Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Autumn Reading List: Part II Books

I've been thinking about books this fall. It's 2010, and whether books still mean anything to rest of the world or not, they still mean something to me. Clearly. I mean without books, what do we really have? I suppose we still have the internet and the television and all the gadgets—cellphones and ipods and the Wii. I remember in my youth, by which I mean just a short time ago, I felt like everyone, everywhere you looked at held a book. I'm a bus taker, I'm a let everyone else do the driving kind of guy. I bring it up now because I'm thinking about books. When I worked for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment back in the early 1990s, I not only read books but I took the bus to work, then to school, then home. I took five separate buses everyday. I read books. I cannot remember all the books I read, but I do recall this was in my John Steinbeck and Mark Twain phase. What's important here is that I was using my time on public transit to read. And? And I was not alone. I can tell you this: everyone, or many of my fellow passengers were doing the same thing.
Hopping ahead to the present day, I'm still riding the bus. In recent weeks I've been enjoying the literary stylings of Gogol and Trumbo.
So, the other day I picked up the #6 bus on the corner of Lincoln Ave and 9th. I only had to take this bus for about 10 blocks. Yes, I know, how lazy. In my defense, I still work at Marlowe's and I'm an aging waiter, and well, it was a hot day. What does this have to do with books? Well, I took Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo out of my bag and prepared to read. Dalton Trumbo's book is on the fall reading list, incidentally. I bought this particular copy in Dillon, Montana at Gracie's New and Used, paid fifty cents for it. I was attracted to the book because of a recent reading of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Johnny Got His Gun has proved to be a difficult read. It isn't difficult to read because of the subject matter as you may think. World War I was awful and it is awful to read about it. And much like All Quiet on the Western Front, Dalton Trumbo has penned a wonderful anti-war novel in Johnny Got His Gun. I do love the anti-war aspect of the novel. And as beautiful as it may seem to pass the warm fall afternoons reading such stuff it has been difficult because Dalton Trumbo has elected to write a very powerful novel without the benefit of a comma. So, it's difficult only due to a lack of punctuation. It ends up that I truly like punctuation. I'm enjoying the process of the read despite it being so cumbersome. Incidentally, I found The Road by Cormac McCarthy to be a compelling story of a father and son, but I was frustrated by the writing because of the lack of punctuation.
This is a point for style and has very little to do with the bus and my ride on it one beautiful afternoon in a September clad Denver day.
So, the book didn't leave my lap. I opted to daydream and at the very least check out my fellow passengers. There were a few people doing exactly what I was doing, daydreaming, and I can respect that.
There was also a lady talking to a cellphone. She was explaining some recent trouble to the other end about the law, a philandering schlep who she was breaking up with, and the ills of police interactions. Instantly I thought very bad thoughts, I was judgmental and I looked down on her; not because of what she was saying, but because of the volume of her voice. Then, I noticed the kid across from her who had a very audible volume of electronic music overflowing from the headphones. He was, no doubt, trying to drown out the cellphone lady. Then, I noted something odd. Everyone was engaged, like the two aforementioned, in some electronic gadget or other: video games, the ipod, the cellphone. I was alone with my book, and a book was alone with me. No one was reading. I felt something similar in a coffeehouse a few years back when I counted eleven people and ten laptops. For some reason, the laptops were somewhat less offensive. I'd remembered that coffeehouse from ten years prior as being a rowdy place where we were discussing important things like politics and social issues and sex. The laptop people were, in all likelihood, using the wi-fi and doing exactly what we used to do only now it gets done through a digital middleman.
Times change. I know this. But back on the bus, why was I the only one endeavoring to read a book? I mean, come on, the bus is a very literary place. The Lighthouse Writers and the Poetry Society have “Poetry in Motion” posters stuck between ads and RTD propaganda.
In ten blocks, my idea of the world changed. Have people really changed from the tactile and intellectual appeal of a book to be replaced with cheap electronic diversions from China? It's awful.
And things change.
By the time I get this post published here, this will probably be public knowledge: Janice and I are moving from sunny Denver, Colorado to green and rainy Portland, Oregon.
