lot.

There was this sense in many SF stories of the imminent possibility of a technological utopia, of the Teutonic cleanliness of Werner von Braun‘s space station as drawn by Chesley Bonestell or Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland, if only some minor barriers were removed. But in Le Guin’s work there was always a seed of doubt, the shadow of consequences, most starkly perhaps in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” So it was that when I found myself reading her The Dispossessed (1974) after Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), an anarchic world seemed realistic, possible, and desirable. One could be comfortable with uncertainty, and with ambiguity.

Always Coming Home1985 was a good year for the apocalypse, what with the Cold War not igniting. But that didn’t stop books like A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and The Postman (1985) from making an impression. I suppose it was not an accident that I spent almost as much time with Always Coming Home (1985) as I did browsing The Whole Earth Catalog. Luckily the library was generous, and did not mind that I kept renewing the book so I could read it again and listen to the tape. Probably it helped that I didn’t break the spine, or perhaps no one else knew it was there. However it happened, I’m glad. There was hope in it.

 

Solitude, the cover of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1993

When I rearranged some things the other day, I found the December 1994 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, featuring “Solitude,” by one Ursula K. Le Guin. Judging from the cover art it must be current; I’ve seen my children in that same posture.

I have only a handful of her works in my collection. Some have left over the years. Mostly it was the public libraries which were responsible for keeping us in touch: My only interaction with Ursula Le Guin was with her words. It’s fitting that she left those behind. I think I’ll go read some now.

Science Fiction was never entirely about The Future

I’ve been reading stories from the November/December 2017 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that I picked up at Barnes & Noble before Christmas. They seem so immediate. The first I read, “I Met a Traveler in an Antique Land,” by Connie Willis, was a pleasant tale of a new media guru encountering an archive of vanished books. It brought to mind the contrary impulse, regarding the second book of Aristole’s Poetics, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The second, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine,” by Greg Egan, about replacement of people by computers, was more difficult. Because everyone’s only purpose is a job. Not work to do something, not to create anything, not to solve curious puzzles, but a job to be employed by at the will of a mysterious Other, doing things that perhaps shouldn’t be done, occupation for idle hands, without meaning, only for money. Because without money we can’t buy; we can’t live.

Exploring this relationship between man and his work, between humanity and its creations, has been a common thread of inquiry for a long time now: Daedalus and Icarus; FrankensteinR.U.R.; I, Robot; The Silver Metal Lover.

I did finish the story. The solution it suggests is only slightly better than the Matrix.

What I Bought Today

It makes perfect sense, buying this. Now, this time of year when, more than any other time of year, it’s the time to buy things.

"To buy or not to buy?" New Philosopher, Winter 2017/2018

It was weird buying this, though, a thing about buying things. There are other things I could have bought, I suppose. Shiny things, perhaps. Heavy things. And things I could have not bought, which I did not buy, the lust for which the thing I did buy was only partial satisfaction. One thing instead of another.

Because, you see, the thing I want to buy is not really a thing. It’s a place, more like an idea of a place, or the ghost of an idea of a place.

When we’re small, we get these ideas of what we want to be from the people around us, from what we’re familiar with: firemen, preachers, teachers, farmers, horologists, lawyers, lowly worm… librarians, booksellers. Guess I’ve never really given up that idea. Early in Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, a steelworker speaks of his desire. I put the quote up on the wall.

I’d like to run a combination bookstore and tavern. I would like to have a place where college kids came and a steelworker could sit down and talk. Where a workingman could not be ashamed of Walt Whitman and a college professor could not be ashamed that he painted his house over the weekend.

Me too.

First World Problems

Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is possible to use adverbs on road signs. Drive Slow*ly*

This month’s additional practice is to not like anything on the Internet. To aid that practice, I’ve removed Facebook and Twitter from my mobile device. Apple’s iOS 11 then helpfully removed the ability to share things to those sites from outside of the apps. It’s like I’ve returned to the dark ages!

I’m somewhat amused by folks burying their noses in their devices while waiting instead of twiddling their thumbs or chatting with their neighbors, because I’ve done this since I learned to read: I carry a book with me. For some reason though, the meaning of reading a book in public has been one of intentionally ignoring one’s surroundings, while reading the Internet has not been — except in very worried articles on Internet usage. Perhaps this is because observers can’t tell whether one is reading War and Peace, looking at pr0n, catching up on the latest debacle in Washington, or exchanging longing emoji with one’s lover.

