Summer Reading

Note: Apparently I wrote this post last year but never published it. So here you go! It’s still mostly true.

I have very fond memories of the Busy Bee Summer Reading Program at the local public library when I was growing up. I especially enjoyed the requirement to read books in various categories that I might not read, left to my own devices—fantasy, science fiction, adventure, biography, travel, history—and I had no trouble reading enough books over a summer to fill out my card and then some. I would have been reading anyway, out on a blanket in the yard or up in the crotch of a tree or on the front-porch swing or in the musty reading room in the public library.

I devoured books, the way my mom had when she was young and would climb up on the garage roof to read, within easy reach of the ripe peaches. In fact, many of the books I enjoyed as a child were ones she had passed down to me—The Middle Moffat; Betsy and Tacy; Five Little Peppers and How They Grew; Little Women; Mary Poppins; The Little Colonel; The Boxcar Children—all with peach stains on the brittle and yellowing war-issue paper.

There is nothing like the feeling of escaping into a book on a lazy summer day, with all the time in the world and no real responsibilities. I still enjoy books, but it’s not the same as before. I generally don’t get “lost” in books the way I once did—with the possible exception of the Harry Potter books and a book called The Thirteenth Tale that my mother gave me, or the series about the girl with the dragon tattoo—and I seldom have the luxury of reading all day long like I did when I was young. Mostly those feelings are connected with a different time and place—before central air conditioning, before Internet, before life got complicated.

But I am a voracious and democratic reader, who always has way too many books going at once. I tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, but I still enjoy a good story about interesting characters. Here are the books I am currently reading:

  • Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D Seeley–This fascinating book is about how honeybee swarms choose a new home
  • Get Up Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite by Bruce E. Levine–I am hoping this book will at some point provide some inspiration and practical actions I can take, but so far it is just reminding me of all the problems that this country faces and how powerless I feel to solve them.
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson–This book reminds me of Bryson’s earlier book, A Short History of Almost Everything
  • Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas
  • Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain by Pete Egoscue with Roger Gittiner

Here are ones I completed most recently:

  • Hour Game by David Baldacci
  • How Did the Government Get in Your Backyard by Jeff Gillman and Eric Hererlig
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I don’t know why I can’t just read one book at a time until I’m finished and then start the next, except that I see interesting books on the new-book shelf at the library and know they won’t stay on that shelf forever, or friends recommend something, or I forgot to take the book I’m currently reading to work and then at lunch pick up whatever is lying around on the table in the break room. (Maybe the same reason I also have three knitting projects going at the moment: a baby hat for a friend at work, an afghan for a very belated wedding present for my younger son and his wife, and a shawl for myself from beautiful yarn that my son picked up for me in New Zealand.)

Special Collections

When I took a course in Special Collections in library school, one of our assignments was to take a dusty old box of papers that had been donated to the library at some point and try to make sense of the contents, but we were not to impose our own sense of order. We could open envelopes and flatten the letters inside but could not throw away the envelopes, even those that seemed to contain no important information. We were to remove staples and paperclips, which could rust and damage the paper. We could shake the dust and the dead spiders and the rotted rubberbands out of the folders.

We were to leave the materials in whatever order they were in, based on the assumption that the owner had made conscious decisions before filing them away in this box. We were not to re-arrange anything, either chronologically or alphabetically. We were to catalog each item, assigning it some kind of arbitrary accession number, which would be cross-indexed at a later date with other items in the collection. At the time, I thought we were giving far too much credit to the original owners, believing they had  done more than simply stash things away in the closest box available. I thought about my own boxes of letters and cards, journals, old school papers, photos, receipts, cancelled checks; what a jumble some of them would seem to anyone who might later try to discover their underlying order.

I was reminded of this as I began cataloguing the second shelf of books on the oak bookshelf in my bedroom. I bought the bookshelf at a yard sale in Lexington, Kentucky, when I was in library school in my early twenties. We paid $100 for it, which at the time was a whole lot of money. It seemed very elegant, a shelf worthy of a fine collection of treasured books. It is still one of my favorite pieces of furniture, although it is hidden away in the master bedroom rather than standing in the living room where it possibly belongs. The bookshelf is dark oak, 48” wide and 53” high, with two sets of four shelves. Originally it had two glass doors, which were removed when the glass broke in one of them; the doors are currently in the basement awaiting the day when I can get a new piece of glass cut and locate the hinges (or buy new ones) to re-hang the doors.

Where the first shelf held mostly poetry books, the second shelf held only a few volumes of poetry, along with a wild variety of other books in no apparent order: a book of English grammar; an illustrated “field guide” to Irish fairies; the Tao Te Ching; the Pilgrim of Tinker Creek; a book of essays by David Sedaris; a couple of writing books, including one called The Weekend Novelist; a book of exercises for the Royal Canadian Air Force; several contemporary novels; Alice in Wonderland; a book  by Jeff Foxworthy that my dad gave me when I turned forty called You’re Not a Kid Anymore; a translation of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight by J.R.R. Tolkien; a book and CD from my mom called I Hope You Dance; and The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels.

After I had entered all the titles and pertinent information into my database, I decided I would impose some order to this mess. I thought I would interfile the poetry volumes from this second shelf with the ones from the first shelf I had catalogued, alphabetically by author’s last name. I planned to do the same with the fiction and nonfiction, as I moved on through the rest of my shelves of books. But as soon as I began to shift the books around to make room for all the poetry books—the first part of the alphabet on the first shelf, the second part of the alphabet on the second shelf—I discovered the obvious organizing principle I had completely missed: The second shelf, it turns out, holds only short books, the ones that will stand straight on a shelf that is less than 8 ½”  inches tall.