Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Joy of Books

Books (well, printed matter in all forms, but let's concentrate on books for a moment) flow into my house in a constant stream. Quite apart from the ones my husband buys (which are mostly about military modeling at the moment, and come from all over the planet), I buy books regularly. And irregularly. I buy books in shopping centres, in dedicated book shops, in air ports. If I land in a new city, the first thing I look for in the hotel room is a yellow pages, so I can see if there are any book shops nearby. And, of course, I watch out for book fairs. The University of New South Wales has a book fair most years, and I always come away with a box of books.

As you might expect, we have a lot of bookshelves (we designed our house to accommodate books, including reinforcing the first floor slab to carry additional vertical load), and they are all over flowing. And still the books come, from Amazon, from the English Good Book Guide, from second hand shops, from Kinokuniya, from Abbeys. Craft books, cookery books, programming, philosophy, almanacs, fiction, history, biography: I have no resistance. My husband claims that, when he married me, he didn't get a dowry, he got a library. I don't actually know how many books are in the house, because I know that some of the older volumes are not on my shelf lists, but I'd guess somewhere around the 4,000 mark. Perhaps more.

When a book enters the house, I try to avoid opening it at once. As far as is possible, all paperbacks and any hardcover with a loose dust jacket gets covered with self adhesive plastic ( I favour a brand called Alkor) before it gets much handling, to preserve its original condition. Once covered, the title is then entered into my shelf lists, which are large Excel spreadsheets for Fiction A-M, Fiction N-Z and Non-fiction; these are exported as CSV files, and uploaded to the CSV Touch application on my iPhone.

But this takes time, and sometimes a lot of books arrive all at once. So unprocessed books gather on the coffee table in the sitting room, to the consternation of my housekeeper, where they may stay for weeks until I can catch up.

I've just been entering a big batch into the shelf list - the catch from a trip to Melbourne, a foray into Borders, the aforementioned UNSW book fair, an order Steves placed on a specialist military bookshop in England and a couple of strays that somehow got into the general community without getting covered. I'm still behind on covering, but at least the shelf list is up to date (after a fashion, I know that most of the non-fiction I bought before about 1990 isn't listed).

I do an abbreviated form of physical cataloguing, sufficient to record author or editor names, title, publisher's name and location, year of publication and ISBN. Modern books are fairly straightforward, one can expect the publisher's details to be either on the verso of the title page, or in a colophon at the end of the book, and most volumes now have one if not two ISBN numbers. But with older books, it can be trickier. For example, one of the volumes I have just processed is a Viking Portable Library edition of Dorothy Parker's short stories and poems. It has no ISBN number - it does have statement that says "This edition is produced in full compliance with all War Production Board conservation orders", which says something about the constraints that World War Two puts on anyone trying to publish a book in 1944. But the publication details are rather scant. The cover is cloth, and there is a little foxing in a few places. The fly leaf has a signature, "Eileen Langdon", and in a different hand, at the bottom of the same page, the words 'from Leo Packer", but the binding is quite firm for a 65 year old book, and I doubt it has ever been read. I wonder who Eileen and Leo were?

Covering the books takes time, and before they can be covered, I need to remove all sticky labels (the adhesive will break down and discolour rapidl), and any grubby marks. Old books may need repairs, torn dust jackets will have to be reassembled and patched carefully. Stray book marks - which may be anything from an old bus ticket to a proper book mark - have to be found and extracted. In one case, long ago, I found myself in possession of a novel with a missing page, and wound up having to borrow the book from the library, type out the missing material, and add it to my book.

But I have the satisfaction of knowing that I can find a book on almost any subject somewhere in this house. If I look for long enough.

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