Tag: libraries

My Book Collection: A Library and Antilibrary All in One

I am trying to remember what my book collection looked like in high school. It was, at most, half a shelf of paperbacks. Probably ten or fewer. Until I headed off to college, most of the books I read came from the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. In those days before college, it often seems like I spent a large chunk of my summers in the library. Once in college, however, I began to buy books and keep them. As Dickens said, it was the best of times and the worst of times for collecting books. The best, because I had my own space, and a small bookshelf on which I could keep my nascent collection; the worst, because I could not really afford to buy books, and always did so with trepidation and anxiety.

I went to school in the age before ubiquitous digital cameras and I know of no film of my burgeoning collection in its earliest stages, but if memory serves me, there were several Piers Anthony books, mostly paperbacks but a few hardcovers, especially of his newer stuff. There were some Harlan Ellison books, including a copy of Deathbird Stories, which still sits on my shelves today. It contains “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. There was a paperback copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and there was a paperback copy of Jumper by Steven Gould. By the time I was close to graduation in June 1994, there was a hardcover copy of I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov. It, and two other books, one Tony Robbins and one books on note-taking that was a game-changer for me, but which I’ve lost to the ages, made of the trio of nonfiction books on my shelf. I think that by the time I graduated, I had 15-20 books, not counting books for school.

Twenty-seven years later, my book collection has grown from those 15-20 volumes to something over 1,000 paper volumes. Eleven bookshelves fill three sides of my office. And while there is room to grow, it is extremely limited and that limited room has dictated how I add to my collection over time.

the books behind my desk
The books behind my desk.

The books that make it onto the shelves, the ones that survive the occasional purges and donations to local libraries and schools, are there for two reasons: (1) they are part of what I think of as a collection, one that has value to me; and (2) they are there as a reference for me to use when needed.

With each move, my books collection has grown as space permits. At some point, I began to think of it as a library as much as a collection. And with space limitations, what goes into the library is dictated by its value to me as a collector’s item. This became much easier to do when e-books and audio books made it easy to get a book that takes up no physical space. Books that I want to read but that don’t need to be part of a physical collection go into the digital library. Books that I want to be able to hold in my hands, books that have special value to me, go on the shelves.

Back when I started collecting books in college, e-books were nowhere in my imagination. When they first came out, I was dubious, as any bibliophile might be, but their convenience and ease of access quickly outweighed any objection I might have had to not having a physical copy in my hand. I bought my first e-book in 2008, and as of this writing, there are 512 e-books in my virtual library. I had a harder time with audio books. For a long time, I thought I could not listen to an audio book, that the added dimension would not work for me. Boy, was I ever wrong! Today, I use the term “reading” even when I listen to an audio book because I firmly believe they are equivalent–at least in terms of the text. As of this writing, I have 1,090 audio books in my Audible library. Putting all of this together, I have about 2,700 books in my collection, accumulated over 27 years, for a growth rate of about 100 books per year on average.

That’s a lot of books. Of the books sitting on the shelves in my office, or in virtual libraries in Amazon and Audible, I’ve probably read less than half. That number–the number of books I own but haven’t yet read–continues to grow as I accumulate more books. In a recent post, my friend Mike refers to these books–those that he owns but hasn’t read–as his TBR books (to-be-read) and they can feel daunting. Why, one might ask as he does in his post, should one continue to accumulate new books when there are already so many books on your shelves that you haven’t read?

I had an intuition for why I continue to do this, but it wasn’t until I read a post on Brain Picking’s about Umberto Eco’s antilibrary that I fully understood what it was I was doing. The key passage in that piece was a quote about Eco’s thoughts on books:

The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Reading is, and always has been, the primary way I learn things. I’ve often said that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think about what I read, and college taught me to learn. Since then, reading has been all about learning for me. Despite taking AP classes in biology, and physics, as well as chem and o-chem in college, I continue to believe that almost everything I’ve learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. I continue to accumulate books, despite having more unread books than read ones, for the very reason Eco describes: unconsciously or not, I want my library to contain as much of what I don’t know as I can manage. Mike’s TBR books are my antilibrary.

The other side of my office and most of the other bookshelves.

