Monday, February 20, 2012


I got a "device" for Christmas. Santa, a.k.a. my beloved husband, A., surprised me with the thing. He is a sweet man; generous to a fault, spendthrift, impulsive, and quite, quite dear. I had not asked for any such thing. The books I'd asked for, and for which I had fielded my conspirators carefully at the the bookstore as always, would have sufficed. ("I believe this stack of remaindered Wodehouse that he left behind the desk for three months now may be just the ticket, if you're Christmas shopping tonight... Oh! and look at all these other more expensive hardcover books likewise squirrelled so conspicuously behind his desk! Perhaps you might buy him these...") It is an old dodge, but reliable. He always adds something less likely to my haul: chocolates, nicer clothes than they've any business in this economy making in my outrageous sizes, pictures. Most often, I get at least a few of the things he found for me through the year and then forgot. This year, in that last category, there were three framed caricatures by the great Victorian "Spy." These he had acquired on various antiquing expeditions with his oldest friend, C., who knows when? Seems he found them carefully hidden in a closet he meant to clean one day. Merry Christmas to me! Such an old darling, my man, truly.

But a "device?" I did not understand it. I do not yet. It is my dear A. who likes the new technology. He's always loved an innovative whatsit, the latest ringing, buzzing thing, all the wee gizmos, the shiny new machines and the hand-held-whosits. (Now, don't be dirty-minded, pray, I mean only the usual sorts of phones and computer-driven conveniences just here. Mind the gentle nature of this diary, please.) My cell-phone? I use it only on the way home, when the car is safely parked at the grocery, to call and ask if he needs another carton of his lactose-free milk. I will not let him buy me another. What for? My own computer, on which I now write this, still strikes me as being frighteningly expensive and underutilized after, what? Is it five years now? Six? At any rate, I am informed it is long since obsolete. Imagine! Ridiculous, when one considers my contentment with anything that has spell-check and an adjustable font-size. (What did one do before?! I shudder to recall.) Anyway, his computer is newer, bigger, no doubt better. That's fine, just fine. His endless carousel of porno screen-savers looks specially smart on such an enormous screen, and his ipod seems to be beautifully integrated with all his Saturday morning streaming of old TV westerns on Hulu, etc. He even plays animated typing games, and solves math equations on the thing, just for fun, bless 'im. I remain content. It's him then that would probably enjoy this latest thing he bought me. I nearly bought him one, in fact, for Christmas!

But no. (I did buy him a new Bose "dock" for his little music player. He liked that.) No, I was the one who got -- unasked for, undreamed of -- a brand new, big, slick, sleek new "device."

I've had the thing "on" half a dozen times since December. Turns out? Wifi works if I am A) already seated in front of my actual computer, or B) in front of our giant new television (Christmas for us both last year.) And at the bookstore where my husband went to the tech department and bought me the very latest thing in new "devices?" At work, there is no reception, if that's the word, anywhere but standing in the cafe; not at my desk, not in the break-room, and no, not even in the office of the tech. department, it seems. I've been assured that this isn't quite true, that again, I've probably just misunderstood, etc., etc. Well that's fine, just fine. I'm sure that it's just me, honestly. No matter. Meanwhile, my own darling might just as well have taken eight hundred dollars or whatever the outrageous sum and just pounded it into a knothole in the floor -- if floors still had knotholes somewhere.

I don't want to hurt his feelings any more than I doubtless have already, so I've promised a very nice friend in the computer department that some time soon I'll schedule an hour with him off the floor and he will "set me up" and then I will be able to actually do all sorts of magical and amazing things with my new "device." Various friends already in possession of one of these things have been trying to educate me long since to the wonders and visions I have denied myself to date by not using the thing. One dear soul explained to me how I could be using it to draw with just my finger. Oh, yes? I've grown rather good with a pencil, if I may say so myself, and even had some attention on that score of late -- very flattering -- but just my finger, you say? Oh, well that would be something. And another friend, a rather renowned person, has insisted that she uses hers for all manner of creative work, that in fact her "device" has become so indispensable to her for all her writing, reading and research that she can not now imagine working without it. This was very impressive talk indeed, as I know something of the sheer volume of work the lady actually does in a week, say, and her output is prodigious. All the more impressive since she's made the mistake of showing me her favorite game -- a noisy business that seems to involve tossing understandably disgruntled animated birds at things -- and now I've come to recognize just how often I hear that familiar squawking coming from her machine when she's sitting in our cafe at the bookstore, supposedly hard at work to meet a deadline.

