Tag Archives: library

The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.


My own Alexandria

Most people who know me assume that my first outing in a new home, assuming I’m not low on gasoline, is to obtain a library card. Not so much. Oh, I eventually do, and I venerate libraries much as you might imagine, considering that the written word has been essential in my life since the aftermath of the Watts riots. (I was pushing age 2, and thus on the verge of learning to read. I do not remember learning to read; by my earliest awareness, reading was something I took for granted.)

My family helped this along. When I was about four, my Great-Great-Aunt Nell (whose little sister was my great-grandmother) gave us a full set of 1955 World Book encyclopedias. Before I went off to kindergarten, I had read them. I continued to do this through high school. The encyclopedia was my first library, if you will–a place where I could always go and find reading, an inexhaustible well of enjoyment.

Aunt Nell is nearly half a century gone now, her little niece who is my grandmother is ninety-five, and I often wonder if Aunt Nell had the faintest idea what her gift would do. Giving her credit for the wisdom of an educator who lived to be ancient, perhaps she knew precisely what she was doing. If Aunt Nell could or can see how it all played out, I believe she would be pleased.

In adulthood, surprising no one, I ended up with a lot of books. By age thirty-five, I needed about fifty linear feet of six-foot-high shelving in order to house most of them. My office was right outside the library, so when I went to work, I walked past the stacks. The library gave me reading material, emotional comfort, and a sense of home. I didn’t very often go to a local library simply because I liked mine better.

When it came time to move, and the library was dismantled, I had to leave for a few hours while the packers worked. And once it was gone, that was no longer home to me. If a residence has my wife and my books, it is fully home. If neither, it’s glorified camping. I made the mistake of sharing my honest feelings about that on Facebook, and was mocked for it by acquaintances, which taught me why you never ever share anything on Facebook when you are authentically vulnerable, especially if you know as many callous wiseasses as I do. On Facebook, always be ready in case someone says something mockingly scornful, because they’ll do it when you can least handle it, convinced of their towering wit and that there is never a time not to show it off. And they know beyond doubt that if you don’t think they’re funny right then, you should just get over it. It does not occur to them that you might instead just get over them.

Can you tell that I’m coming to care less and less about making people happy on Facepalm? Maybe the best way to deal with obnoxiousness that shows one no consideration is to stop showing it unreciprocated consideration, and just tell it what you really think.

Or maybe I am simply aging past the point of tiptoeing around people in life.

Three years and two states later, I again live with my wife, and can set up the library once again. My little Alexandria.

For a number of reasons, this time we abandoned the breezeblock-and-lumber method. In that situation, the shelves actually cost almost as much to move as the books, and that’s just stupid. Plus, my wife hated them. When your wife picks out a house with a space specifically in mind for your library, and embraces the concept, and you do not meet her halfway by designing the library in a way that will please her, you are an ungrateful and selfish sod. Setup could not begin until we got the floors done, so that delayed us six weeks, but now it’s under way.

This means seventeen Ikea bookshelves, interspersed with six knicknack shelves so that my wife can display doodads and small items. The room is what most people would use as a large den or game room, 15′ x 20′. It will have a big leather recliner plus a couple other comfortable chairs, the bare wall adorned with maps and my wife’s artwork, daisychained lamps to illuminate the aisles, and eventually French doors. (These are more my wife’s idea. If the doors are French, do they go on strike once a week, as ancient French custom specifies? Mes amis français, qu’est-ce qu’on pense ?)

Since most of the boxes of books are piled in the library, this means some creative thinking in terms of setup. One needs physical space for bookshelves, yet one cannot put up any more until one puts some books on shelves. I decided to just put whichever books wherever, on the logic that I can organize them at leisure later. My uncle, who is a civil engineer and spends a lot of his working life figuring out how to build structures that are sturdy yet aesthetic, is a bigger influence than he knows. The only shelves that should hold the larger hardcovers on are the bottom or the middle bracing shelves, which are the sturdiest, and in any case we do not want the shelves overly top-heavy.

Little felt pads go on the bottom of every shelf, to protect the hardwood (well, hardgrass) floor. When they’re all up, then will come cross-bracing across the top and bolting them together at the base; we live in a subduction zone. While I’m under no illusions about what a serious earthquake would do to the library, if a whole full shelf were able to fall directly over, that is much more dangerous than all the books simply being shaken off and cascading to the floor. No entombed electrical outlets; each one has a power strip with a long enough right-angle plug cord to set it on top of the shelves, since those will hide that outlet from view for what may be the remainder of my life. I’m hoping my uncle will one day come to visit me and examine what I’ve designed, and give it the Good Engineering Seal of Approval. I’m hoping my aunt, to whom Great-Great-Aunt Nell was a great-aunt, will take satisfaction in the way the library will honor Aunt Nell.