The move is important in the discussion of books only because we had to deal with not one, but two, tremendous collections of books. My collection alone was well over 500 and hers was even larger. In a desire to lighten our load on our own personal Oregon Trail, we elected to downsize the book collections along with everything else. Of course it goes with saying this: furniture is heavy, material things whether they are useless trinkets or emotional anchors (I just learned that phrase) can be cumbersome as well as heavy. We've been giving away things for years. We've been selling anything of even nominal value for months. We've gone from 2 mortgages to one to none from an apartment to a bedroom. We've gone from two cars, one motorcycle and two bicycles to a car and a two bus passes. Our Oregon Trail wagon is a bluish-green 1994 Saturn. With that, it comes down to fitting all that is important into the confines of that 1994 Saturn's trunk and backseat. Books? Well, yes, we're each keeping a prized few: hardbacks, first editions, out-of-prints, and for me, the ones I often reference and the ones I'm yet to read. All others? Gone.
I carried nine full boxes of books, big heavy boxes too, down eight floors. It took nine trips yesterday to do it, and today, I'm very sore. It really is a great deal of weight.
Our plan? We were going to sell as many as we could to Black and Read Books to get a few extra bucks for the move. Black and Read is one of two used bookstores in Denver who still pay cash for books rather than trade credits which are the norm nowadays. An easy plan? Sure, and anything we couldn't sell we were just going to drop off at the Goodwill thrift store. I bought many of my books there anyway.
So? Well, Black and Read no longer buys books. We were told that we, and our books I suspect, are not unique. Apparently, dozens of people have been selling books too. Perhaps they're doing it like Janice and I are doing it--we just can't carry them. Perhaps, as we consider the economic times, people are selling books for income. And then the thought occurred to me that maybe people no longer need to collect books. Maybe it is simply easier to have a collection of electronic books on the e-reader, a Kindle or Nook. Who knows? Or perhaps people no longer need books because on the bus, it's better to have the company of a voice on the other end of cellular airwaves or the tunes in the headphones.
Admittedly, I felt defeated from the lack of a sale, but we quickly moved on. There was no way we were going to carry all nine boxes back. We'd already parted with these volumes on an emotional level.
We went to the thrift store donation center. I had packed all these books neatly, taking the utmost care to keep the spines and covers intact. Even if we were emotionally separated from them, they had been loved, they had been lovers, they had been friends and they deserve that.
The awful man who received us was so curt, half-witted and non-caring that I only wish I had the presence of mind to do the right thing. Rather, I did what I was told. In the hot September sun in a suburban parking lot, I was told to remove the books from the boxes and dump them in a big plastic rolling bin. Dump them. This breaks the spines, bends the covers, compromises the pages. This is a lack of respect. This was a difficult thing for me to do. It was like smashing the heads of kittens or old grandmothers or stepping on babies. And the entire ordeal left me sick. It would have been easier to step on the heads of kittens than to dump the volumes and tomes of life into a plastic bin.
Back in the car, we both felt sick and we were both quiet. Eventually, I said: “I'm sorry.”
“It's done,” Janice said. I readily admit that Janice is smarter than me. I admit she's a better writer too (except on the days I've written a clever paragraph, then I claim to be able to match her caliber). Yet in those two words, it's done, I felt her anger, her frustration and her remorse. I also felt her process. In those two words, she became stronger than me. I was feeling like I could kick out the windows at Goodwill, scold them, and explain the importance of caring for a book. I would do it because it needed to be done. “Please take care of these books,” I'd say. “Even if no one else cares, I do.”
I apologized to Janice again.
Then she asked: “How many hours do you think were in those books?”
I instantly thought about the money. These days we think about money a great deal. We trade our time for work and work gives us money and money buys us books that we have little time for because we work. “I don't know,” I said. “A lot.”
“How many hours did we spend reading those books?”
“I don't know,” I said. What could I have said to her? We all know she's smarter than me.
“We should have...” she began. I'll spare you that. She was right. We should have...

I cannot preach to you. If you made it this far in the story, you probably get it. You probably have books too. You probably love them. You may even be digital, you may read online or electronically. You may not read at all, but rather find your solace in the headphones.
I hope you do read.
I hope you collect like I once did and like I will do again.
Once our Oregon odyssey becomes fulfilled I have every intention of continuing with the books. Books I will collect: banned books, romances; classics, books yet to be written. Where I'll read these books: the bookstore, the coffeehouse; the bus, under a tree. And when faced with the downsizing of books again? I'll gladly smash kittens' heads before dumping even a single book.
Keep reading. Read on the bus. Read on the bed. And let the proud spines of books collect on the shelves in your house.

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