What I’m not amused by is the effect on posture. I’d love to know a way to read a book that’s easy, comfortable, and doesn’t lead to back and neck problems. A lectern, perhaps? Seems a bit bulky to carry in my pocket.

In other news, I’m changing how I link to books. I’ve been an Amazon affiliate since the program started, though in that time I’ve made a grand total of $0.00, because no one reads this website or buys books after clicking on the links. If I’m not getting a percentage from these linkages, then why should I link to Amazon instead of another bookseller? The initial choice of Amazon was made because I like their catalog — they had previews so you could skim the book before buying — and I buy from them. Also, they made it easier than other options. Going forward I plan to link to Indiebound or WorldCat. Not because I don’t like Amazon, but because I do like Pawling’s Book Cove and I do like libraries. We’ll see how this goes.

Also, I’m peeved that I haven’t located my hardcover copy of Connie Willis‘s Doomsday Book.

More Books Than Time

Looking at my shelves lined with books, I know where some of them are from, but not all. The newer purchases have no tangible memory with them. Oh, I know a bit about my life or my interests at the time; the subject matter prompts that memory. But there’s not the sense of choosing the book, of weighing it against another, of the particular shelf I pulled it from.

Some of the books have echoes of where they were first read, rather than bought, of when they came into my life. I can even pick out the books from Dover, the Book of the Month Club, Quality Paperback Bookclub, the Science Fiction Book Club — they have the same weightlessness that comes from looking at a catalog, but still do have a memory of their origin.

Camber of Culdi, et seq., came from the Little Professor after a day at the park. I was 10 or 11. I was glued to their one bookcase of science fiction and fantasy novels. Each visit there began the same way, and sometimes ended pleasantly.

Before leaving St. John’s College at the end of my year there, I bought The Hero with a Thousand Faces to take home with me. I’d been lusting after it for two semesters, but there were always other things to spend money on, like comics. Having my parents’ wallet that day helped.

Dad visited Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., one fine summer’s day, I think to use the library. I accompanied him. I found and borrowed Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, and purchased it later. The other volumes in Jeffrey Burton Russell’s series haven’t made it to my collection, yet; I enjoyed them from the library at Hampden-Sydney College.

I took the bus from Yorktown Heights to Times Square, then walked down Seventh Ave. to the Chemical Bank back office on W. 33rd St. I habitually cut through the Barnes & Noble across from Penn Station. If I had time, I stopped. I picked up Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, read it on the bus, and went on to the next the following day. One disadvantage of reading a long series all at once is noticing when the author uses the same description of a character every time.

One day on my lunch break at The Associated Press, shortly after installing Slackware Linux on a spare desktop, I browsed through the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, as I usually did at lunch, and picked up Learning the Unix Operating System and Essential System Administration. Thus began my infatuation with books published by O’Reilly.

It’s as if the act of choosing fixed the time and place, made the purchase more intense, though it may only seem this way because I was younger, before an increase in disposable income and Amazon let me fulfill my instant desires. Perhaps, also, it’s that many of these unremembered books have only been purchased; they have not been read. I have not spent time enough to become their friend.

Maybe I could live without the reminders. We do not all have Hermione Granger’s time-turner, and must carefully attend to what we have.

Library Hazards

Began work on organizing my collection of fiction today, and am very irritated.

One of the cats — I know which one — has taken it upon himself to urinate on the bottom shelves, thus limiting storage capacity, increasing the tipping hazard, and reducing the likelihood he’ll die a natural death. This is a tremendous annoyance, but is not, entirely, what has irritated me. I am missing books.

Except for one, which was relatively recently published, the missing books have been in my collection since before I left for college, thirty years ago. I did not give them away. I did not discard them. They aren’t out on loan. Maybe they’ll turn up elsewhere in the boxes, but I doubt it.

Many of my oldest friends are on these shelves. I like to sit and simply look at them. The volumes serve as an aid to memory. I remember reading those I have kept, often in a specific place and time. For many, I have memories of their purchase. I’ve kept them for these memories, and because one day I would have children who might want to read them.

