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.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Significant Events

Quick as you can, think of some experience or event that changed your life. Some "fork in the road moment" that had a lasting effect on the direction your life took. It's possible (particularly if you are relatively young) that you haven't had such a moment yet, but if you have, did you recognize its significance at the time? And if you haven't had such an experience, how do you think you would recognize one if you did?

I've been thinking about this lately, because over the last few weeks I've been doing the Storage Networking Industry Association's Management and Administration course, and the ITIL version 2 course, and the related exams. I reckon that the two activities have consumed about 10 days in training courses, additional study and the exams themselves (I passed both). However, for all the effort, I don't really expect either one to change my life noticeably.

An event that did change my life happened in about five minutes early in 1981, and at the time I barely noticed it.

In 1981 I was working as a library assistant for the Community and Child Health Services branch of the Public Health Department of Western Australia. One of my duties was to take care of journal circulation, the extremely manual process by which periodical publications were circulated among staff who had asked to see them. This meant dealing with hundreds of people and thousands of individual issues of everything from the British Medical Journal to Nursing Times. There was no Internet, and the only way for the medical staff to stay up to date with current information in their field was to read the printed word. So every day scores of periodicals would cross my desk, and I would try to at least glance at the contents page of the new ones, and if anything looked interesting I might put it aside to read during lunch.

On this particular day, the November 1980 issue of Psychology Today hit my desk, having already made the rounds at head office, and during lunch I skimmed through it. There was an article by an American physician called John Eric Holmes, entitled "Confessions of a Dungeon Master". It was about the fantasy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, told from the perspective of Dungeon Master of a long running game. It probably took me less than five minutes to read it, and I thought it sounded like fun. I was looking for a new hobby, principally because I wanted to find a way to extend my social circle, most of whom at that time were either other librarians or nursing students (read: very few men). I knew that there was shop in Perth that sold the paraphernalia for D&D, because they also sold military simulation games, which I had tried previously. So, when opportunity permitted, I stopped by the shop and asked the owner if he knew of a group that I could join. He said he did, and gave me the name and phone number of someone who ran a gaming club the the Gooseberry Hill area.

I called the number, and spoke to the club organizer, Stephen Neal. And as Miss Bronte has it in "Jane Eyre", "reader, I married him". Not at once (not until 1986), but my husband and I met because I read an article in a magazine. A chain of events started that otherwise could not have happened. When I was offered work in Canberra, my prospective employer (the National Library) would not pay my relocation costs, but
Steve was just graduating from his degree and starting to look for work, so we decided to drive across Australia together. I started work in Canberra, and Steve went on to Sydney and found a job there. I got a transfer to Sydney in 1985, and we married in 1986, just in time for me to get retrenched and accidently join the IT industry.

And I can think of at least two other people whose lives I significantly affected, by helping them get out of poorly paid public service jobs and into better paid (but much more stressful) private sector jobs. All sort of things could not have happened if I had stayed in Perth, and I couldn't get out of Perth without Steve. If we had not met, I would probably still be a librarian, and he would probably work in heavy construction on some mine site. Our directions changed because of a five minute event that I barely noticed at the time. I did work it out later, and while I was still at the National Library, I located that issue of Psychology Today and photocopied the article. I have it beside me now, faded but readable, with a proper citation scrawled on the first page in my hand, giving volume, issue and page number detail.

The important events are not always the obvious ones.

If anyone happens to know Doctor Holmes, say "Hi" for me.


Bookmark and Share