I will give the thing another, proper try, I swear. Someday. My fantasy frankly would be to download a few newspapers I should read anyway but would very much like to be able to read online wherever I happened to be -- other than our break room, my desk, or any of the other dead-zones about the place. I would also, I admit, be interested to read a book on the thing. I haven't read a book anywhere but in a book to date. While that still constitutes the chief pleasure and purpose of both my working and personal life, I will admit that I see no reason to do so by any means other than the traditional turning of actual pages in some fine old hardcover. Moreover, the introduction into the bookstore of our very own Espresso Book Machine has liberated me entirely from the public libraries I so loath when it comes to finding and reading the old books I can not otherwise find or afford. To date, I must have printed at least three dozen such books for myself, if not more. (I stopped counting.) But so many people have insisted that, if for no other reason, I should get myself a proper new "device" expressly for this purpose as it promises to present me not so much with a new alternative to the activity I most enjoy, but simply access in a new and simple way to more of it than even I might ever have imagined. Well. We shall see.

Meanwhile, as I was passing the sink in my bathroom this morning, I happened to notice that the stack of books just there has grown to rather embarrassing heights. I took the picture above that I might share it here, as I thought it might be instructive for anyone not in the habit of reading, as I do in the old fashioned way; meaning among the many books I own, as my fancy takes me and the opportunity presents itself. This is how my reading actually happens. Note the absence of organization or order. This, I maintain, is how books are best read. First, these are all books that I own. Some of them are relatively new to me at least, though nearly all, to be fair, are old. Where each sits says when I opened it last. Obviously the lowest need not be the lowest in my opinion or in literary rank, anymore than the uppermost need necessarily represent anything other than the book I set down last.

These particular books are all of 'em books I am not so much reading as picking up again as needed, if it is not too indelicate to say just that. The excellent life of Mrs. Gaskell by the divine Jenny Uglow, for instance, I rooted out from it's rest in order to read a bit more about her correspondence with Charles Dickens, and then as ought to be the way with books one owns, I got distracted by some other story therein and kept on. The copy of Verra Brittain's unsurpassed memoir of the First World War, Testament of Youth, I finally fetched up out of a box after holding a copy that came into the Used Desk, for fear of not being able to find mine. I wanted to dip into that book again because of the wonderful, and ridiculously derivative television drama to which the husband and me, and the rest of America, became completely addicted again this season, damn it. In that one, I've read and read again, and recommend it to anyone looking for a more coherent and honest narrative of the unique devastation that war wrought on the whole of British, not to say European society of the period. An amazingly good book, and not bad television drama in the adaptation from the old days, at least as I remember it.

I could of course dig deeper still. There is the stray volume of Colette, a theatrical novel, I think, or one of the vaudeville memoirs, anyway something aromatic of circuses, old wardrobes and even older suitors. Always worth a cigarette and a read -- if only I could still share a smoke with Colette! Then there is the rather formal, Oxford edition of a life of dear Hester Thrale Piozzi. Some Johnson researches to no particular purpose doubtless made me start in again on that one, though it is nowhere near so good as the lady's own book, but probably more reliable. And there's a book of essays by the brilliant Gary Indiana, a book I must have finished by now, but not, I think, if it is still in the stack by the mirror.

Anyway, the point, you see, is not the getting of books into some plain, portable form that might carry them all with me wherever I went, but rather the accumulation of both books and reading wherever I am or may be, that is what books are for me, my books anyway, the geography of my reading life. How would I think to read any of these, or read any of them again, if I were never to actually see them again in the physical world; by my bed, or on my dresser, in the piles by my desk, on the shelves of my hard-won library? What reality, do you think, would one less than familiar title by H. L. Mencken ever have for me again if that book's only presence in my life was as but one of so many hundred or thousand "files" on some glorified calculator?

Oh, I quite understand the potential benefits of having yet another new means of layering in potential reading to the haphazard accumulation that is this wonderful muddle of my books, and I'm nearly ready to try it -- anything to get at whatever books I can't, frankly -- but I wonder it will ever have the charm, the frank allure, of even just this stack by my bathroom mirror?

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