My library has gone through occasional purges, some of them tougher than others. The biggest and most recent was one in which I donated more than 200 books. These were books that I felt would not really damage my collection if they went away. They included nearly 100 Piers Anthony books that I’d painstakingly accumulated from those high school days. Indeed, I kept only a few Piers Anthony book, ones that I particularly enjoyed read, and one, Race Against Time, that I remember first reading in the Granada Hills library sometime in the 1980s and absolutely loving as a kid. I got rid of most of the Tom Clancy books I’d picked up, and all kinds of paperbacks. What stayed was the nonfiction, the stuff I hadn’t read, the stuff I didn’t yet know about.

My collection includes rare books, some of them dating back to 1865. I’ve got many signed books, most of which I was able to get signed myself, and quite a few by people who I’ve become friends with in my time as a writer. Many of the books in my collection are used, and there are all kinds of wonderful things that I’ve found in those used books. I have many first editions, and some rare editions of books by writers I admire, for instance, first editions of Isaac Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan. (His Annotated Paradise Lost still eludes me.) It contains an almost complete collection of original Astounding Science Fiction magazines from 1939-1950, many of which I’ve written about in my Vacation in the Golden Age series, and several of which are signed by Jack Williamson and A. E. von Vogt. It also includes a complete run of my favorite science fiction magazine, Science Fiction Age.

I am delighted sometimes, just sitting in the rail-chair in my office, surrounded by my books. I used to think it was the books themselves that delighted me, but what I realize now is that what I have collected is much more than book. It is a collection of things that I don’t yet know, but they are things that are within my grasp. All I have to do is reach for a shelf, pull out a book, sit down and begin reading.

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A Guy Walks Into a Library…

I took the girls to the library again so that they could return the books they checked out three weeks ago. They then wandered about looking for more books to check out. I think they like they concept of borrowing books. While I managed to resist the last time, this time, I couldn’t help me surrounded by so many books without taking a little time to browse. That browsing resulting in me checking out some books. That stack is now sitting on my desk at home:

the stack of books I got from the library

It has been a while since I have checked books out of the library. I support libraries, but I’ve reached the point where if I want to buy a book, or audio book, I buy it. I like thinking of it as mine, especially since I enjoy interacting with the book, marking it up with marginal notes, highlighting passages, etc. This has lead me to buy lots of books, although my tendency these days is to buy mostly digital copies: either Kindle or Audible. Now and then, I’ll buy paper copies for those books that I really enjoy and want on my bookshelves.

I was reminded today, there is something uniquely delightful about browsing books on a shelf and finding things I wouldn’t have find by simply browsing online. When looking at books organized on a shelf, I am essentially going through the collection alphabetically. There is no practical way to do this online. But the results are always interesting. This is how I managed to come up with a book called The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee (attracted by the words “catalogue” and “books”; and The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift. In that case, I recall reading Roads by Larry McMurtry years ago and enjoying it. Finally, I am sucker for big books, and The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley fit the bill in this case. Actually, my first choice had been an even bigger book on Abraham Lincoln, but when I pulled it off the shelf, I discovered it was Volume II. Volume I was nowhere in sight. (It was not the Carl Sandberg biography, which I read back in 2016.)

It’s nice to read actual paper books now and then, and there is something about how library books are protected with their plastic shields that make them even more enjoyable. Often, when I read one of my own hard cover books, I remove the dust jacket so that it doesn’t get messed up. That isn’t a problem with library books. I used to enjoy looking at the card flap to see how many people had checked the book out before me, and how often. They don’t have card flaps anymore, alas. Now everything is done by barcode.

The big dilemma I face borrowing a library book versus just buying it is how to handle annotating the book. Since it has been a long time since I borrowed library books, I feel as if I have to figure out a good way to handle this all over again. My thought is that I will use those little book post-its that I can stick to pages pointing to relevant passages as I read. When I have finished, I can go through all those passages and make my notes from where the stickies are. I can then remove the post-its before I return the books and they will be as if I’d never touched them.

I worry that I will be able to get through all three books in the allotted time. After all, I just started reading the first volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, which means it will be several days before I can get started on any of these new ones. But then again, I have three weeks; and our library system allows us to auto-renew up to two times for books that aren’t brand new and have wait lists. So I really have plenty of time.

More than likely, I will buy the audio book editions so that I can squeeze in reading when I am doing other things (I often read the e-book or a paper version in parallel with an audio edition) and that helps to speed things along. Audio books are great for multitasking, but terrible for taking notes and marking passages, which is where the other editions come in as handy companions. I suspect that when I finally do return these books, I’ll be browsing once again, and bringing home some more.

