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.

Envy

Looking at my résumé, I feel like I have to justify the decisions I’ve made. It’s not the curriculum vitae I thought I’d have. At each step along the way, each fork in the road I took made sense. Looking back, there’s some regret — and envy. Regret that I didn’t see opportunities, not of my decisions. Envy of those with different luck, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And envy of my children, who have a long road still ahead of them, full of possibility.

I, on the other hand, often feel hedged about by my past, such that I’m lost, and almost paralyzed by expectations.

Which way do I go?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

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.

Inky Fingers

There’s something about the smell of fresh ink. Each time I enter a bookstore, I pick a book from the shelf, riffle the pages, and bury my nose in it. Ink is the smell of hope and wonder.

You can get it delivered daily with a newspaper.

Down the alleyway from our house, past the county courthouse and jail, was the newspaper office and print shop. The publisher didn’t much care for my hanging about, but he did tolerate me enough to print a couple of book reviews. I don’t recall talking to anyone much, just standing there, inhaling the ink, and dreaming over the supplies in the front cabinet — though there was that one time when I asked for an estimate on a print run for a fanzine. I may have asked for a job once, but no help was needed. The Recorder is still there; the press is not. The offices no longer smell of ink.

I have in my library a pile of newspapers, mostly unread, collected from places I’ve been. Not quite sure how I picked up the habit, but I tend to snag the local paper when I travel. Some places offer choices: perhaps a free weekly in addition to a daily, or one from the Big City somewhat further away. Cincinnati offered the Enquirer and the Post when we were in Loveland; one set of grandparents read The Inter-Mountain, the other read the News Leader during the week, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday. The Really Big City papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, weren’t available everywhere, only in airports and near those cities. Maybe most people don’t feel that so many papers available and news-stands virtually everywhere is the one of the more exciting things about New York, so I’ll accept that I might be little odd.

But it was a bit of a shock to find that London, England, had even more. I gathered up The Times, The Sunday Times (found out that they were different), The Independent, The Observer, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, and more! That was a fun week in 1992.

Why does London have more papers than New York? Does it have more interesting newspapermen?

I worked in a print shop for a while, one which had a four-color offset press. But the Benjamin Franklin printing office in Philadelphia screamed out ink in louder, bolder type.

 

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stanford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.