Tag Archives: libraries

Bend One Over For Me


My wife is a librarian.

She’s a lot smarter than I am, as I may have mentioned before. Which probably explains why she had a career, first in the news (where she wrote the words you’d see on your trusted news sites — and sometimes coming out of the anchors’ mouths), and second in the school system, facilitating students’ access to the carefully chosen words of thousands of authors and information sources.

She’s an expert, is what I’m trying to say, on the written word. And I’m, you know, working on that. Needless to say, our house is full (yeah, probably overly full) of books. We keep books everywhere: the bedside table, the downstairs library, the shelf in the living room, the cubby in the kitchen, our children’s bedrooms, our personal spaces at work, our bags going to and from work. I even keep books in my car, and I’ve been known to sneak a page in at that one reeeally long traffic light. We give books as gifts to each other and to others. We know books, we love books.

But one thing you’ll find in my books that you won’t find in hers? Dog-eared pages.

 

See, I used to re-read books that I enjoyed. I still do that occasionally, but I just don’t have the disposable time that I used to have. There are still, though, those passages in books of all stripes that just hit me — a nasty literary hook to the solar plexus, a wicked narrative cross to the temple — that I know I will want to experience again. I may not have time to go cover-to-cover again, but when I’m jonesing, I can pick up a tome I’ve traveled before and browse the greatest hits.

But how do I find them again?

I have to mark them.

I usually try to keep a pencil quick-to-hand, but especially at home, that isn’t always the case. When I’m neck-deep in a gripping read, the last thing I want to do is put the book down and cross the room. I’m not doing that. Plus, even if I do have a pencil handy, what are the odds I’m going to see my pencil mark as I flip through the pages? Not great. Sure, there are highlighters for such quandaries, but highlighting reminds me too much of school, and this is leisure, not work. So highlighting is out, for me. (Unless we’re talking e-books. Which we’re not. We have some standards around here. [Just kidding. E-books are great. I have lots of them. But you and I both know that there’s nothing like the real thing.])

No, if you really want to find that knockout passage again, you need to mark the whole page so that you can open right to it.

Again, there are methods for such things. Some people, I understand, like post-it notes or little scraps of paper. To that I say, who has the time? If I’m not going to interrupt my read to get a pencil, I’m darn sure not going to go downstairs to the office to get a post-it to stick between the pages. I’m not going to sit here and rip up a piece of paper to make a dozen tiny bookmarks. (Also, they fall out!) Nonsense.

No, what I’m going to do, when I find that lexical 10-point-dive, is I’m going to do what any lazy (read: normal) person would do. I’m going to read it, realize I’ve just had my world rocked, read it again, then reach up to the top of the page and bend that corner over. Bang. Done. I didn’t have to get up, I don’t have to fiddle with other implements, and I’ve created an effortless-to-find mark in the book that will last, at the very least, until I open the book again.

It probably goes without saying (though I am happy to say it anyway) that I have a chosen handful of books so dog-eared that the unbent pages are rarer than their bent brethren. My copy of the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide comes to mind. As does my (and I shake my head a little at this) little pink-covered edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I may not have the time to read them again these days (for the fourth, or the fifth, or the forty-fifth time), but if I need a fix I can crack them open and browse through some of the passages that made me love them.

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Assuming I can find the passage I was looking for. Heck, I’ll find SOMETHING good on one of those pages.

If not for dog-ears, where would I be? Lost, that’s where.

Which, for my personal collection of Books That I Own, is fine.

But I’ve rediscovered the library, lately. And, oooooooooh, does my wife have a problem with me putting a dog-ear in a library book.

Because if books are sacred (and inasmuch as I hold that nothing is sacred, books may be the closest thing to it), then library books are doubly so. They belong not to one, but to all. They are a shared resource, a tool for the entire community. Bending the pages is damaging them, she says, as surely as is scribbling in the margins, bending the cover back, or dropping them in a puddle. I’m leaving the book in a less-than state for the next reader when I damage it.

And, as far as damage goes? Yes, I totally agree. Library books, by dint of their communal nature, are sacred and should be taken extra care with. (Don’t end a sentence with a preposition, they said. Avoid passive voice, they said. Rules are for breaking.)

But I hold that dog-earing, and even the occasional note in the margins (I wouldn’t write in the margins personally, but I don’t mind finding writing in the margins), is the antithesis of damage. It’s enrichment.

In fact, if I find that a book I’ve just checked out is dog-eared up already? Ooh boy, I know I’m in for a treat. A dog-ear in a book I haven’t read yet is a flashing neon sign, the finger of an unseen deity saying “the stuff you want in this book? It’s right here.” If it’s a nonfiction book, I’m opening right to that page. In fiction, I note that page the way you note the dessert table on your way into a buffet. Can’t wait to get THERE. (Seems like I’m having a food motif of late around here. Couldn’t possibly be the new diet.)

So, naturally, I feel that when I dog-ear the pages of an enjoyable book, I’m returning the favor. Paying it forward. Marking off the trail for the prospective readers yet to come. And if it does benefit the next reader, that’s awesome. But the truth is, I would do it anyway. Dog-earing a book is one of those rare acts which is both selfish and serves the community. I do it for myself, but it might benefit somebody else, too, and I think that’s awesome.

Heck, Kindle — or maybe it’s Google Books, or maybe both — will already identify for you the passages that other readers often highlight in the books you read. Isn’t this basically the same thing?