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One Last First Trip to the Library

One of the great pleasures of having a child five years younger than the next oldest child is that I get to revisit things that I did with the older kids, and maybe savor the moments a bit more than I did the first times around. Yesterday, for instance, I took the Littlest Miss to get her very first library card. She will turn five next month, and I’ve been promising to take her to the library for several weeks now. I’d been busy with work and other activities, but told her that we’d do it yesterday. She woke up excited to go to the library, asking over and over if it was time to go yet.

Libraries are incredibly important to me. My mom took me to our local library when I was about the same age as the Littlest Miss, and libraries have made a huge difference in my life. I learned to read in grade school. I learned to think critically in high school. I learned how to learn in college. But books gave me knowledge, took me around the world, deep into the atom, and far into space. The library I frequented in Los Angeles as a teenager even provided a haven during the hot summer months. I could walk there under the blazing sun, and then explore the rows of books for hours in the cool air conditioned space.

So I set out for one last first trip to the library. I took both my daughters to our local branch of the Arlington Public Library, my younger daughter to get her first library card, my older daughter to renew hers. The Littlest Miss could barely contain herself as she emerged from the car. Holding my hand, she pulled me along the sidewalk, down the small flight of stairs, and into the main entrance. It was hot and muggy out, but the air inside was cool and dry.

We went first to the circulation desk where the girls obtained their new library cards. They were given a choice of colors. The Littlest Miss chose pink. The Little Miss chose yellow. Once they had their cards, the Littlest Miss asked the librarian at the circulation desk where she could find the kids books. Then it was off to the races. I think she was a little overwhelmed by the rows and rows of books. I expected her to wander the aisles, trying to figure out what she wanted, but in less than a minute she had a book in hand.

The Littlest Miss among the books
The Littlest Miss among the books

“Can I get this one?” she asked, holding up a copy of Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway by Tim McCanna (and illustrated by Tad Carpenter).

“Of course,” I said. “Do you want to get another one, too?”

“Can I?” said said, eyes wide.

“Sure.”

So she quickly picked out two more books. Meanwhile, I helped the Little Miss locate a book that she was looking for. When they were ready, we headed over to the self-checkout station. I showed them both how to scan their library card, how to scan the books, how to get a receipt so that they know when they need to return the books. The Littlest Miss was delighted with all of this, and wanted to do it all herself. We thanked the librarian for his help, and then we headed back into the hot, humid air for the drive home.

I’m not sure what the Littlest Miss was more excited about, getting books, knowing that she can get more books when she is ready, or having her very own library card, which she put in her backpack so she’d know where it is.

Kids are so busy with activities these day that I suspect mine won’t spend nearly as much time as I did in the public library. But I try to encourage them to use it, and it was certainly an exciting morning for one little girl in particular. It is nice to see the kids excited about something that isn’t a YouTube or TikTok video. Over time, I’m hoping they find that the library is more than just a place to get free books. It’s a place to learn new things, read about people and places that they may be unfamiliar with, and maybe even discover a passion that they didn’t know they had. This is the real value a library provides: discovery–about the world and about themselves.

I’m grateful that I had one last first trip to the library.

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Quiet Places

A quiet place in Vermont
A quiet place in Vermont

With all of the noise we are surrounded by every day, I have been thinking about quiet places. They seem hard to come by in metropolitan areas, but when I look hard enough, I can’t occasionally find them. I feel as if I should start a collection of them, listing them out carefully so that I don’t lose them, and have access to them when I feel the need for quiet.

There are some basic requirements I have for quiet places. The first is that they have to be naturally quiet. I’m not talking about places where you can pop on your noise-cancelling headset and listen to quiet. A quiet place shouldn’t have to be artificially enhanced. The best quiet places are natural quiet.

Second, a quiet place does not have to be silent. Silence is the complete absence of sound. Quiet, on the other hand, is when only soft, natural sounds intrude on an otherwise peaceful environment. The sound of winds through trees or the rustling of leaves is quiet in my books. The low whir of a ceiling fan is quiet. The distant sound of a baseball game on the radio, pleasant though that is, is not quiet, nor is the rumble of distant traffic. Birds singing at first light is not particularly quiet, while the occasional bird song in the middle of the day is quiet.

Third, a quiet place acts as a natural deterrent to intrusion. It is a place where, if you are spotted by someone else sharing the space, they will be unlikely to intrude on your quiet.

With these requirements in mind, I have started a list of quiet places. It is a short list at the moment, but I am hoping to grow it over time.

