Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Death of a Shelf, Man

September 12, 2011

The bookshelf is the noblest of all furniture. For it is upon those polished, wooden shelves of erudition that the repository of all written knowledge and literary endeavor rests. Books are much more than paper pages bound together. When Robert Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, in 1952 announced the completion of the Great Books project, he said, “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage … This is its meaning for mankind.”

The maple, pine or particle board shelves that support these books are nearly as significant, and now they are passing into oblivion. There is no future for the furniture of the furniture of the mind.

Sure, there are other important kinds of furniture that populate our homes. Here in the sophisticated West, we sit on chairs, rather than the floor or on oppressed citizens. If there are no tray tables handy we eat off of dining room tables. The couch is crucially important, since without couches we might never learn about sex and the joys of being horizontal with girls. In front of those couches are oddly shaped contrivances where we place our coffee cups and large bowls of the universe’s most mysterious substance, potpourri.

In one of my old homes I had not one but two credenzas. These long and low structures were perfect for stereo systems, and conveyed an old-fashioned sense of prestige. Hard to believe that many of my friends had never seen a credenza, or even knew what they were. Odd furniture seems to run in the family; in our living room, when I was a schoolboy, my mother once had a commode, which caused no end of vulgar jokes. Such pieces of formal furniture are as rare nowadays as marriage chests.

In the bedroom, along with the bed, naturally, will be an armoire or a dresser  of some kind, and the kitchen would not be a kitchen if there were no cabinets in which to store cups and plates and other eating utensils, along with cooking tools and equipment of every description.

But the bookshelf has stood alone in its noble purpose: it stored, displayed and protected books, and it has fulfilled this elevated mission for thousands of years. However, some feel that it is soon to be extinct. History shows that species die out when they no longer fit in, and can’t defend themselves from the changes that occur around them. On the credenza behind me, as I sit at my desk here in my office, a treasured copy of Darwin sits on top of my old 8-track tape player, as a kind of evolutionary joke.

In Darwin’s devastatingly important work of 1859, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, he tells us that to survive, a species must change with the times and adapt. I believe that the dodo died out, not because the flightless bird was easy to catch and then eaten in vast quantities by hungry sailors, but because it couldn’t go along with the designated hitter rule of 1973.

Recent articles suggest that the bookshelf will follow this unswerving path to obsolescence. But why?

People don’t read anymore. If you attempt to start a conversation with the classic gambit, “What are you reading lately?” a blank expression will come over the person’s face. If you ask someone if they have read a particular book, they will tell you, ”No, but I have seen the movie” or “Did they turn it into a movie?” or “Why on earth would I want to read that?”

When a friend of my wife’s planned a trip to the UK, and announced her intention to visit London, I handed her my 1152-page copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s wonderful historical novel, London.  Rather than thank me, she frowned and turned it over and over again in her hands, more focused on the thickness of the book and the challenge it represented, rather than the delights that awaited within.

To prepare for this story, I designed a scientific survey about reading habits, and queried 11,032 people while at the coffee shop yesterday afternoon. I have summarized the results thus:


Q: Do you like to read?  A: Nah. It’s too hard, and it takes too long.

Q: What do you read the most often?  A: My grocery list.

Q: Do your kids read?  A: I think they have to read books in school, but I’m not sure.

Q: Do you own any special old books that your parents or grandparents owned?  A: I have my dad’s old Playboys.

Q: Do you read anything? Anything at all?  A: Billboards if there’s a hunky guy in his underwear.


Among the people who answered my questionnaire were a few from New England, who revealed that they do not read speed limit signs. Lots of people evidently don’t read No Smoking signs, or Don’t Park Here signs. There are quite a lot of citizens out there — who vote and procreate — who simply don’t want to read at all.

What’s wrong with these people?  Don’t they know that reading is fun? It’s stimulating, it’s rewarding, and it gives you lots of pleasure units.

America prefers to look at pretty pictures.  Europeans still read; why not Americans? Do we have shorter attention spans? Do we need more stimuli and need pleasure fulfillment quicker? Are we lazy and dumb? Have our eyeballs radically changed from eons of watching TV?

Of those few dinosaurs remaining who do still read for pleasure, the vast majority has purchased a Kindle or a similar device for reading e-books. If you don’t read actual books, and you don’t own books, why would anybody need a bookshelf?

