© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Ok, I admit it. I'm a non-recovering bookaholic! They say that admission is the first step to recovery, but, frankly, I'm not at all interested in recovering. I hope I'll be addicted to books until I die. And after that, I may well be a librarian in one of those places that starts with 'H'.
The Road to Addiction
So how did it all start? Well, first there was the casual, innocent browse at the newsagent's comic book stand. That was followed by annual book gifts from various sources. That led to a library card. Sure, I told myself, these books were only for recreational use, and I could stop reading anytime I liked. But whom was I kidding? I needed a chapter, sometimes two, on a daily basis. Eventually, I found bigger libraries and others who loved books as much as I did, maybe even more! There was a big wide world of addicts out there; there were others just like me. I was not alone. I moved on to harder stuff like history, geography, biographies, and, yes, animal husbandry, which contained lurid descriptions of the form and purpose of the naughty bits of the various farm animals that I studied in Agricultural Science. I knew it was wrong, but I was spiraling out of control. But what to do? [To all you fans of the Prairie Home Companion radio show, wouldn't this be a good time for some Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop rhubarb pie?]
My First Library
From age 7–12, I lived on a 4,000-acre wheat and sheep farm. The stone farmhouse was quite large, the walls were thick, and the ceilings were very high. Each bedroom has its own fireplace, and each fireplace had a long, high mantelpiece. I had a large bedroom all to myself.
Up to age 11, I attended two different rural schools. The first was three miles from my house and was run in the village hall. Besides that building, the village consisted of a general store with post office and house attached, a public tennis court, and a railway siding with storage sheds for bags of cereal grain. When we got down to four students, the school closed, and we were bused to the next town, a booming metropolis with not one, but two stores, a post office, a school and schoolhouse, a church, 10 houses, and a larger railway siding. That school had 25 students, in seven grades, all in the same room with the same teacher.
Each month, a wooden crate of books arrived at the local railway siding from the state lending library. In effect, they were being lent to the school, which, in turn, lent them to its students. Although the school had a few reference books of its own, half of the books available for borrowing were replaced each month. That is, the school library contents almost completely rotated every two months.
At the end of each school year, we students put on a concert involving acting and singing. [Due to their extreme lack of ability to carry a tune, certain students—no including moi—were told to "just move your lips" without actually making a noise!] And each student was given a book of fiction bought from money raised by the School Welfare Club. Similarly, each year at Sunday School, each kid got a book of fiction.
By the time I was 10, my collection of books totaled 20. [The only other books in the house were a set of encyclopedias and some penny-dreadful novels, of the western and detective persuasion.] Of course, with such a large number of books, how would I ever be able to keep track of them? What I needed was an organized system.
After a long period of serious thought (that must have lasted at least 60 seconds) I had "a plan more cunning that the plan devised by the Professor of Cunning at Oxford University". [There you go Black Adder fans!] I would create a library, complete with catalog. Undaunted by the magnitude of the task at hand and having no knowledge whatsoever of the Dewey Decimal System of Classification, I soon came up with a stunningly simple scheme. I would number my 20 books starting at 1 and going all the way up to 20! It was brilliant, and it worked. I arranged them on the mantelpiece of my bedroom.
[Some 45 years later, as I peruse my bookcases I see four books from that original collection. They are:
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Bishop Jim by Joyce Reason
- The Racketty Street Gang by L.H. Evers
- Hanna-Barbera's Huckleberry Hound Giant Story Book]
Mr. Dewey Goes to Work
At some point during my high-school years, I had an epiphany: the gateway to everything and anything was through books. No matter what one's circumstances were, one could always go to a library and borrow a book. And the only limits to what one could learn by reading were the selection of books available and the extent of one's own imagination. [With the ubiquitous internet, the selection limit has been removed completely. And libraries have become places to get free internet access, so access to information is no longer a problem for those who truly are looking.]
My parents had no interest in what I was studying at high school, and so they never questioned my requests for education-related books or supplies. As a result, I always bought new copies, and to this very day, I have all my high school textbooks from Year 10 (1967) onwards and all those from my nine years as a part-time university student.
By the age of 21, I was well and truly addicted to books, and I owned more than 750 of them. My pride and joy was a spanking new Encyclopedia Britannica set. During the next few years, my collection increased to about 1,000.
I'd long ago abandoned my 1–20 numbering system, but having spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores I was acquainted with several cataloging systems. As a result, I purchased the 10th Abridged Edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification handbook (1971). From among the various author-cataloging systems, I chose the Cutter-Sanborn Three-Figure Author Table invented by Richard A. Cutter. I set about figuring out each book's abridged catalog and author codes, and I typed them on small labels, which I affixed to the spine of each book. It took several months part-time for me to catalog the whole collection. Along the way, I built a 9 foot-by-9 foot bookcase set for my treasures.
Early in 1976, I started Computing Science classes at the then South Australian Institute of Technology, which gave me access to a card-punching facility. Eventually, I got all the book records "punched up" and I wrote some COBOL programs to print my catalog in different orders. [Later on, I moved the data to a DEC PDP-11 system and rewrote the programs in Fortran. Much later, with the advent of PCs, I moved the data to my own computer and rewrote the programs in C.]
A Long Separation and a Joyous Reunion
In June 1979, I left Australia for an open-ended period to take up an initial 1-year work contract in the US. As you might imagine, it's hard enough to decide what basics to pack in two suitcases for a one-way trip abroad without having to think about any books I might want. In the end, I did pack several work-related books I thought might be useful. Finding a not-so-temporary home for 1,000 books was also an interesting challenge, but a friend came to the rescue. (Thanks very much Bill.)
