Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

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Favorite books from childhood

My sainted mother taught me to read even before she sent me away to kindergarten. She used to say that teaching me to read was a matter of self-defense; she could never get anything done when I was following her around the house, pleading that she would read me just one more book.

I remember loving a lot of early readers, such as the story about the boy who overfed his goldfish. Most of my reading memories, though, are of the classic chapter books which I liked to read over and over. I think I may have read each of these nine books once a year from the time I received them until I finished high school. Later, I also read these books to my children.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), 1876. Twain combines several adventures, based on events of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, to create an endearing story of a mischievous boy coming of age in the mid-nineteenth century. From whitewashing a fence (and enticing his friends into doing the work for him, and even paying him for the privilege) to exploring a system of caves, Tom Sawyer leads an active life. Inspired by books about pirates and medieval adventures, Tom Sawyer enlivens the existence of nearly everyone in town, giving the adults more excitement than they know how to handle. When he and his friends run away from home and camp on an island in the Mississippi, the town fears that the boys have died. Learning of this, Tom Sawyer and his friends wait until the funeral is underway before revealing that they are alive. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, and I definitely envied him his Becky Thatcher.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885. In this sequel to Tom Sawyer, Tom’s homeless friend Huck Finn has been adopted by a wealthy widow. Feeling constrained by her pressure to conform to social norms, and feeling threatened by his father, Huck Finn travels down the Mississippi River by raft, accompanied by an escaping slave named Jim. Traveling from town to town, the pair encounter a number of odd characters and strange situations, from a feuding family reminiscent of the Montagues and Capulets to a pair of scoundrels who claim to be the Duke of Buckingham and the King of France. When Jim is captured, Tom Sawyer appears on the scene and prepares an elaborate plot to rescue him. This book is one of the strong candidates for the title of “The Great American Novel.”

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), 1865 and 1871. Mathematician Charles Dodgson knew a girl named Alice and told her stories to entertain her. These stories became the basis for his two books, usually packaged as one volume. In the first set of episodes, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and meets various creatures, finally dealing with a living deck of playing cards. In the second set, Alice travels through a mirror to a different world in which most of the people she meets are pieces in a chess game. Both accounts feature parodies of serious poetry combined with charming nonsense. Elements of the stories about Alice are among the most recognizable of all those derived from children’s literature.

Bambi by Felix Salten, 1923. I was lucky enough to have read this book several times before I first saw the Disney cartoon based upon it. The animals in the book are far more complex and interesting, although the theme of environmentalism is as strong in the book as in the film. Most stories starring talking animals fail to be convincing, but this story of a fawn growing up to be a stag is as real as any coming-of-age tale of a human child.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, 1964. This book describes a charming and well-mannered boy living in dire poverty with his parents and grandparents, a boy who wins the chance to visit Willy Wonka’s candy factory. Four other children also win the chance to visit the factory, but each of them is wealthy and spoiled. In some places the book risks becoming preachy about the manners children should have, while in others it fails the most basic tests of political correctness. In spite of its failings, the book succeeds because of its strong characters: Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and of course Willy Wonka.

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney, 1881. Long before I encountered the writings of Charles Dickens, this book taught me about poverty and perseverance. Five children are being raised by their widowed mother with occasional help from their good-hearted and generous neighbors. At first the book relates a series of adventures that the children face (including a bout with the measles), but then the youngest of them is befriended by a wealthy boy and his grandfather. This wealthy family sponsors the Pepper family’s first real Christmas and then continues to help the Peppers, all the while learning valuable lessons from the cheerful way this poor family faces the challenges of life. Several sequels were written, but the first book is far and away the best of the series.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri, 1881. An orphaned girl is taken by her aunt to live with her grandfather, a gloomy recluse who inhabits a cabin high in the Swiss Alps. She charms him and his neighbors, but then is snatched away by the aunt to be a companion to a rich but crippled girl in the city of Frankfort. Heidi pines for the beauty of the mountains, but before she returns, she brings excitement and happiness to the wealthy Frankfort family. After sending Heidi back to her grandfather, this family manages to visit Heidi in the Alps and to draw even more strength from her. Although this book is a touch heavy-handed with its lessons about Christian living, it remains a treasured classic for its believable title character and for the changes she brings into all the lives that intersect with her life.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883. A young boy takes a job aboard a ship, only to fall under the power of pirates. They are seeking treasure, but violence threatens between the pirates and the rightful crew of the ship. The boy becomes an unlikely hero who helps to resolve the conflict. This is one of the more violent books I read growing up, with gunfire and deaths, but it was an action story of which I never tired.