According to the Economist, IKEA sees the future, and it does not include books. As everybody knows, IKEA is a multibillion dollar business started by a Swedish boy with big ideas. (Presumably, Ingvar Kamprad likes to read.) Nearly everyone in the United States either has IKEA furniture in their homes or knows someone who does. The bread and butter of IKEA’s bookshelf line is called the BILLY, which is a masculine Swedish name. The BILLY bookshelf is in approximately 58.2% of all American homes. (I just made up that statistic, but it feels right.) Within a radius of a couple miles from a college campus, the proportion is even higher. The BILLY comes in a variety of sizes and color finishes, and is popular because it is inexpensive and represents good value. The Swedish product planners are constantly looking for new products, and are sensitive to changing tastes.

IKEA’s designers are revamping the specifications of the ubiquitous BILLY. The shelf part itself will be deeper and is intended to hold decorative bric-a-brac and curios like little statues, glass figurines, grandma’s collection of porcelain cats, football trophies and so forth. IKEA’s marketing materials are pushing glass doors as an important add-on to the BILLY system. This is to enhance the idea that, when tricked out with fancy glass doors, the new BILLY would be perfect for consumers to display their stuff. This reinforces the idea that consumers want a place for their possessions to be seen, rather than used. The new revised shelf, which is already appearing in IKEA catalogs, is being called the “stuffshelf,” to reflect the fact that it will never hold books.

The new stuffshelf even comes with an unusual document, which new owners must sign: if you buy one of the new shelves, you must promise to never use them to store books.

Thoroughly dejected, on the way home from the coffee shop, I asked one last random passerby what was the last thing he read. He told me it was the assembly instructions for his new BILLY stuffshelf.


Packing It In

May 30, 2011

Here at the Fountain, we are currently over-run with boxes. We are packing for the big move to the Pacific Northwest, which should take place later this summer. We have given up on Boston, or rather, it has given up on us, and when things aren’t going well, at some point you have to take the bull by the horns, scramble those eggs, and mix up every metaphor you can.

We will rent our condo and move in very briefly with in-laws here in Massachusetts. Then I will fly to Seattle and grovel for gainful employment at the biggest and best companies found in the Emerald City. This will make the third time — in about 32 years — that I have moved to Washington State without a firm offer waiting for me. What does bring a bit of cheerfulness is that on each previous occasion, I had a job within two weeks.

What brings even more cheerfulness is that I have dozens of great friends there and in California, and I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to know how important one’s friends are. My happiness index goes way up when I am around them, and the East Coast is entirely too far away from them.

Another item on my ‘Why I Am Moving’ list is the weather. Look at this table. It shows you that the average high temperature in Seattle, in July and August, is 75 degrees. The average high temperature in Seattle, in December and January, is 47 degrees. It is mild, neither too hot nor too cold. Now, if you have spent any time at all on the East Coast — and I spent the first half of my life there — you know that it gets brutally hot and humid in summer, pushing 100 degrees regularly; and in winter, well, let’s just say that this past winter in Boston we received enough snow, sometimes twice a week, to fill the Grand Canyon and have enough left over to cover Islamabad.

Today an unusual map appeared, showing how hot it was going to be for Memorial Day. Instead of displaying the forecast, it showed the “departure from normal,” the differences between the average temperature and what was expected for the day. If you construct a somewhat diagonal line from Lake Superior to New Mexico, you see that the eastern part will experience temperatures as high as 18 degrees above average, with Boston at seventeen degrees. On the other hand, the western part shows slight decreases, with the Seattle forecast for about four degrees lower than average.

My DNA comes from Northern Europe, where it’s cool and pleasant, not from the Equator, where it’s hot hot hot and awful. My father’s side comes from Scotland, and my mother’s side comes from Switzerland, so I am most comfortable where it’s cooler, and there are opportunities for drinking good malt whisky and then yodeling. Besides, watching the sun set over the Puget Sound is nicer than watching the sun come up over the park across the street, where Hispanic men loiter, drink and urinate all day, so the Left Coast wins again.

At the moment there are 30 boxes (12x12x16 inches) of books. That’s 40 cubic feet of just books, with quite a few more downstairs in storage. This morning my mother asked, “How much do you need to keep those books?” and I told her, enough to pack them and to take them with us. Others have counselled that we should buy a Kindle, and maybe that will happen one day, but viewing the value and pleasure of books through the lens of utility does not do them justice.

There is so much pleasure, harmony, comfort, well-being, mental stimulation and more in a book, so much to please the senses from the feel and smell of the leather, turning the pages, reading and adding marginalia, and appreciating the art and craft that went into not just the writing  but the making of the book. Books are precious. If Michelle and I own the last library on Earth, then we will be there, wizened bibliophiles, in our chairs reading books.

