12/28/12

The Bedside Library


Bedside booksWhen the books stacked beside the bed get tall enough to hold not only a cup of tea at easy reach, but a plate of toast with no threat of falling, then perhaps it’s time to cull the pile and put aside those books not being actively read. That takes some time to sort out the reading-right-now from the reading-now-and-then, and the reading-for-a-purpose from the reading-when-it-pleases-me books. There is at least a shelf of books beside my bedside, perhaps more.

I’m not sure how many of my blog readers have a bedside book stack, but it goes without saying that reading at bedtime is a practice of the civilized life. Books have a revered place within arm’s reach of the covers.

Under some circumstances, I might grudgingly accept an e-reader, as a modern accessory to permit reading in other situations (like travel abroad), but in a bedroom, a TV is a place where only Philistines cavort.

Or, actually, stare vacantly at their piece of furniture. TV does not encourage participation, discussion or engagement.

Susan agrees wholeheartedly with my prejudices against TV sets in bedrooms, and has her own book stack, albeit in a more tidy and shevelled* manor than mine.

TVs belong in public places, like airports, bus depots or family living rooms. They do not belong in intimate places like bedrooms where couples can shed their daily woes. Watching a TV is a passive, submissive act, an act of self-inflicted mental slavery.

Reading is an active act, a participation between reader and author, a sharing of ideas, an exploration of new worlds.

Reading is one of the few acts we engage in, in which we share the immortality of another, in which we get close to another’s thoughts. Reading is second only to sex for intimacy. Reading Shakespeare or Chaucer is a time machine that allows me to visit a world that would otherwise be beyond my grasp. But it is equally so for Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Mike Hammer and Emily Bronte. Doors open when you read, worlds are laid at your feet. Neurons fire up when you read.

TV, on the other hand, is about as intimate as any dentist’s office. That’s one reason it should be kept out of places like bedrooms. Doors close when you watch TV. So do minds. Neurons sleep when you watch TV.

My own reading habits and Susan’s are polar opposites. She reads a book, one at a time, cover to cover, word for word, then tackles the next. I read a chapter here, there, picking up books from the pile in no order, usually having a dozen on the go at any time. I have separate books in different bathrooms, books for travel, books for comfort, books for study, books for inspiration, books to argue with, books to teach. I read like a magpie, picking at bits and pieces.

A few years past, when we went to Mexico, I foolishly took a box of books as a separate item of luggage. In our two weeks, I got through most; at least those I wanted to complete or read the specific portions if not all (I took, for example, a complete works of Shakespeare, and read three plays). I can easily appreciate the value of an e-reader in these circumstances, since it can carry hundreds of works in one light unit.

Susan, on the other hand, took a few of her own books, read them, and then traded them for others from hotel guests and friends. Clever girl.

My reluctance to get an e-reader is based on three basic issues. First is that I am uneasy about paying for a digital book that doesn’t translate into something on my bookshelf I can handle, read in the bath, or lend to others. The sheer physicality of books is its own reward. I love holding one, turning the pages, feeling the heft, smelling the paper and ink. An old or vintage book is a sensual time machine. An e-book is… what? An electric charge in a machine?

The second is that I tend to read mostly non-fiction and most of what I read isn’t yet available in e-reader format, at least as far as I’ve been able to discern. That may be changing for contemporary works, but my library also has a large component of older books that predate e-readers by a few decades, sometimes by a century or more. I can find books to read on Abebooks, but not in Kindle format.

Would I be able to get all of my old Edgar Rice Burroughs on an e-reader? Or my 12-volume edition of Casanova’s memoirs? The chess books I still have (gathering dust, I admit, but nonetheless beloved) from my chess heyday 30-plus years ago, but still pick up now and then to peruse?

My third sticking point is price. I am willing to pay for a physical book, but when I see an e-book version that costs almost as much, I fail to see the advantage of the investment. Years later, the physical book will still be on my shelf (assuming I have not donated it to the local library as I like to do), but the e-book? Gone, forgotten. Digital dust. Maybe even deleted by the seller after its limited licence runs out. What do you leave in your will of an e-reader’s contents?

For me, an e-reader will be great for classics – Darwin, Dickens, Kipling, Austen, Machiavelli – the authors in the public domain (thus free or inexpensive). But I would never purchase a new book that way without assurances that it would not be deleted without my approval, that it could be printed or text copied from it (for transmission by email if necessary) and that I had some price bonus like a discount when I decided to buy the physical version. But would it give me the same joy as when I open a volume of the 1930s’ collected works of Rudyard Kipling and start reading a story or poem at random?

