Sunday, October 2, 2016

Stacking the Stacks

There are certain technologies that I resist using, not because they baffle me but because they are esthetically unappealing. I realize that makes me sound like someone in 1905 insisting that a car is less appealing than a horse. (Come to think of it, I wrote exactly that in a blog a few years ago.) Much of my clinginess is to paper: I prefer paper checks to e-checks, paper currency to payments by iPhone, and paper books to ebooks. I don’t actually refuse to read digitized literature. If I don’t own a physical copy, am too cheap to buy one, and am too lazy to run to the library (a common triad of occurrences), I will click on or some similar site. But given my druthers, I’ll opt for a physical book in hand. A paper text has texture. It provides employment to four of the five senses: one sees, touches, smells, and hears the turning pages. I don’t taste my books; one has to draw a line somewhere.
Limited shelf space inevitably becomes a problem for anyone with this preference; I will grant that electronic books have an advantage in this regard. Due to the peculiarities of my home’s main-level floor plan I use the finished part of my basement as a library. There are presently 13 bookcases – several of them homemade, including the three in the pic – with room for somewhat more than 2500 books. Due to a slow but constant influx of new titles, the shelves require regular weeding to keep from overflowing, especially since I like to allow a little space on each shelf in order to accept new titles within the existing organization. All weeding methods are idiosyncratic: mine is the “hypothetical re-read” standard. I’m not going to re-read all 2500 books. That’s just a fact. There is not enough time. However, if in principle I might re-read a particular book, I will deem it shelfworthy and keep it; if I know for a fact that I wouldn’t re-read it no matter how much time was available, the book goes. At this stage in my life a majority of those “in principle” keepers surely will remain un-reread, but I don’t know which ones.
I made the short one for oversize books
I test the success of the weeding process every now and then by plucking a book at random: any one of them should be re-readable if I’ve done the job right. One I plucked a few evenings ago while chilling out after a very good but most un-chill George Thorogood concert was fortuitous for the season: Election Day 2084. It meets the standard. Edited by Isaac Asimov, it is a collection published in 1984 (which might have been the last time I read it) of 17 classic science fiction stories in which elections are a significant part of the plot. The original publication dates of the short stories range from 1941 (“Beyond Doubt” by Robert Heinlein) to 1975 (“On the Campaign Trail” by Barry N. Malzberg). Science fiction always says more about when it was written than it does about the future, but the best of it transcends its time as well. Yes, I see the irony of enjoying futuristic stories on an obsolescent technology.
The tales are various and clever. Isaac Asimov’s “Franchise” postulates a kind of democracy in which the most average citizen is chosen by a computer that has access to all citizens’ records. The “elected” average citizen is then given a single intense interview (more psychological than political in nature), and the computer than uses this information as a basis for determining public policy. In Frederick Pohl’s “The Children of Night,” scientific propagandists are employed to sway a referendum that crucially will affect earth’s relations with aliens. In “Hail to the Chief” elections are just distractions; the real government is a shadow government by an unelected elite. (Actually a fair number of conspiracy theorists today believe this to be true: that the world is run not even by the 1% – who are just distractions for the wrath of populists – but by a 0.01% whose positions and assets are unassailable.) Politicians in Frank Herbert’s “Committee of the Whole” must deal with a world in which a new cheap laser device that can be assembled in basements makes private citizens as well armed as governments. Robert Heinlein’s fanciful tale explains Easter Island statuary as political campaign material for the ancient republic of Mu.
If there is a theme running through all of the stories, it is a fundamental distrust in democracy. One hears many such rumbles in 2016, but this collection reminds us they are nothing new. All the tales seem at least a little informed by the century-old remark by anarchist philosopher/activist Emma Goldman, "If voting changed anything, it would be made illegal." I suppose there are some who hope that is true.
Asimov went back on the shelf minutes before I started this blog. Another random pluck has delivered A Hell of a Woman, a 1954 noir novel by Jim Thompson. Not a bad pick: lowlifes, betrayal, crime, and gruff dialogue. I barely remember the plot, but I remember I enjoyed it the first time. I’ll probably enjoy it again. I’ll let you know.

Nothing to do with home libraries, scifi, or elections, but I did mention that the night with Isaac came after an evening with George:


  1. I can't say I've ever reread a book either, or even a comic book, though I've picked them up again, and reread parts of them or an issue or chapter. So I do wonder why after I've read them I keep them. It probably has more to do with my collector/hoarding mentality/mortality issues. That said though it is sometimes fun just to pick one up and take another look at it, particularly if it has nice art or photos in it.

    One thing for sure, if I already own a physical copy, I can't see buying a e-copy, though I'm sure that's what publishers would love us to do. Stephen King has said he does a lot of reading using an ereader these days. I can see that, but I'm sure he has more money and living space to store books than I do. But he says, he generally buys the physical book first, then the e-book. If I were younger say around the age of a Millennial, I'd probably opt for the e-book, so I wouldn't have to pack books when or if I needed to move. That seems to be one of their greatest advantage. Their disadvantage is they just don't showcase larger books, coffee table books, etc., very well. But they are fine for a lot of prose, classics and the like. If fact Amazon will let you preview for free some first chapters of books, and I've downloaded many of them. Recently read some King stuff: Joyland, Mr. Mercedes, 11.22.63, and a few other things. If I could find cheap used copies of them I'll probably pick them up. That's another issue. For the most part you can get a better deal used and sometimes new if you shop around, so that the ebook price is generally more.

    I like Thompson, Chandler, and a lot of that noir.

    1. I do like to re-read books for much the same reason that I rewatch movies or re-listen to music – though I grant that a 400 page novel is more of a re-commitment than is a three minute song. It’s like re-visiting an old bar or neighborhood: renewing half-forgotten ties.

      Yes, moving books is notoriously a bear. I fear the prospect of ever doing it again: next time a sale, giveaways, and a dumpster might be needed. I can see what King is getting at, I think: reading a physical book is more pleasurable but storing it digitally is more practical, so the former for the primary experience and the latter for long-term storage makes some sense. If it’s worth keeping at all, though, I’d personally just keep the book.