Scott McLemee's Inside Higher Ed column this week tackles a topic I took on myself recently: the culling of books. It caused me to reflect on living with a substantially reduced library, since I am now post-cull, and am actually only living at the moment with a small group of the books I saved, since the majority are still in storage back in New Hampshire.
While I enjoy not feeling quite so entombed by tomes as I used to be, again and again I've wanted to grab a book I know I have, only to discover it's not here. It's a strange sensation, the sensation of seeing something in peripheral vision that disappears when you turn your head, the sensation of seeking ghosts.
Not that having fewer choices of what to read has stopped me from reading too many books at once. As of this moment, I am in the midst of reading Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World by Donald R. Howard, The Virtu by Sarah Monette, Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, Lost Son by M. Allen Cunningham, Sides by Peter Straub, and I'm probably going to start In a Town Called Mundomuerto by Randall Silvas very soon, because I just decided to abandon Mary Modern by Camille DeAngelis (didn't hold my interest, alas, amidst the competition). Not to mention various magazine (just got new issues of F&SF[Alexander Jablokov and Ted Chiang in one issue!], Interzone [ever more gorgeous, and this issue full of Michael Moorcock!] Harper's [Alice Munro!]...) So I'm hardly starving for things to read. And I did bring substantial collections of my old favorites -- Shakespeare, Chekhov, Woolf, Faulkner, Beckett -- though somehow I managed to leave all the Kafka behind, which is just causing terrible angst, and the only poetry I brought with me were two books by Jennifer Moxley, which are wondeful, but not enough, and...
Really, the whole point of this seemingly pointless post was to say that in culling my books I discovered some I'd forgotten I had, and that was a great joy. I brought one of them with me, and have been reading it with immense pleasure: Far from the Madding Gerund, a collection of posts from one of my favorite blogs, Language Log. I remember being quite curious about the book when it first arrived, because I wondered how a book of blog posts would work, but then it got buried in the piles and I honestly forgot I had it.
At first, I found reading it a bit awkward. The biggest problem is one of hyperlinks. The blogosphere thrives on hyperlinks, of course, and though this causes some people concern, for me it's one of the attractions of blogs, because I like to be able to have the option of either follow the directions links lead to or not. With a book built from a blog, the editors and publishers have to figure some way to handle the links, and the folks who put Far from the Madding Gerund together decided to indicate links in the text with a lighter font and with a URL and a little bit of info about the link set as marginalia. It's as elegant a solution as I suppose there is, but it's pretty awkward. I got used to it as I read along, though, and the content of the book is, I find, so compelling that a bit of awkwardness doesn't detract.
I wondered, too, why anybody might want the book when all of these posts are, as far as I know, still available via the Language Log archives. But there's a difference between reading online and reading a book, at least for me -- really, I behave differently. I read a bunch of posts at Language Log the other day, but skimmed around between them, following links, jaunting about. When I sat down with Far from the Madding Gerund tonight, I skipped around, but not nearly as much as I did with the actual site. I read five and even ten pages in order at a time. I also felt a somewhat different attitude toward what I read -- reading the posts as a book, I reflected on them more, read them more slowly, reread parts, thought about things I might share with my students or with friends. I do all that with the blog itself, too, but less frequently. There was something about the book as a book that caused me to consider -- in a subtle way -- its content more carefully than I consider the blog's content, because my mind still treats books and websites differently. It's hard to describe the experience without implying that one way of reading is better than the other, but I honestly don't think of them as better or worse. I'm glad to have the book, because it organizes its information differently than the blog, and so I have discovered things in it I haven't discovered online. Blogs with archives as vast and substantive as those of LL benefit from a kind of "greatest hits" book, and the careful editing of this book has grouped posts together in such a way as to highlight connections that might otherwise not be obvious.