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I recently re-read Bruce Catton’s “A Stillness at Appomattox”, which seems kinda appropriate. The last, phantasmagorically violent year of the war, in which Americans stood toe to toe and crushed each other’s skulls with rifle butts or burned alive on forest floors or were hit by so many bullets that their bodies sometimes fell apart, bleeding each other until there seemingly wasn’t enough ground in Virginia to soak it all up anymore. And then that lone rider cutting through the exhausted lines, with a white flag, and Lee and Grant meeting in that small farmhouse, the former dressed in his best uniform, the latter staining the carpet with the mud splattered from his trousers and boots. The terms offered were simple. Lay down your arms and go home. What food the Union army had was shared with the men who had been killing them since 1861. And from then on, grammatically it became “the United States IS” instead of “the United States ARE”. And despite fucking things up over and over again ever since, we’ve always sorta managed to just about hold it together, resisting the urge to once again fire on the Fort Sumter du jour and kick-start things all over again.
Sometimes you need a little perspective. Or maybe a history lesson.
Take a deep breath. We shall overcome.
I love books. I love them so much I’m running out of room in my basement office to hold them. So I started stacking them from the ground up against the walls, each stack maybe 5 feet high. They’re piled on every corner of my desk. On every available shelf. For years they’ve resisted my attempts to categorize them, so they are in no order whatsoever. If I’m looking for a specific title it can take me anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours to find it. I have to scan every single book, from the ground up. And I’ll never find it on a first pass. (In the past I’ve offered my kids $5 bounties to find what I’m looking for) Inevitably, it’s on the bottom of the stack, so I’ll have to try to pull it out without the entire pile falling in on me. Sometimes I’m able to do this. Sometimes. A few times I’ve searched in vain, and re-bought the book. Of course then the original copy presents itself. Right now I suspect I’ve doubled up at least 25 titles.
It feel like 100 years ago, but when the Kindle from Amazon came out, I was intrigued. Whenever I traveled somewhere….business, vacation, whatever…..I would bring at least 3 books, invariably large, heavy ones. And wherever I was, I’d buy more. Eventually they’d weigh more than the rest of my bag. It was getting a bit cumbersome. But this device would put an end to that. Hundreds of books, in the palm of my hand. Just click a few buttons, spend a few dollars, and the gratification was instantaneous.
Except it wasn’t, because it never felt like I was reading a book. I was cheating. If you want to read Normal Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song”, you held its 1000+ pages in your two hands. You frayed the edges and left beverage rings on its cover and noticed the slight yellowing of the pages. You scribbled in it and highlighted passages and folded the pages in on themselves when a bookmark wasn’t available. You dragged it down to the beach or in your carry-on. You worked. You didn’t let technology do any of the lifting for you. My kindle currently sits in the same drawer with all the cables that don’t fit any devices anymore. A relic. I reminder that sometimes bigger is better.
I don’t know how many I have. I never counted. Thousands. I do know that when we moved to this house, my books are what pissed off the 2 moving company dudes who helped most of all. They whined incessantly, over and over whispering to themselves (but making sure I might be able to hear as well)….”no way he reads all of these” as they dragged another 100 pound box up and down the steps. Of course this is what people who don’t love books always say. Poor sods. Not only have I read them, but many of them I’ve read multiple times. Which is why my collection only grows. And why I’m running out of room..
Once I did break them into subject matter. It took days. Sports. Music. History. Memoir. Novels. And then what sport, what artist, what period etc….and on and on it went until I had piles of sub-categories with post-it notes on them saying things like “Civil War – Union – Grant – Bruce Catton” and “Novel – Irish – Troubles – Belfast“. Everything was perfect…..until I started pulling books out, one by one. Since they’re stacked on top of each other, after a while I couldn’t be arsed to put them back where they were, and they’d just sit on top of a an unrelated pile. And within a month all my work was blown to bits and books by the aforementioned Bruce Catton were somehow mixed in with out of print Robert McLiam Wilson novels, and I decided I kinda liked it better this way, because I’d go searching for Civil War stuff and get distracted by a long forgotten Irish novel. Or the other way around. It’s a great way to avoid Netflix binges, believe me. (This exact scenario is how I recently went searching for a Mickey Mantle bio that I picked up in an airport gift shop and ended up reading a memoir on the wars in Congo.)
I just need to stack them higher I guess. Gloriously higher. In years to come I hope to scrape the ceiling. And if the piles fall over, I’ll set them back up, with the titles even more un-arranged. Like shuffling a deck of cards.
Pick a card. Any card.
In a bit..