Friday, June 03, 2005

Book meme tag

Ilona tagged me with this book meme. I guess the idea is to tag people and get them to reveal what books they have owned, read, etc.
I can't do this as neatly as other people. It's too complicated and I'm too poor at cooking things down to a few lines. Instead I have written an essay.

Total books owned, ever...
Last book I bought...
Last book I read...
Five Books that mean a lot to me...

At some level I knew that I would eventually have to write about my connection with books and reading. It’s rather like trying to remember how it was to nurse, then learning to use a bottle, and end up knowing how to handle tableware to eat. Where do I start?

There is a lot that I don’t remember. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t drink coffee, for example. I can recall going round the table after the meal and checking out the cups of adults to get that last little sip from the bottom. Before good filters and percolators coffee had grinds, so no one finished a cup. That “last drop” thing was a marketing notion by Maxwell House, but no one I knew ever drank it. A kid like me could usually find enough to taste, and if you were lucky there would also be some undissolved sugar that made it almost as good as candy, but you had to be very careful not to get the grinds in your mouth.


Back to books. My mother’s parents were both book people. Her mother was a teacher (elocution, already) and her father a minister. Mom taught school a couple of years, but she didn’t have the temperament for it and my father felt she should be at home with my sister and me anyway. As a minister and author of one book, my grandfather had endless numbers of books, a few of which are in my little library, including Hebrew grammar books, an early Nave’s Topical Bible, The Harvard Classics, a string of books on Presbyterian church history, collections of sermon notes by world scholars, and a couple of copies of his book. There is a great family story that when my grandmother finished college (1912?) she had a job selling Compton’s Encyclopedia, traveling by horse and buggy. I think her love of books may have been one of her qualities that appealed to him.

My wife is not a book person, but her grandpa was, so we also have books from his collection, including the Lincoln Library and a wonderful “Book of Nature”, 1875, sub-titled “Structure and uses of the organs of life and generation of man and woman intended especially for the married, or those intending to marry.” 180-plus pages, about six-point type with almost no illustrations. Her grandpa was a treasure of a man, interested in everything. When radio was first being broadcast, he build his own crystal set and was able to tell how exciting it was that a vacuum tube was finally invented. He had a professional-grade camera that used glass negatives, about 4 by 5 inches, that had to be loaded into cassettes and slid into the back to take pictures one at a time. He had the first motorcycle in his community, got a certificate in accounting at the age of sixteen and grew up to be a free thinker. We are not sure which place he may have gone when he died. His faith was not quite Unitarian, but close enough to risk damnation.

When his estate was liquidated I had to watch books by the hundred going out in cardboard boxes because we didn’t have a way to store them. It was a sad sight, the significance of which was not lost on me. I have made it a habit to keep my collection under control. Anything that can be bought at any bookstore – popular novels, reference, classics, etc. – I don’t care about owning. I try to hold on to books that I might not be able to get easily. Old, curious, or early edition books I hold on to. I also have books of local interest, as well as my collection of books from the sixties that have to do with black history and civil rights.

The advent of the Internet has curtailed my avid love of books. I have come to realize that books are tools, means to an end. Except for those having sentimental value, I don’t have a need to acquire books any more. Having downsized a few years ago, I suppose we have fewer than eight hundred books in the house. Ironically, we just moved into a new house less than two years ago and for the first time I have shelves that are almost enough to display all my books. Sigh. But they do look good.


I skim a lot, because I am a slow reader when I pay attention. I graze at reading most of the time, but I pay attention when it is a topic that I am trying to understand. Of course one can’t very well graze at writing, but I recognize levels of intensity in writing that almost reflect grazing in the degree of shallowness. I am reminded of a friend, now long gone, who was defending a thesis. One of his examiners said, “Roy, your problem is that when there is a question, you don’t just answer the question. Instead you Address the Issue. As a result you are almost never specific. That is unfortunate, because when you are specific, you are almost always wrong.” That is a problem I try to avoid, but I am aware of being long-winded. I know that when I edit myself, I find a lot that can be eliminated.

In my younger days I read voraciously. I remember a summer or two that I spent reading Russian novels, because they were so long that I couldn’t get them into the school year. By the time Dr. Zhivago was filmed I had already read the book, as well as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and a few short stories by Chekov. I discovered a proper public library when I was fourteen and thought I had died and gone to heaven. They even had records, so I could listen to music as well. That was 1958 and after. I took an early interest in psychology because I was always interested to know why people acted as they did. All the moving around made me very flexible, but socialized in only the most superficial way. I guess that is why human behavior has always interested me.

Before I got to high school I attended five elementary schools in Kentucky and Georgia, neither of which is famous for education. I had the privilege of going to a one-room school in Kentucky for almost two years – grades two and three, a training school for teachers who would be going into similar situations when they were assigned to isolated places in the mountains. We had six grades, with a row for each grade. There were four people in my grade, two boys and two girls. The biggest grade had seven students. There were separate outdoor privies for boys and girls. Mrs. Scott was the principle and it was a wonderful learning environment. Tests and study sheets were replicated by hectograph, a simple metal pan of gelatin that took purple ink from a master and released it up to ten or twelve times before it got too faded to read.

I’m skipping around, but hey, this isn’t a test. Maybe someday I will go back and clean it up…

The last book I bought was Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies, but I haven’t finished reading it. It’s more fun keeping up with her blog.

The most recent book I read for pleasure was The Life of Pi, Yann Martel. It is indescribable fiction by a gifted contemporary writer. The most unlikely of stories, and I found it to be more credible that I thought possible.

After I discovered ABE Books (American Book Exchange) online I decided I could get anything in print and most of what was no longer in print as well. The Guttenberg Project is also getting a lot of public domain stuff on line, little by little.

I can’t pick out five books that mean a lot to me. My grandfather’s book is one I think of, for obvious reasons. I read Don Quixote in a good translation (I think) after I got out of college and had time to read for pleasure, and it made a deep impression on me. Southern writers are special to me, particularly Lillian Smith and Carson McCullars. Why? I can’t say in a sentence or two, except to mention that I had the same high school teacher that taught Carson McCullars years before and I thought that was cool. Robert Coles’ studies of Dorothy Day and Eric Erikson, and Erikson’s study of Ghandi impressed me deeply. Mortimer Adler’s ideas about education expressed in the Paideia Program have stuck in my mind. And Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics is part of my collection – representing a truly unique and under-appreciated figure.

That will have to do for now.

As for tagging five other people, I don't have that many contacts that would be interested. At least I don't think so. Very few people leave messages at my blog, and I really don't have much traffic. As I write I pretend to have about four to six people reading, not hundreds or more. It works for me.
And from the start I have not participated in any chaining, emails, campaigns, petitions, whaever. I don't like the arithmetic. Sorry.

1 comment:

ilona said...

It is amazing what you have done with a simple little meme.

A fireside chat; My maternal grandfather was a minister, too.