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The library-owned copy of “10% Happier” I’m currently working through. Sorry not sorry!

Still, my wife scowls at me when she catches me at it. “How can you do that to a library book?” she demands.

How can you not, I don’t dare say in return.

Except that, uh, the jig will be up when she reads this.

So … yeah.

Am I wrong for this? Or is this not a service we owe to one another?

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A Buffet on Cheat Day


I used to steer away from nonfiction books the way you steer away from cliffs or angry moose. What, read something that isn’t about story? Something from which I can’t learn about character and plot and structure and all things writerly? Nonsense. I only have so many hours in the day; that’s time wasted.

And, well, I used to be a lot dumber than I am these days, too. (Which is not, by the way, to say that I am not currently dumb. I am currently very dumb about a great many things. But not, I think, as dumb as I used to be.)

Because if fiction books are good (we hope!) for learning about all those things in that top paragraph — awesome, deep characters, twistedly perfect plots, etc — nonfiction books are infinitely better for learning what your stories are really about. The world we live in. The private worlds that exist inside our heads. The nuts and bolts of reality. The often harrowing stranger-than-fiction stories that have really happened to real people.

I can’t believe I used to turn my nose up. Thanks to my re-discovery of the stunning awesomeness of libraries, I’m diving into nonfiction with a passion.

But the time! I hear my former (and current) self crying. Reading a book is such a significant investment of time and mental energy — how do you pick?

Well, here’s another secret I’ve learned about nonfiction: you don’t have to read the entire book. (This goes for fiction, too, but the sense of commitment to characters is a lot harder to overcome.) In fact, it’s a rare nonfiction book that I’ll read cover-to-cover, unless the writing is just dynamite (in which case there are things to learn there outside the subject matter of the book itself).

I treat my nonfiction books like a buffet on cheat day. Sure, the salad bar is there. And I’m welcome to fill up a plate with the leafy greens of statistics and deep technical jargon of astronomy or sociology or the mechanics of religious faiths. But what I really want are the slabs of steak and greasy chicken with piles of mashed potatoes and everything that’s fried: the raw, personal anecdotes and shocking first-person accounts and fascinating glimpses into the invisible.

So when I pick up nonfiction, the first thing I do is scan the chapters like I’m scoping out the buffet on the way to a table. Ooh, I definitely have to have some of that. Maybe a nibble from over there. Not going anywhere near those. And I’ve got to save room for dessert.

Not only does this make reading nonfiction — which has a bad rap for being a bit dry and tasteless — more fun and mentally engaging, but it paradoxically encourages me to read even more widely on things I might not have bothered with. I know I’m not making a week-long commitment before I even crack the cover; I know I can put the book down and move on to something else if it isn’t moving me.

All of which leads me back to one of my personal axioms not just as a writer, but as a teacher and a human as well:

All reading is good reading.

At best, you’re learning new things and improving yourself in the process. At worst, you’re learning what not to do and what to avoid. Win-win, baby.

Pass the mashed potatoes.

(Actually, don’t. Tomorrow is cheat day — I’ll just take them in a doggy bag.)


Don’t Forget Your Library


Writers are supposed to read, right?

And we’re supposed to read widely and prolifically, right?

Here’s the truth: in years past, I haven’t read enough. Not as much as I liked, and certainly not as much as I should. Why? Because books are fraggin’ expensive. And a major commitment. You go and drop forty bucks on a handful of books, not knowing if you’re going to enjoy them. But because you’ve spent the money, you feel obligated to read through the whole thing, whether you’re enjoying it or not.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be buying books. (As a guy who very much hopes you may buy his books when they become available, that would be pretty much anathema.) But for whatever reason, I had forgotten about the most obvious alternative: the library.

My wife recently started her specialist’s program, and had to do a bit of research. So off she went to the library. And because, you know, libraries are good for kids books, she took the kids along, and I went, too. And so I got a chance to browse around as well. And, hey, here’s a John Scalzi book I’d been thinking about reading — I read Lock In and loved it, but wasn’t sure about his other stuff. And there, some Neil Gaiman — somehow I haven’t read much of his work, but I’ve heard very good things. And then over there in nonfiction, a bunch of titles by Malcolm Gladwell — I’ve been listening to his podcast, and it’s excellent, so why not?

I went home laden with a bunch of titles I wouldn’t have read otherwise, feeling basically no commitment or obligation to any of them. Which is really the best way to read a book — with no expectations.

I read a few, and it was good — but I quickly became a little disillusioned. Our local library is pretty tiny, and the selection isn’t much to speak of. But — what I didn’t know until recently is that basically all the libraries in the state are networked, which means that you can browse the entire selection of books in all the libraries (which is quite a lot.) Then, if some library carries a book that your branch doesn’t, you just put in a request and within a week or so, the book shows up at your library.

This changed everything.

I’ve now got a queue of books ten deep and a stack of five or so on my bedside table. I’m reading books on philosophy and sociology and nuclear weapons and all kinds of things that I just couldn’t pull the trigger on before, for whatever reason. (The fact that it’s summer helps.) You might even say I’m reading so much it’s to the detriment of my writing, but that’s a discussion for another time. (It’s easier to pick up and put down a book at will than it is to pick up and put down your novel.)

Point is, I’m shoving words into my facehole at an unprecedented rate lately, and it’s entirely because I’ve rediscovered the library.

So, you know. Visit yours. Check out a book. Learn something new.


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