Saturday, September 15, 2007

Meditations of a Bibliophilic Nomad

Warning: Extremely Stream-of-Consciousness Post Ahead!

Still preoccupied with the various tasks associated with moving, and therefore neglecting the blog.
Moving gives life a syntax, a grammar. It allows us to gaze Janus-like at the path behind us and the road ahead.
The Dragon is of course a lazy nomad. I seem to camp out somewhere for a period of years, before moving on, and have yet to find a place I would truly call home. Olympia has been great, but it's time for a new place.
When I reflect back on my time in the Puget Sound, the predominate theme seems to be books. We just finished packing up the majority of our library, and have about two dozen average size boxes. Of course there are still a few shelves worth of titles which for one reason or another we want readily accessible until the last possible moment.
I heard somewhere once that wizards and sages draw power and wisdom just from the presence of a strong library. I think some glassy eyed Wiccan told me that, though it may have come from a fantasy paperback, or even a dream. Regardless, there is a sentiment in that statement which I strongly second.
I feel naked if I can not easily put my hand on certain tomes. Ralph Mayer's Artist's Handbook, and David Gottesgern's similar guide to the materials and techniques of painting, for example. Then there are the books I've been meaning to get around to, and am not yet willing to admit the cause is lost, even in the face of moving. A current example is Letters from the Earth by Samuel Clemens. Twain is on my mind a lot lately, as mid-west boy who's traveled extensively through the west, and looks to be settling down back-east. In fact, he settled a scant few miles from where Jes and I will be renting a quaint little carriage house. While we were visiting for Barbara and Dave's 50th, we were able to hit up the Mark Twain Library's book sale. So that's another 5 or 6 boxes of books which are already waiting for us in CT. Not to mention probably another two-dozen or so boxes which I have stashed in Arkansas and Kansas.
If you couldn't already tell, I waver between feeling guilty and greedy about books, to feeling self-righteous and snobbish about them. Though I am a voracious reader, I have immense volumes of references on subjects which I am tangentially interested in, which I have never cracked, but will fight tooth and nail to keep. Because someday, it will come up.
My good friend Bart, back in Little Rock introduced me to a programmer's corollary to the adage about wizards and sages not long before I moved to Oly. For programming it's not necessary to know every command and algorithm, so much as to know basic syntax and structure, and know where to go to find everything else.
So yeah, when I find a definitive work on a topic or in a field, especially if it is area I think I may to deal with in the future, I pick it up.

Which leads me to this genius question on Metafilter: What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?

There are more jewels in that thread than I can catalog here. It's certainly a heck of a starting point for a reference library. (I don't have a Metafilter account, but if I did, I would add James Elkins's What Painting Is, for those who desire a layman's introduction to the discipline of painting.) Were you to seriously read a chunk of these books, I daresay you'd end up with at least as strong an education as most folks get from a liberal arts bachelors degree.

Anyway, I originally moved to Olympia to go to back to college, but after graduation, I stayed for the books. I've heard it said that college is important for geeky folks (who tend to be perpetually self-educating) because it introduces you to important books you might not have come across otherwise. This was certainly true in my case, with the added Evergreen bonus of seminars in which group discussion of the reading material significantly deepened the understanding provided by lectures and individual reading. But academia is only a small part of why I will always associate Oly with the printed word.

Around Labor Day 2003, the crew at Last Words Books asked me to join as a partner. I'd been working a summer job at the school's digital imaging studio, and spending most of my free time hanging with the bookstore boys, and the fit seemed right. In a fit of irrational enthusiasm I joined up. And books became my life... for a few years at least.

This essay began as an attempt to grasp how that experience has impacted me, but even with such a long lead-in, the task seems Herculean.

The modifier "meta" keeps coming to mind, and not just because Metafilter seeded these ruminations. Running a bookstore develops your meta-knowledge. Your knowledge about knowledge. You may not have all the answers, but you have a pretty good idea of where to begin looking for them. After a while, you become like a walking Whole Earth Catalog.

And it changes how you look at people. Your understanding of people both deepens and becomes more superficial. You become the kind of social monstrosity who inspects a host's bookshelves somewhere between the introductions and the second glass of wine. If like me, you ride the Myers/Briggs border between E and I, you begin to develop relationships with folks whose names you don't know, but you know just what author and title they need to read next. You give yourself extra-points if they a) have never heard of said author/title and b) end up loving it.

Recently, I've been thinking about how I've become a book-snob. It's hard for me to accept, but it's true. During my formative reading years, I cut my teeth on mass-market science fiction, pulp as it were. Or what Jes, in bartender's parlance, calls "Pabst."
Now sometimes you don't want to slowly sip on an 18-year old single malt Sartre or Camus, so much as you just want to slam back a nice unimposing Stephen King PBR. I get it, I really do. Of the two dozen boxes clustered around our wood stove, at least four of them are solely comics and graphic novels, for Buddha's sake.

