(As I said in previous post, this is an essay that will be cross-post as a page, accessible through the drop-down menus above. For now it’s just a post.)
Anyone entering my home over the past 30 years, maybe even over the past 40 years ago in the tiny apartment I lived in during my mid-20s, would first notice that my life has been dominated by books. Not just science fiction books, but also books on science and philosophy and religion, general literature, reference books, textbooks.
Dysart asked “Why, ultimately, me?” I can’t answer why, ultimately, books. Why are some people attracted to reading, or any other interest, and others not? Clearly there is a range of personality types that influence such tastes, but why any particular personality and not some other? I think part of it is random genetic shuffle, and part is early childhood experience. So, while I can’t answer why I developed a passion for books, I can trace back the events in my earlier life that triggered it.
And I can make some general comments about how a bookish person thinks about and treats books, that non-bookish people don’t appreciate.
- In retrospect it’s curious that my family, that is my parents, did not read books or provide them to their children. There were no picture books in the house when I was growing up, no Cat in the Hat or other Dr. Seuss books, nothing like that. My parents didn’t read books. They watched TV. (But never went to movies.)
- And yet my parents must have felt some certain responsibility to provide classical education to their children. I see from my notes that our household acquired a set of Harvard Classics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Classics) , a 50-volume set of classic literature, philosophy, and science, as early as 1962, when I was in 2nd grade! And later, a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, a set of the Book of Popular Science, a set of a children’s books called A Bookshelf for Boys and Girls (my favorite volume of which was called “Things to Make and Things to Do”). These sets of books lay in the background as I grew up; I consulted them routinely. By middle school age, I was seen as a boy who read the encyclopedia. More about this here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2016/06/07/growing-up-with-books/
- The only household books remotely fictional (well, some of the Harvard Classics were classic plays) were 8 volumes in a set called Book Trails, collecting fairy tales and adventure stories in volumes beginning “For Baby Feet” and ranging to “Of Trail Blazers.” Somehow I’ve inherited only six of the eight volumes; I seem to recall some reason the set was split up between me and my cousin Paula, but then why would I have gotten 6 of the 8? Oh I know—I just realized. It was because when the split was made there were three kids in my family (so it must have been around 1963) and one in Paula’s. Thus the split. Such a split sends shudders down the spine of any book collector, of course.
- I discovered books on my own at the school library, in 5th or 6th (I had gone to that library in Santa Monica in 2nd grade, but don’t remember anything I read there.) I liked certain mystery novels, I adored the series about the Melendy Family (by Elizabeth Enright) especially Spiderweb for Two, a puzzle/mystery novel involving a family of children following a series of clues that one year at Christmas I emulated (putting a paper clue inside an ice cube in the freezer, e.g., for my mother to find). And my favorites were a series of novels by an English writer, Enid Blyton, the Adventure books, about a family of four children who went off on “holiday” several times a year and discovered various amazing criminal plots, in mountains, valleys, rivers, castles. (More about those here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Views/?p=269 )
- And I discovered my own books, books that I purchased and owned, also in about the 6th grade, where Scholastic Books catalogs were distributed in class, money was brought from home and orders placed, and books would arrive, one per classroom, weeks later. Much more about this and later processes here: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2016/06/30/15-ways-of-buying-a-book-part-1/.
- From late elementary school, then, through my mid-20s, I acquired books of my own, given my limited resources, but also drew on libraries, both public and school. I read a lot of early Heinlein from libraries, before I later bought copies of my own. For a period in college (still living at home), I went to the public libraries (in Northridge and Granada Hills) and checked out stacks of 10 nonfiction books every two weeks. I didn’t read them thoroughly, of course, but I paged through them and gleaned a lot about the range of their topics. (Histories of classical music; chemistry and physics textbooks.) I was doing light inspectional reading, as described below.
- Once I had a full-time job and could afford to buy whatever books I wanted, I had enough to read and stopped going to libraries. And I’ve rarely been in a library since. As I write in April 2020, about two years ago I checked out a couple branches of the Oakland Public Library. They were pleasant, half-filled with computer stations and shelves of DVDs rather than shelves of books. The science fiction shelves were scattershot; seemingly random volumes by many major SF writers, but not the best volumes but all the best writers. In the nonfiction shelves, e.g. cosmology or evolution, it was a decent mix, but my thought was that my own library at home was better.
Here are some topics about what people who don’t read books think about people who do, and who have large libraries.
- Have you read all those books? Accumulating a library is not about reading a lot of books and keeping them. It’s not like having a record/CD collection, where presumably you listen to every new item at least once, and keep everything for future repeat listening. It’s not a pantry, which you keep restocking steadily because you use every item eventually. A library is a collection of resources. It’s a collection of things that interest you, that you might want to visit. There is never enough time to read all the books that interest you. But you keep them, because you don’t know what your future self might deem interesting, even urgent.
- (As a side point – there are readers of books who treat books like, oh, movies or TV shows, to be seen or read once and then disposed of. This is why on Amazon, or at bookshops like Half Price Books (https://hpb.com/), there are dozens of copies of just-published books that have been quickly read and then put up for re-sale. These readers do not keep books, they don’t have libraries; these readers are transactional, not intellectual.)
- Downsizing and regrets. Over the years I’ve been in situations where it’s seemed reasonable to sell off books I’ve collected, because of space issues, or because I think my tastes have changed and I can identify books I will never have any reason to read or look at ever again. Again and again, at least in a few specific cases, I have been wrong. I keep discovering reasons why I want to see this or that book that I no longer have anymore. This meshes with the point that a library is a resource that is larger than what interests you at the moment. Still, practical issues intervene, and so in late 2014 I sold off, to the Iliad Bookshop in Burbank (https://www.iliadbooks.com/), some 30 or 50 boxes of books (a couple thousand books, I think) that I thought unlikely I would ever actually need to read, prior to moving to the Bay Area in early 2015. And of course, some of them I miss, especially some of the anthologies I could have used for my current anthology project.