The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum, 1900. Although it inspired the famous movie of the same name, this book contains far more adventure than could fit into the movie. Characters and monsters even stranger than those in the movie challenge Dorothy and her friends as they move through the land of Oz. Dorothy interacts with all four witches (two good and two wicked) as well as the wizard, who is indeed a humbug, but who is able to give the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion exactly what they want. In the book, the land of Oz and its inhabitants are more than just a dream.

Several of these books were written more about children than for children. For this reason, they remain enjoyable even when read by adults. I remember many summer afternoons when I was curled up on the couch with one of these books, reliving the familiar adventures and seeing ideas I had been too young to consider the previous time I read the book. In my opinion, all these stories are classic tales that belong in every family library. J.

My own private Beatlefest

As an introvert, I have never wanted to attend the big fan festivals for those entertainment giants I like the most: the Beatles, the Chicago Cubs, and Doctor Who. I am content to enjoy this entertainment on my own, follow them on television or the internet, and even use the internet to share enthusiasm with other fans. Aside from attending an occasional game at Wrigley Field, I have no inclination of being physically surrounded by fans who share my interests.

Therefore, I decided this fall to hold my own private Beatlefest. To celebrate the Beatles, I am doing three things, or possibly four. I am reading the 350-page coffee table book Beatles Anthology. I am watching the eight-part video series that goes with that book. (Each installment is about seventy-five minutes.) I am setting my CD alarm to wake me up each morning with a different Beatles song. I may possibly find time to listen to entire albums from start to finish.

The only problem with my own private Beatlefest is that I am not able to keep the different media in sync. I am already half-way through the book, which I started a day or two after I finished reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’m all the way up to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I’ve been able to see three installments of the video series, which has me up to the tour between the filming of “Hard Days Night” and “Help!” My wake-up music is still coming from the soundtrack of “Hard Days Night.” Meanwhile, the only album I’ve had time to hear from start to finish is “Please Please Me,” (which was released in the United States, missing a couple of songs, as “The Early Beatles”).

Actually, a second difficulty was choosing thirty-five favorite songs for my alarm out of the many Beatles songs which I like. I had to try my best to stick to three songs an album, even though there are some albums which have many more than three good songs. I didn’t really want the Beatlefest to last much past the eighth of December, though, so I am limited in the number of songs I can choose.

For many years, November has been, for me, a month to remember the Beatles. When I was first learning about their music and beginning to buy their albums, a documentary about the Beatles was shown on TV, followed immediately by the movie “Hard Days Night.” This happened just before Thanksgiving, and I spent the entire long weekend listening to the Beatle albums I had already bought. Now, more Novembers than not, the Beatles come to mind. Sometimes my festival runs from November 29 to December 8 to remember the deaths of George Harrison and John Lennon, respectively. This year I started earlier, mostly because I wanted plenty of time to read the big book.