Jes likes really pulpy fiction. What I think of as Pop-fiction. She'll buy a Stephen King book she hasn't read, and she'll keep one she has. Now, I'm not so much a snob that I won't read Stephen King. I've enjoyed several of his stories, and there are some I haven't read which I'm looking forward to getting around to. But I just can't see myself buying them, and I cringe at the thought of them taking up permanent shelf space, space which could instead be inhabited by Ken MacCleod, or Richard Brautigan.

I guess I think of my personal library as a home for books that are special to me. Stephen King doesn't belong, because well if I get the itch for that I know it will be easy to find, and the itch will generally not be so overwhelming that I need it "right now!" On the other hand, if I get the itch to Etidorpha, it might take me some time or expense to find a copy.

So, without much further ado, a list of what is on the Dragon's bookshelf until/during the move:

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punishment, The Order of Things
John Berger, Ways of Seeing a classic, for when I might need some "comfort food" reading.
Jon Longhi, Everyone at the Funeral Was Slamdancing, The Rise and Fall of Third Leg (both signed, no less!) Longhi is the shiznet! We Gen-X mofos have waited too long for our own Bukowski, our own Kerouac, our own Pekar. Longhi is it. You know that grandpa hipster in your scene, who's a genius, but focuses all his talents on getting high and scoring babes, well Longhi is that guy if he actually finished his novel. And then wrote another one. I loved Wake Up and Smell the Beer, and can't wait to sink my eye-teeth into these. For any doubters out there, Longhi has gotten R. Crumb to do covers for both of his novels.
Richard Brilliant, Portraiture
Harold Norse, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel
James Morrow, Towing Jehovah I'm most of the way through this, but think it might make a good book for Jes and I to read to each other during the drive.
Terry Prachett, Going Postal Jes is in the middle of this, and it looks like a fun read.
John Kennedy Toole, Confederacy of Dunces Because it's been far too long, and I'm hoping to get Jes acquainted with Ignatius J. Reilly.
Vincent Van Gogh, Dear Theo A collection of Vinnie's letters. Again, comfort reading.
Charles Bouleau, The Painter's Secret Geometry One of the few books I scored at the Twain Library Sale which merited being shuttled cross-country twice. I've started it, but it's dense and meaty, so I plan to take my time digesting it.
Haynes, Vespa P Series Manual 'Nough said.
David Hough, Proficient Motorcycling A two-wheeler's bible. I won't feel comfortable packing it until the Vespas are loaded on the truck.
Berke Breathed, The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos Light bathroom reading.
Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near Heavy bathroom reading.
Various Authors, Various Html, web design, and photoshop manuals For a project I hope to unveil soon...
Kevin Siembieda, The Palladium Role-Playing Game Revised Edition For reasons which will be illuminated in a later blog-post.

There you go, not exactly a Desert Island island, just a what I need to get through the next month list. Granted, I'll probably be adding a graphic novel or two to that list in the next couple of weeks.

If you seek further understanding of both why I had to join the Bookstore, and why I had to leave, I direct you to the BBC comedy series, Black Books, which sadly, is funny 'cause it's true.

In closing I give you the Last Word Books Late-Night Computer Elf Mantra:

"Books! Books! Books!"


Anonymous said...

Bibliophilia - that's a genetic defect isn't it? I found I had the gene as a 4-year-old clutching my first library card. Now, it is readily apparent, that I have passed it on to you.

I haven't started a list of stuff I'm looking forward to, but I do have stacks in a couple of places of 'to be read' but often pass over these stacks for an old favorite or a lonely tome that I'd really been meeting to get to. No, I save the list making to my reading journal - lists of books acquired in the back and annotated list of books read in the front.

An addiction, but a sweet one. I do regret that on my last trip, a short jaunt to Philly, I did have time to find a bookstore. I did, however plunk down way too much for a very word-intensive exhibit catalog for the King Tut exhibit that I will tear into soon. Just as soon as I finish the Tao of Tai Chi Chuan and the latest William Gibson, both of which I am in the middle of right now.


Honky-Tonk Dragon said...

I haven't kept a reading list since High School, I'd be a little scared to, honestly.
I've had my eyes peeled for Spook Country for a while. Gibson, along with Sterling, Macleod, and Stephenson, is one of those writers that I buy 1st printing hardcovers first, and ask questions later. Unfortunately, my time as a bookseller has reinforced my reluctance to pay cover price, and a nice new copy hasn't fallen into my grubby talons yet.