A month before my departure—which was a totally planned 2-week trip across the Pacific via an Air New Zealand DC-10, through the US, and then on to Washington DC—an engine fell off the wing of an American Airlines DC-10 near Chicago. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) In any event, all DC-10s around the world were grounded indefinitely, including my flights on Air New Zealand. Eventually, I traveled via Asia and across the Atlantic; however, that route limited luggage by weight rather than by size (or vice versa; I don't remember which), and I could take only one case. Fortunately, the ruthlessness of having to pack the important things from my life into two cases stood me in good stead when it came to halving them. Who needs pajamas, socks, and underwear anyway?
Five years later, I had settled permanently in the US and had bought a townhouse. It was time to bring my babies home. So, on my next trip to Australia, I packed all my books—and a few other things that had been in storage—and took them to a shipping office at Port Adelaide for the long sea voyage to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [The port of Baltimore, Maryland, would have been more convenient, but that option was not available at that time.] Back home, I was notified when the container carrying my boxes had docked, and I rented a small covered truck to pick them up in Philadelphia, a 3-hour drive to the northeast. Within several days, I had all the books shelved in my large basement office, and I had installed a comfortable sofa and reading light where I could read, admire, and caress my beauties.
"Out of Sight" is "Out of Mind"
Some years later, I moved my office two flights up, primarily to get away from the very cold temperatures of the basement, most of which was underground. As my new office was much smaller than my old one, I could not take many of the books with me. Whereas I'd seen my collection every day for some years, I no longer saw it unless I went to visit it specifically. Eventually, I put a bookcase on the main living area and rotated selections of books through that, so I'd be reminded of their existence.
So What Books do I Really Have by my Bed?
Here they are in the order in which I picked them off the floor:
- Historical Atlas of the 20th Century. Maps, maps, and more maps, with timelines.
- Philip's Standard Reference Atlas [of the world].
- Reader's Digest The Bible Through the Ages.
- Canada's Incredible Coasts.
- Atlas of World History.
- The Atlas of North American Exploration.
- Hammond Atlas of the 20th Century.
- The White House: An Illustrated Tour.
- America's National Parks.
- The World: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
- The American Presidents. A 2–3-page summary of each president from George Washington to Bill Clinton.
- The Chronicle of World History, a 670-page tome that covers events from 3500 BC to 2008 AD. Most articles run half a page, and many have photos or maps. Each major period starts with a series of essays.
- Countries and Continents, 320-page book in which each country has photos and a page of text in the form of questions and answers. Each country's summary contains the flag, currency, system of government, capital, main languages spoken, area, population, religion, and notable features.
- Modern Mathematics. It's a great refresher course on things such as logic; sets, relations, and functions; whole numbers, rational numbers, real numbers; probability, statistics; and geometry.
- The Old Farmer's 2010 Almanac. "The Original Farmer's Almanac, useful, with a pleasant degree of humor, including weather forecasts for 16 regions of the United States, planting tables, and Zodiac sheets."
- The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, by Nicholas Wade. I read a review of this in the Economist, and went and browsed a copy at a bookstore. Although I have yet to read it, it's one of the few books for which I paid nearly full price.
- Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic. It's a collection of linguistic trivia [and a gift from recent houseguest Felicity].
- Our American Government, 2000 Edition. A book of questions with answers and information, published by the US Government.
- Paddington at Work, by Michael Bond. I must say that I do like Paddington Bear. [Before Paddington Railway Station in London was renovated, I made the pilgrimage there to see him in a large glass showcase complete with his labeled luggage "From Darkest Peru" and a note from Aunt Lucy. Now, there is a much smaller homage to him.]
- Maps of The Caribbean, Central America, & South America and Fairfax County, Virginia.
- The Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution, unratified amendments, and an Analytical Index, published by the US Government.
- How Our Laws Are Made. A book of questions with answers and information published by the US Government.
- Earth: The Definitive Guide to Our Planet. This fine Smithsonian publications runs 500 pages and is chock full of pictures, charts, and short pieces.
- The Complete History and Wars of Ancient Greece.
- Life: Evolution Explained.
- The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll.
- The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People.
- American Government: Everything You Need to Understand Our Democratic System. Part of the "Essential book" series.
- Barack Obama: Words That Inspired a Nation. Book and DVD [gift from friend Phil].
- Regional Cooking from the Southwest.
- Economist, Special Holiday Double Issue, December 19, 2009. Contains a set of great essays.
- Santa Fe Rules, a novel by Start Woods.
- Portrait in Death, a novel by J.D. Robb.
As you can see, almost all of these books contain reference material. Most cost $3–10, and have many photos, drawings, and/or maps. Almost all have relatively short articles, making it easy to pick one up at random to learn or be challenged over a cup of coffee.
While most of my books are more than 30 years old they still have value. To be sure, a lot of new information has been discovered or developed in most fields since they were published, but the fundamental principles remain intact. In any event, most used bookstores wouldn't take them even as donations. And with the advent of the internet, most people under 30 seem to be little interested in books in general. But that's their problem.
So what do I think about the new electronic book readers? For novels, they seem like a fine idea, but most of my reading involves reference works with lots of color photos and maps printed on rather large pages. Besides, I like the smell of most books (although I must say that, occasionally, I do come across one that simply stinks). Besides, if I really want to browse on-line material, I can always fire up my 10-inch netbook computer.
You may well ask, "Don't all those books take up a lot of space?" Of course, but I still have room to get in and out of bed, and room for more books too. And if I really run low on space, I can always get rid of the some non-essential stuff like furniture, except for the bookcases, of course!