There are another 15 or so boxes, some of a larger size, containing everything but books. Ready to accept content are yet another dozen boxes, their flaps open like so many hungry rectangular creatures. Tackling the storage room in the basement frightens me, since I have the sneaking impression that everything down there will expand after it sees the light of day. If all goes well, the pod that will land here on Friday will have room enough for it all, our lives compressed into so many objects.

There is much left to pack and to do, a frightening and daunting list of tasks on paper and in 3D. The Fountain will spout only sporadically for the next week or so, so please be patient with us.

There will be lots more to tell in the coming weeks and months, of life, love, the pursuit of happiness and more.

Plum’s Golf Omnibus

April 30, 2008

P.G. WodehouseReading and writing are two of my favorite things. I have been reading voraciously for many years, but am very new to blogging. (So, apparently, is this spell-checker, which inexplicably does not recognize “blogs” or “blogging”.) One of the things I like about being here is that it feels as if I am part of a community of readers: readers are attracted to blogs. And one of the rewards of reading blogs is the opportunity to encounter something new. Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite writers, P.G. Wodehouse. If you have not read any of his work yet, you should give him a try. (Or read one of my stories; see below.) His first name is Pelham, a name that is perhaps a bit unfortunate, and not what I would name my son. If you say it quickly you come up with his nickname, Plum. His last name is not pronounced like you would think, because it’s pronounced, “would – house”.

Anyway, Wodehouse was a gifted comic writer who wrote nearly a hundred books, many of which are novels and the rest collections of short stories, plus many plays and musicals. Now, don’t screw up your face in disgust at the thought of musicals; it’s his novels and short stories I want to tell you about. In my hand today is his prized collection of golf short stories, The Golf Omnibus. You should run out and buy this 467-page collection boasting 31 short stories, and I’ll tell you why. Plum was crazy about golf, as am I, and loved to play when he could, but on rainy, dismal days like it is today in Edinburgh, he would happily read or write about golf.

An important note is required here to further explain what is meant by ‘golf short story’. These little jewels, averaging about fifteen pages, are primarily about people, but set against a backdrop of the greatest game. People fall in love, form lasting friendships, leave the office early to play golf, and steal your girl; there are lovable and deplorable people in these stories, just like people you know. There is something in each story that will appeal to anyone who likes to read; I bet, and I taught statistics for over ten years, that you will enjoy these stories even if you don’t play golf.

All the stories contain characters who love the game, and some play thirty-six holes a day, but not everyone is a golfer. And the most important themes are those you would find in other short story collections; it’s just that much of the action takes place on golf courses, in clubhouse bars, locker rooms and pro shops. A central character is The Oldest Member, a lovable old geezer who has been around forever. He’s the guy who was a member of the country club back when the protagonists’ grandfathers were members. A charming fact is that since The Oldest Member — and we never hear his real name — has been around for so long, he has most likely changed the diapers of the younger characters, which allows him such great intimacy with them, that they confide in him. I think that at certain ages we have trouble talking to our parents about sensitive subjects; in my turbulent teens I was able to open up to my best friend’s parents next door, because I felt I could talk to them about things that were somehow too uncomfortable to discuss with my mom & dad.

A typical plot line consists in a couple of young golfers who are romantically involved. Something happens to upset the relationship; a new seductress arrives on the scene, or something occurs to disrupt their happiness. One of the lovers will come looking for advice from the wise Oldest Member, who is most likely in his rocking chair on the porch of the club, where he can look out on the course and watch people play. Young people, being in a hurry, want a short answer, but as The Oldest Member comes from the teach-them-how-to-fish school, his method is to tell them a story like it was a parable.

The one seeking advice too late realizes the wise one is about to launch into one of his fables, and tries to duck out. But by then The Oldest Member has grabbed the unenlightened one by the wrist and is guiding him or her to the chair next to him. What then follows is a story within a story, and soon the reader can do nothing but smile and watch it all unfold. Much of the charm of the stories is in the warmth and humor of the narrative, and the dialog, which both crackles with realism, and soothes like an old sweater. And another part of the fun is guessing how the story will end, because The Oldest Member always does a good job of providing insight into the human condition, and it’s this knowledge that gently shoves the couple back to a happy conclusion. It’s great stuff, and the stories and novels are perfect for rainy day reads, again and again.

The photo above is of Wodehouse at age 23, and he has a relatively small smile. On the back cover of The Golf Omnibus is a photo of him at around age 90. He has the biggest smile you could imagine, perhaps a sign that writing golf stories leads to a long and happy life. I hope so.

If I may indulge in a bit of shameless self-promotion, since this is my blog, please read my golf short story on this site, A Niblick in Time; it’s my homage to Wodehouse. I hope you like it. Thanks for stopping by, and keep your head down.