  1. An empty church. This is an excellent quiet place. I discovered this last week when we arrived at our church an hour before the kids’ Christmas pageant in order to get front-row seats. There was only two other people in the church when we arrived. It was quiet, and very close to silent. Not long after we arrived, someone began to play the piano, getting warmed up for the pageant, but in those first few minutes, I thought how nice the quiet was. The noise grew exponentially louder as more people arrived.
  2. A cemetery. Cemeteries seem almost ideal for quiet places. There are often benches scattered throughout the cemetery and I almost never see anyone sitting on them. I suspect cemeteries creep out a lot of people, but if you are looking for a quiet place, you can’t get much better than a cemetery. Not all cemeteries are equally quiet. The bigger ones are often near a busy road, and nothing destroys quiet as quickly as traffic noise. Old cemeteries built with stone wall, with large trees growing among the scattered headstones are much better suited to quiet, although these often lack benches.
  3. Libraries. Libraries have a pleasant quiet about them, but there is often a hushed murmur that ripples through them at times, a kind of constant background noise, not unlike the hum of a ceiling fan. I sometimes fantasize that the ideal quiet place is a library after it closes. I used to imagine getting locked in the library overnight, and the utter quiet of the place, and the delight at roaming the stacks of books, knowing that I could choose any one I wanted, and find a comfortable couch and read uninterrupted until clink of keys in the door the following morning.

My collection is meager, as you can see. Some places that seem like they should be quiet often are not. Parks seems like good quiet places, but too often unwanted sounds intrude. Our back deck is occasionally a good quiet place, at just the right time in the early morning or late evening, but only when the wind is rough and the sounds of it through the trees masks the low rumble of traffic from a few blocks away.

Our house, despite its many good qualities, is not a particularly quiet place. The kids are often running around. A TV is often on somewhere. It seems that the dishwasher is running when the house is otherwise quiet, or that the washing machine or dryer are humming along. If I want a real quiet place, I have to rely on the deck, or one of the places I’ve listed above.

As it happens, the place where I am writing this is unusually quiet. Or it was, until the Little Man asked Siri to play some music that I now hear thumping away on the other side of the house.

Where Would I Be Without Public Libraries?

An op-ed piece by Mary Vavrina in today’s Falls Church News-Press brought to my attention the fact that the Fairfax County Public Library Board will soon be voting on a plan to “streamline” all county library services. And in this context, “streamline” is not synonymous with “make more efficient,” unless your definition of efficiency is to simply cut service. Among the items proposed in this plan:

  • Drastically reducing the number of staff available to serve library patrons
  • Eliminating the requirement for ANY staff member to have a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree
  • Eliminating children/youth services librarians

National politics no longer makes my blood boil, but when people start messing with libraries, it gets my dander1 up. I have been a library user as far back as I can remember. Indeed, I’ve written about how I discovered my passion for astronomy way back in kindergarten or first grade, thanks to the Franklin Township Library in New Jersey, where i lived at the time.

It got me thinking, if, growing up, the libraries I used faced the kind of draconian streamlining proposed in the Fairfax County library system, what might I have lost? It’s really not that hard to figure out. Without a good library I would have lost, or never gained:

  1. A passion for astronomy. I discovered astronomy books like The Nine Planets when I was only five or six years old. I must have checked the book out of the library a dozen times. Why not? It was free!
  2. A passion for science. Reading about astronomy made me curious about science in general. Thankfully, there were librarians who worked well with children and could help me find new and interesting books to feed my curiosity. It was from librarians, not teachers in school, that I learned about the Dewey Decimal System, and that the science books were in the 500s.
  3. A freedom of thought. One book leads naturally to another. A library made it possible for me to experiment with everything without costing me any money. I could check out a book on the history of France. If I didn’t like it, I could return it and check out a different book, maybe one on horses, or dinosaurs. There was no risk. I was free to roam.
  4. A head start in reading. My parents read to me when I was a kid. For as far back as I can remember, I wanted to learn to read. I was frustrated by the fact that I had pretty much memorized every book I owned. The library provided a constant stream of fresh material for me to practice with as I was learning to read. I have no doubt that the library made me a better reader.
  5. The ability to think critically. You read a book and you form opinions. You learn to be critical, how to separate fact from fiction. If an author made a claim that I found farfetched, I learned to look up the sources they cited, thanks to the patient help of librarians, who taught me how to use the card catalog.
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  1. A word I might not have known if I didn’t have access to quality libraries growing up.