Right now, beside the bed, I am reading a book on how Shakespeare’s first folio changed publishing, several books on etymology, language and grammar, one on the history of Christianity and another on biblical archeology (odd for an atheist, I know, but religion fascinates me as a social and historical topic and I read a lot about it), two books on demonology and the history of the idea of evil (for a novel I’m playing with), several books on marketing and public relations (for another book I’m writing), some books on Machiavelli and Renaissance politics (always learning about him), about Tudor history (with Jacobean, is a favourite topic of mine), about CSS and HTML (to improve my coding skills), a few novels (Christopher Moore, Michael Quinn and a Tom Clancy, plus a couple of fantasy and scifi novels), some books on technological changes and developments (for another book), an annotated Municipal Act (for council), a book on emerging viruses, another on the history of vaccines (and one on the emergence of “fear” cultures including the current New Age anti-vaccine mania), a book on the Mufti of Jerusalem’s Nazi connections in the 1930s, a revised history of the fall of Rome, a book on creative design and architecture, a book on urban startup communities, a book on gambling culture in Canada, Anthony and Cleopatra, Cicero’s speeches, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and a few others I can’t recall because I pulled them off the bookshelves to look something up and will put them back in the next day or two. Plus, of course, an Oxford Dictionary, and a thesaurus, which are ever-present.

I can’t imagine that an e-reader could fill that void if the books were all to vanish. And certainly all the TV shows in the world for an entire year would never, ever compensate for the loss of a single book. It would be like trading a world for a piece of simple gravel. It would be turning off my mind and joining the sheep in mindless adoration of the flickering screen.