One improves rapidly at the fine art of assembling Ikea furniture. I like that they are more likely to give you too many small parts than too few.  We got an extra shelf per unit, which was a spendy addition to an already spendy process, but we are united in the belief that we should do this one right. So I horse some book boxes around, build a couple of shelves, unpack some book boxes that are in a spot where I need to put more shelves, repeat.

I don’t like taking or posting pictures here, and am not good at it, but when it’s done, I just might make an exception. That would be more interesting than posting pictures of a dinner, or a cat, or yet another salvo in the endless, unwinnable cultural Afghanistan that American society has become, atrocity and reprisal fought out on social media between people who could be friends if they could at least agree that someone who disagrees with your politics can still be a decent human being.

If we turn out to have too many books, we will just have to cull some down. By that time, I hope we’ll have a good idea where to donate them. Libraries will just sell them, mostly. I think instead we will advertise them as donations for low income families with children who adore reading.

I can imagine Aunt Nell doing that, too.

A library book’s long strange trip

When it comes to library books, I’m a borderline fascist. Woe be unto he who sells me a used book on Amazon and it turns out it’s a stolen library book. If there’s any doubt, I’ll hunt up the library and call to check. I don’t give a damn if it’s thirty years old. If it doesn’t say WITHDRAWN or DISCARD, or have some other official thrown-out stamp, I assume it’s still theirs. I’ve mailed them all the way across the country. I have also made more than one Amazon seller refund my money–in one case, presenting the alternative of charging him with trafficking in stolen property. It’s their job to inspect their merchandise before they market it. If it just turns up, and the library tells me it’s thrown out, I’ll write the date of the conversation inside.

My library is large enough to qualify as a very small, specialized bookstore, so at times I’ll find an old library book whose markings I never noticed. This happened as I was unpacking one of about thirty boxes of books here in our new home in Idaho. It was The Second Ring of Power by Carlos Castañeda. It had been in my religion/metaphysical section all this time. I saw the stamp on top of the dusty pageblock: BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY.

Well, how about that. I remembered this book. Back in the late 1980s, I was eking out my low-paid existence in a studio apartment on the third floor of a building at NE 50th St and the Ave (aka University Way NE) in Seattle, and I was sort of the apartment manager. That wasn’t fun and didn’t pay well; I was responsible for cleaning out storage lockers, running the trash compactor and kicking bums out of the stairwell. One abandoned storage contained a motherlode of interesting books, many of which were college texts on archaeology and ancient history, ancient drama, and some literature. Among them was Castañeda’s book, which I thought I might read someday, or maybe not. I’ve been carting it around for a quarter century, give or take.

By the time I got it, it was some eight years gone from its proper location, as I learned when I opened it up to check for information about discard status. Nothing. In back was an old school checkout card in its manila sleeve, with date stamps from the late 1970s, the last being in 1980. Students had signed with their student ID numbers. Children, this was before bar codes and scanners and databases ruled the library. Libraries had big batteries of drawers containing what was called the card catalog, enabling you to look up books by author or subject. Librarians would help you; they knew where to find stuff.

And any time some elder (the PC term is ‘senior citizen,’ but when I reach that age, I think I’ll prefer ‘old person’) tells you how much better the old days were, ask him or her about whether the old card catalog was more efficient than a search through a modern database. There was college before an Internet; everything just took a lot longer, with a lot more dead ends and lines for registration, checkout, and such. It was more tactile. By my college days (1981-86), some fortunate students had computers, and some went to a computer lab to do stuff, but the rest of us typed our papers on electric typewriters. Often three drafts. No. That was not better. Anyone who thinks it was, I assume, never had to write a college paper.

So here I am, just moved to Boise, and one of the first books I unpack is a BSU library book thirty-three years gone from its proper home. Every student who ever checked it out is now over fifty, as I soon will be. A few have probably passed on, too young. Anyone who cataloged that book is probably retired by now, if even still with us.

I sent it back with a nice young BSU student who lives in the house/room where Deb lived for six months before we made our relocation complete.

Wish I could see their faces when they pull it out of the return bin.