Library run

At lunch today, after dashing over to the post office to drop off a manuscript and get some holiday stamps, I headed to the library to find something to read when I finish Frameshift (which very well could be this evening).

What a delight it is, wandering through the stacks.  The local branch doesn’t have the best science fiction (or science section) for that matter (the Central library was far better), but is was good enough.  I picked up three books:

1. Uncertainty by David Lindley which is research for the December short story.
2. Cauldron by Jack McDevitt which will hopefully quench my thirst for the kind of s.f. I thought I’d be getting with Incandescence.
3. Grace by Robert Lacey, and thereby hangs a tale.

Everyone has a guilty pleasure.  For some its a TV show that they wouldn’t be caught dead watching.  For others its cooking or shopping.  For me, it’s a certain type of reading.  I read science fiction for pleasure certainly, but also as a kind of scholar of the genre, as well as a writer.  So for me, it’s a fulfills a combination of needs and desires.  I read science and history to learn (and often to get ideas for stories).  But there is one genre that I read entirely because it is what I would call a guilty pleasure:  Hollywood biographies.

Now, I don’t usually mean biographies of living Hollywood people.  I’m not at all interesting in Tom Cruise or Barbara Walters or anyone like that.  I mean "golden age" movie stars.  I loved reading Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Dreams.  I enjoyed very much several of George Burns’ books.  So when I saw Grace sitting on the shelf today, I couldn’t resist.  Grace Kelly is my favorite actress and how could I not read her biography.  I’m looking forward to it.

Incidentally, depending upon the order in which these books are read (not fully determined yet), either Cauldron or Uncertainty will be the 400th book that I’ve read since January 1, 1996.

Library books

After work today, I headed over to the local library and checked out two books: John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, sequel to Old Man’s War, and Vernor Vinge’s Hugo award-winning Rainbow’s End.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of checking out science fiction books from the library. I’d buy them and add them lovingly to my collection. But even in our commodious new abode, I am simply out of room for more books, and if I want to read these books, I have to go the borrowed route.

This fills me with a certain amount of guilt. After all science fiction writers, like most writers, make their living off royalties from book sales. Sure, there are such things as library sales. And yes, I have bought used books before. But I’ve always tried to accrue my books used only if they weren’t readily available new first, so as not to take any money out of the pockets of my fellow writers. Libraries are noble institutions and I balance my guilt against my patronage and use thereof. All-in-all, however, I must admit that I was pleased to use my local library. It’s conveniently located on the drive home from work. And they have a pretty good science fiction selection.

Both books are due on September 18th, but I think I can finish them by then. If not, I can always renew them online.

Library card!

I got my library card today for the Arlington Public Library system. There are nine libraries in the system, 2 of which are within walking distance of the new house. My card also gives me privileges in nearby libraries, like Alexandria. There is a library right near work, across the park, and that is where I went to sign up for my card. I didn’t have time to browse, but I’ll get in there eventually.

Adopt-a-library

Smithsonian Institution, of which I am a national member, has a program called “Adopt-a-library” to which I have been contributing for several years now, and today I mailed in a check to “re-adopt” two libraries for the coming year. The program provides the libraries with subscriptions to NATURAL HISTORY magazine for a full year. It doesn’t cost very much money ($18 per library) and it really helps libraries, whose funds are always being cut these days.

For the past three or four years now, I’ve adopted to the two libraries that had the greatest impact on me:

1. The Franklin Township Library in Somerset, New Jersey. This is the first public library I ever attended and it was this library that introduced me to science and astronomy through a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn Mansfield Branley. I checked this book out of the library repeatedly and read it until I had the book memorized. It is because of this book that I learned to love science, astronomy and science fiction and for that I am forever grateful. Imagine if that library were not there when I was 6 or 7 years old!

2. The Granada Hills Public Library in Granada Hills, California. This was the first library for which I had a library card of my very own. I spent a lot of time in this library, checking out books, and reading books. I loved it. I would go there, and check out books, and then read them while I walked home (about a mile). I was free to roam about the library and no one was telling me what I could and could not read, and so I sampled a bit of everything that attracted my twelve-year-old attention. (Yes, including that famous book Girls and Sex which I read with fascination over a period of several Saturdays in a cubicle at the library because I was too afraid to bring it up to the front desk to check it out.

There are lots of great library programs out there. Support them if you can!