- How to Treat Books. Transactional readers treat books like tissues to be used once and disposed of; thus, in used book shops, you see paperbacks with bent spines and hardcovers with cocked spines. Those of us who respect books treat them kindly. You don’t crack the spine. You don’t bend the cover. You don’t open the cover of a paperback and put a crease in the middle with your finger, the way you might a magazine. A new hardcover – this was true decades ago, not so much now, when books seem to be better built – needed to be broken in: you set the book spine side down, you opened a few pages on the left, and few pages on the right, back and forth, a few pages more, on each side so the spine would open it evenly, without creating any kind of spine cock (e.g. as seen here: http://www.mywingsbooks.com/coll-terms/spn_.shtml )
- The result is I have a library of 8000 books where – except for those few books I bought used, in bad condition – you can’t tell whether or not I’ve read them. They are all in perfect condition. I’ve read about half of them, and hope to have time to read many more.
- How do you decide which books to buy? Several strategies.
- You go to bookstores and browse. When you’ve read a book by some author and liked it, you look for other books by the same author. If you have an interest in a particular subject, you look for new books on that subject.
- As I mentioned elsewhere, I developed a brand loyalty early on. The Bradbury paperbacks I’d bought were published by Bantam; several Clarke reissues in the late ‘60s were published by Ballantine. And so I was more inclined to buy a Bantam or Ballantine book by an author I hadn’t heard of, than a book from some other publisher, like Berkley or Lancer. This is a dicey strategy however. There really are differences between publishers, at any given time and for any particular subject. But these differences change every few years, as the industry changes and editors come and go.
- Better strategies are to read reviews and pay attention to awards. No strategy is guaranteed because tastes are different, but over time you learn which reviewers to trust, i.e. who seem well-informed and whose recommendations are worth following, and which awards to trust, given the people who vote for them and the kind of books that keep winning those awards.
- One trigger in this regard was my inspiration to start reading The New York Times, around 1991, because a friend I met at the time and admired would read it every Sunday. So I started driving to a newsstand every Sunday morning to buy it, and some years later, subscribed to it daily, as I still do. NYT has the most substantial book review section of any publication in the country – and from there, especially, I first heard of substantial nonfiction books that I might not otherwise have known about.
- How do you read a book? Not a silly question. You start at the beginning and continue until the end, right? For novels and short stories, sure.
- For nonfiction, not so much. One of the best books I’ve ever read was called How to Read a Book; I reread it recently, in 2016 (http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2016/03/01/rereading-how-to-read-a-book/). The idea for nonfiction begins much as you would do for books at a bookstore. You pick it up, read the flap copy, the back jacket; look at the table of contents; glance through the index if there is one; see if its intent is scholarly enough to have bibliography and notes at the end. Read opening pages of a chapter here and there to get a taste of the prose style. This is inspectional reading. This enables you to consider many books quickly—in order to decide which ones are worth more time. (Not mentioned in that book, but another perfectly reasonable way to get a take on a book is to see who blurbs it – who provides the laudatory quotes on the front or back jackets. Some authors (E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker) I respect enough to follow them everywhere, to take any of their recommendations strongly. Other people I might take as a reason to avoid a book, Dinesh D’Souza for example, or Deepak Chopra.)
- Then there’s analytical reading, which I do by taking detailed notes as I read; and syntopical reading, where you pose a thesis and examine books that address the issue. I do the latter often, as I state in my summary/reviews on my blog, by posing questions at the very beginning, even if it’s a vague, what can this book (on a subject I know well) tell me that I don’t already know?).
- I confess I’m too OCD to apply inspectional reading to books already owned, even though I have some 2000 substantial nonfiction books and am unlikely to live along enough to analytically read half of them. I keep thinking I should try; take a dozen books on similar themes, spend an hour on each, and have some idea of what they claim. Maybe soon.
- Also, even reading fiction isn’t as simple as reading from start to end. In just the way I take notes on nonfiction, I take notes on fiction. (Usually handwritten notes as I read in an armchair, later written up into a computer file. More often lately, sitting at the computer and reading the book to one side, writing notes as I go. Much more efficient. This is why some of my blog posts summarizing nonfiction books are really long. To counteract such long summaries, my current strategy is to reread the long notes and then summarize in a few bullet points the themes and conclusions of the book at the top of the post that can be seen in one screen.)
- This whole business of taking detailed notes is necessitated, for me, by having a poor memory for things that I’ve read. After a year or two, I barely remember the contents of a book in any but the most vague way. I’ll forget how the novel ended. Didn’t the villain die at the end? Did the hero get home? That’s one reason I’m rereading a lot of classic sf novels recently, because there’s no way I would be able to discuss them based on 30 year old memories (and secondary sources that provide summaries and commentary often aren’t very good and are, well, second-hand; the point of my discussing them is to provide some unique insight).
- Having notes enables me to retrieve in detail the contents of books I read years or decades ago. Thus I read Silverberg’s Collision Course a full year ago, but was able to pull up my notes and fill them out into a substantial summary review for Black Gate (just posted as I write: https://www.blackgate.com/2020/04/09/a-fascinating-ordinary-1950s-sf-novel-robert-silverbergs-collision-course/). Thus the John Allen Paulos book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, which I read way back in 1997, but took notes on, which took only minor ironing into full sentences to post here on the blog. (I have such detailed notes on about 200 nonfiction books, only maybe three dozen of which I’ve posted.)