I will sort, I will change my bedside books, but I will never get rid of that pile. Besides, where would I put my Ovaltine when I’m reading at night before sleep?

 ~~~~~

* The opposite of dishevelled, of course.

 

12/28/12

A Council Christmas Carol – Part 2


STAVE TWO (continued from Part 1).

THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS.

I awoke in the dark, late Friday night. Winter days are so short that sometimes it seems a mere moment passes between sunrise and sunset. The day had whizzed by, a flurry of phone calls, reading, emails, walking the dog and shovelling the driveway as the snow continued to fall. By the time Susan came home and we had dinner, I was tired and aching from tossing snow. Sleep came quickly that evening, but didn’t last long.

Now I was awake, mulling over last night’s events in my head. Looking from the bed, I could scarcely distinguish the window from the opaque walls of the bedroom. The heavy clouds dampened the night sky, and not even the moon could pierce them. I could see the digital readout of the alarm clock; its bright red numbers piercing the dark like little demonic digits. Eleven fifty eight.

Was that correct? I’d been asleep for only about two hours. It felt like more. I saw the display turn over to twelve. Midnight! I was wide awake and not going to get back to sleep in my state.

I  scrambled out of bed, and groped my way to the window, stepping over the dog asleep at the foot of the bed. It was still snowing very hard, and evidently extremely cold. The snow muffled all the sounds; there was no noise of cars driving to and fro.

No point waking Susan. I grabbed my housecoat from the back of the door, slipped into the hall, and closed the bedroom door. I quietly walked downstairs to the living room, where I could read without disturbing her. I might be able to get 50 or so more pages of the agenda done. Might make a cup of Ovaltine and watch a B flick on TV, too, to help me relax.

Last night’s ghostly visitation bothered me exceedingly. I kept trying to tell myself it was all a dream, but my mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”

I sat there, in the chair for three quarters of an hour, when I remembered, on a sudden, that the ghost had warned me of a visitation when the bell tolled one. I resolved to stay awake until the hour had passed. I checked the clock on the cable box. Yes: 12:45 a.m.

The next 15 minutes seemed so long that I was more than once convinced I must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock turning over to 1:00. But as I watched, it moved inexorably from 12:59 to the next minute. And nothing happened.

“The hour itself,” I said triumphantly to myself, “and nothing else!”

But as I spoke, light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and I found himself face to face with another unearthly visitor. Drat. I hadn’t escaped after all.

It was a strangely familiar figure— dressed like a child in shorts and a worn blue T-shirt that read “Harper: 2006″ in big letters – yet he was not unlike an adult, just shorter. Around his neck was what looked like a mayoral chain of office, polished to a lustrous sheen. He held a gavel in his right hand.

This was not his strangest quality. The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever. As if inside this one spirit were many others trying to get out. Slippery bugger, I thought to myself.

“So you’re back again?” I asked.

“I am not!” the spirit answered, “I mean, I am here for the first time. Wooooo….

The voice was soft and gentle, almost feminine in its thin attempt to sound scary.

“No you’re not. I saw you last night,” I replied. “In town hall. You don’t remember?”

“That wasn’t me. Wooooooo….

“Yes it was. I recognize you. You just changed clothes. And please stop that moaning. You’ll wake up my wife.”

The ghost took on a pouty look. “It wasn’t me. You’ve never seen me before. I am the Ghost of Councils Past.”

“Long past?” I inquired, observant of its dwarfish stature.

“No. Your past.”

“Look, I know you’re the same ghost as yesterday. Come on. You’re not fooling anyone in that outfit. What business brings you here tonight?”.

“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.

“Much obliged, but a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. Besides, you’re wearing a Harper T-shirt. We all know what he thinks about welfare.”

“Your reclamation, then. Take heed!” It put out a hand and clasped me gently by the arm. “Rise! and walk with me!”

“Have you looked outside? The weather is not exactly suitable for pedestrian purpose. The thermometer is a long way below freezing and I’m wearing slippers and my housecoat. Besides, my Ovaltine will get cold.”

The spirit’s grasp, though gentle, was not to be resisted. He walked towards the window, clearly intending to walk through it, dragging me along.

“Hey! I flunked walking through walls classes,” I remonstrated, “Can’t we use a door like normal folk?”

“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the spirit, laying it upon my heart, “and you shall pass more than this!”

“Not gas, I hope. I had beans for dinner. Oops!”

As my words were spoken, we passed through the wall, and stood in a large, empty room, where chairs were arranged in neat rows. Several tables had been lined up at the front with chairs facing the soon-to-be audience, with microphones in front of several. Small pieces of cardboard listed the names of those who would sit at the tables. I recognized them from the very first election I had won.

“Gosh!” I said, clasping my hands together, as I looked about at. “The Legion. I made my first public speech in this place. I was but a boy then! Compared to now, that is. This is where the all-candidates meeting is held every election. What memories. Is that where Terry sat?”

The Spirit gazed upon me mildly, slowly shaking his head. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to my old man’s sense of feeling. I was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air – beer from the adjoining Legion pub, mostly – each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!

“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”

I muttered, with an unusual catching in my voice, that it was just a zit; and begged the Ghost to lead me where he would.

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” I cried with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

We walked to the front of the room, where I gazed over the name tags of all those who ran in that campaign, a decade past. My mind drifted back to the fall of that year, walking door to door, meeting residents, campaigning, handing out pamphlets. And the terrible anxiety, waiting to see the results come in after the polls had closed. I turned and noticed the back rows of chairs were staring to fill with the audience, while others worked their way towards the front.

“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”

The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, I knew and named almost every one. My eyes glistened, and my heart leapt as they went past! I was filled with gladness when I heard them give each other ‘good evening’, as they settled in.

“The parking lot is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A small group, neglected by the former council, abused by them some might say, gathers outside.”