The Beatles managed to combine excellent music with entertaining personalities. I cannot agree with every decision they made for their personal lives, but I have learned to enjoy their music, their movies, and the documentaries about them without being distracted by their drug use, their casual attitude towards sex and towards marriage, and their dabbling in a form of the Hindu religion. John Lennon’s famous remark that the Beatles were “bigger than Christ” was meant (according to John), not as a boast or a put-down of Christ, but as a complaint that the Church was not doing enough to promote Christ and his teachings. John Lennon thought Christianity was going to disappear from the world; in that, he was misinformed. While Christ will remain God’s Son and the world’s Lord and Savior, the Beatles will remain an entertaining foursome from Liverpool, England, who have helped to shape the musical taste of several generations of music lovers.

In the past, I’ve been known to sink so deeply into a private Beatlefest that I actually pick up a Liverpudlian accent. I doubt that is going to happen this year. As long as I enjoy the music, though, the time spent on my own private Beatlefest will be worth the experience. J.

Painting books

The most important words in my job description are “and other duties as required.” Those other duties have included setting up chairs, putting away chairs, building shelves, selling popcorn and candy bars and beer, and moving ten tons of paper in one day. My latest accomplishment, though, has taken me by surprise. My boss has me down in the basement painting books.

It’s not exactly painting that I’m doing; it’s more sealing the covers of books. These are large ledger books with red leather covers. Some of them are more than one hundred years old. Even under the best conditions, leather deteriorates over time. A product is made that, although it cannot reverse the deterioration that has already happened, it can cover up the leather and prevent further deterioration.

The mixture of chemicals I’m using has the viscosity of egg white, and it smells like a doctor’s office. The smell is caused by isopropyl alcohol, the chemical that evaporates to leave the surface sealed. I’m using sponge brushes with wooden handles to apply this stuff to the book covers. Hence, I tell people that this week I am painting books.

When my boss assigned me this task, he told me that I would be working in the basement so that the smell would not bother my co-workers. He also suggested I not do this task for too long at one time. “I don’t want to find you passed out on the floor down here,” he said. So I am taking the job about eight books at a time, then letting them dry and doing other things before I return for the next eight books.

They are huge and heavy ledger books. My boss didn’t give me detailed instructions on how to do this job, but I’ve painted houses before, and I’ve sealed wood on a deck. I was sure I could figure out a successful procedure. I pick up each book, make a note of what it contains (because at the end I’ll need a list of all the books in the set), and brush the cover lightly with a cleaning brush to remove any dust or other particles. Then I lay the book on a table and paint the front cover. I then slide my hand under the book and turn it so I can paint the spine. Then I lay the book down again and start the next book. After about three books, the cover of the first book is dry, so I can flip it on its front cover and paint the back.

I haven’t mentioned this to my boss, but last month I hurt my arm moving furniture at home. Now I’ve got a steady ache around my elbow that sometimes twinges when I reach for something (like a door) or when I grasp something (like a ledger book). The pain is survivable, but I doubt I’m doing whatever muscle or ligament is stressed by carrying heavy books and painting them.

Aside from that, the work is quite pleasant. The basement is quiet and still. The books look beautiful when they get their wet cover of sealant. Of course the sealant is clear when it dries, so the old scars and stains reappear. Even so, the sealed books have a greater vibrancy of red with gold trim than those books I have not yet sealed.

Today they tested the fire alarm at work. Of course they sent an email out first, telling employees we would not need to evacuate the building. Of course I was in the basement painting books and didn’t get the email. The first time the alarm sounded, I thought for a second about whether or not I should leave, decided to leave, screwed the cover on the sealant container, and headed for the door. I had just gone up the stairs and reached the door to the parking lot when the alarm stopped. I didn’t see other employees standing outside, so I figured it was safe to get back to work. The second time the alarm sounded I thought for a few seconds, decided it was smarter to leave, and was halfway across the basement when the alarm stopped. After that, the other tests were so brief that I didn’t even have time to think about leaving before I knew I didn’t need to leave.

By the end of the week I should have all the books painted, and I should have the list of books ready so other people know where to find these books. I’m curious about what other new and unique opportunities I’ll have at this job the rest of the month.

J.