Now I have a sample case. Maybe they’ll read one and want to get others from the public library.

My Sons Build Better Box Forts

My love and I put together the IKEA Billy bookcases for my library last Thursday. They had been occupying the hall, and my books boxes, due to certain logistical issues. Now the books are unpacked and shelved, but awaiting organization. I’ve sorted out the non-fiction and poetry, but I’m not happy with the result. I’m a bit too obsessive with things being symmetrical. The way this room is prevents shelf symmetry. If I didn’t already hate much of contemporary architecture, I’d despise it for this sophomore student’s effort alone.

One really should be able to execute traditional design before attempting something novel. There’s a good reason that roofs join the way they do. Well, at least now I can sit in the library rocking chair, hot tea by my side and cat on my book, while I watch the water damage for signs of a new leak.

And agonize over how to get the subjects to line up. Might have to buy more books.

a picture of the library ceiling

Dear Diary

I’m reading George Orwell’s diary and Samuel Pepys’s diary one day at a time in Google Reader, as the entries are published. The two diaries are a study in contrasts. Pepys’s is detailed, run-on, and full of name-dropping, politics, and plague. Orwell’s is about gardening and the weather, spiced with observations of Morocco. Lately though it has taken on a different character, as he has included clippings from newspapers with his comments.

70 years ago in August, Europe was fast approaching war.

Of the Character of one Mr. Brownlow

From There’s Pippins And Cheese To Come, by Charles S. Brooks (Yale University Press, 1917)

By some slim chance, reader, you may be the kind of person who, on a visit to a strange city, makes for a bookshop.

But the habit of reading at the open stalls was not only with the poor. You will remember that Mr. Brownlow was addicted. Really, had not the Artful Dodger stolen his pocket handkerchief as he was thus engaged upon his book, the whole history of Oliver Twist must have been quite different. And Pepys himself, Samuel Pepys, F.R.S., was guilty. “To Paul’s Church Yard,” he writes, “and there looked upon the second part of Hudibras, which I buy not, but borrow to read.” Such parsimony is the curse of authors. To thumb a volume cheaply around a neighborhood is what keeps them in their garrets. It is a less offence to steal peanuts from a stand.

So our dear Mr. Brownlow, respectable gentleman and thief.

‘The prosecutor was reading, was he?’ inquired Fang, after another pause.

‘Yes,’ replied the man. ‘The very book he has in his hand.’

‘Oh, that book, eh?’ said Fang. ‘Is it paid for?’

‘No, it is not,’ replied the man, with a smile.

‘Dear me, I forgot all about it!’ exclaimed the absent old gentleman, innocently.

‘A nice person to prefer a charge against a poor boy!’ said Fang, with a comical effort to look humane. ‘I consider, sir, that you have obtained possession of that book, under very suspicious and disreputable circumstances; and you may think yourself very fortunate that the owner of the property declines to prosecute. Let this be a lesson to you, my man, or the law will overtake you yet. The boy is discharged. Clear the office!’

Time to Read

Ernie says,

I’m reading more these days now that I have my Kindle.

How does having a Kindle give you more time to read?

I’m constantly reading, but it’s e-mail, web pages, and too much stuff for work. I need more time in the toilet library.

Mad Scientists’ Club

Who wouldn’t want to be a member?

The Bigger Sister is reading well beyond what the schools expect of her, so at the library the other day, I went looking for some books that I remembered from when I was around her age. Specifically, I looked for The Mad Scientists’ Club. They have one copy in the Mid-Hudson Library System, over at Union Vale, so we’ll get it on inter-library loan.

Then just now, after reading about the re-printing of Mr. Pine’s Purple House, I visited the site of the publisher, Purple House Press.

The Mad Scientists are back in print! And there’re more!

Andrew Sullivan: In fact, I’d argue, blogs could well be a milestone in the long history of journalism. By empowering individual writers, by reducing the costs of entry into publishing to close to zero, the blog revolution has only begun to transform the media world.

 

To write, the costs of entry are low, as soon as you become literate. To publish, however, the costs were high: ink, paper, and distribution. And so relatively few published. Now, the challenge is not to be published, but to be read.