I almost sobbed. The remnants of the Vision 2020 committee. I had sat with them, had brainstormed in their midst, had made presentations to council on the issues that mattered most to us. And had seen my words ignored, my advice given cold shoulder. I knew what anger fermented in these folks’ psyches. I had moved on, but they remained mired in their morose mood.

They had left the high-road, a well-remembered lane for me, but clearly one no longer travelled by all. We stood beside them for a while, listening to their low whispers of unrest as they huddled around a grimy SUV in the parking lot. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up in front of council to make a report the term previous.

We went, the Ghost and I, across the lot to stand in front of a small Toyota Matrix in which sat a younger man reading a page in the dying light of evening; I almost wept to see my poor, forgotten self as I used to be. So optimistic, so keen, so naive. Well, as much as a former reporter and eternal skeptic can be.

The Spirit touched me on the arm, and pointed to my younger self, intent upon memorizing my speech. Suddenly a man, in a sharp suit: wonderfully real and distinct to look at, stood outside the car window.

“Why, it’s the Mayor!” I exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s dear old honest Terry! One time, when yonder solitary wannabe councillor was feeling all alone and confused, he did come and give me advice. Buoyed my spirits.” I said. “I never forgot that kindness.”

To hear me expending all the earnestness of my nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see my heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to my crusty media friends, indeed.

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another sight!”

Suddenly, my former self was not reading now, but sitting in an office crowded with desks, littered with papers, cameras and books. A monochrome computer screen was perched in front of me. Outside, through the windows, the world was white and snowy. I looked at the Ghost, who, with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced towards the door.

It opened; and a reporter, much younger than the man seated in the office, came darting in, and, shrugging off his coat, put his camera on a desk with a thud, and raised a fist into the air. “Yeee-ah! We got ‘em.”

My younger self looked up from the editorial desk, questioningly. “Got whom, young Jimmy Olsen wannabe?”

“Whom? Geez, do you read grammar books in your sleep? You nerd!” said the younger man, clapping his hands, and bending down to laugh. “I brought home the bacon! My FOI requests are here! Santa came early!”

“Here, on this night so close to Christmas?” I returned. “What powers do you have to compel municipal staff to work on your behalf this late in the season? I suspect the dark arts at play.”

“Yes!” said the reporter, brimful of glee, waving a fistful of papers. “Here for us to dissect and hang them all in this edition. Give me an hour and I’ll have a story that tears down the walls of this sleepy town. Those bastards will strangle democracy no more, once I have finished with them! We’re going to have the merriest time in all the world.”

“You are quite a reporter,” exclaimed my editorial self.”A real scoop for us. But I wonder….”

The reporter halted his furious typing and looked up from the computer screen. “Wonder, Obi Wan?”

“Well, it’s Christmas after all. How will we finish remaking the front page in time to make it to the pub before closing?”

Suddenly, a terrible voice cried from the corner office, “Bring me the front page. Now!” and in the doorway appeared the publisher himself, a young but curiously gnarled man who glared on the editor with a ferocious condescension. He threw my young self into a dreadful state of mind by waving me and the reporter into the veriest old well of a shivering office that ever was seen, where the circulation maps upon the wall, and the celestial and terrestrial globes of advertising sales were waxy with cold. He pored over the front page and nodded, tapping the headlines with a crooked finger.

“Yesssss, my precisoussssss….” he muttered as he traced each letter and mouthed the words they made. “Exssssssssssssssssellent…”

“Uh, wrong tale,” I muttered to the Ghost beside me. But the spirit was already waving his hands at the hunched publisher. “He was a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered, but he had a good taste when choosing new paint colours.”

“So he had,” I responded. “And almost suffered a union as a result.”

“He moved on,” said the Ghost. “So should you. Pay no attention to man in the corner office.”

“So where was this going?” I asked, looking at the scene. But the Ghost merely pointed to the newsroom, where the editor and reporter were back, mulling over the reporter’s stack of Freedom of Information results.

“See this one?” the reporter pointed to a page on the desk and tapped it thrice. “That’s a conflict of interest, for sure. We’ll nail him with this. Look here, this one shows the cone of silence was drawn down for no good reason! We’ll capture the mayor and maybe the clerk for that faux pas. This is rich stuff!”

“Yeah,” said my younger self. “But before we put in another several hours and hold up printing the paper, you have to ask yourself, one thing.”

“What? Could anything be more important than championing the cause of democracy?”

“A pint of Guinness at the Post.” my editorial self replied. “Or even two, before the night closes and we close up shop for the next few days.”

The reporter paused to consider the options.Visions of sugarplums danced in his head.

“Ask yourself,” the editor said. “What would Jimmy Olsen do? I mean, if Superman had taken off and left him alone on Christmas eve with a finished paper and the bars still open for a few hours while Supe was busy decimating some super villain far, far away? Besides, the dwarf in the corner office is satisfied. Why tax his brain with something new?”

“Old Fezziwig likes it, eh?” the reporter rubbed his chin. “Okay.If Fezziwig is happy and the corner office isn’t leaking any noxious fumes from his cogitations, I can let it it simmer until the New Year.”

My younger self laid down my pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of three. I rubbed my hands; adjusted my bowtie, then said, “Then we give the nod to the printer to run the paper, and onwards to the pub!”

“Right-oh!” replied the plucky reporter, grabbing at his coat and gloves. “Besides, this will really make them boil over when it comes out the day before the mayor’s levee. Why waste it now when it would be so much more effective in a week or so?”

They left the door as the scene faded away.

“Spirit!” I said as the two vanishedor, “Show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

The relentless Ghost poked me in the ribs, then slapped my cheek, and said with a clucking voice as he noogied my head, “Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.” 

“Remove me!” I exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”

I turned upon the Ghost, and cried, “Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

Suddenly, I was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in my own bedroom. I gave the cat a parting pat, and relaxed. I had barely time to reel to bed, before I sank into a heavy sleep.

~~~~~

To be continued…