I find myself musing about my occasional good fortune in acquiring good books, that is, books that offer up precisely the information I want and make it easy to assimilate. I can tell at a glance if a book will be a good read for me or not, in areas of content, organization, level, and style. When I do find a book related to my interests, it is most often at the wrong level and/or incomplete for my needs, or written in an uninviting/boring style, making it unlikely I would be able to finish. Yet once in a while everything clicks.
Good reads that come to mind are Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans and Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, found while perusing bookstore shelves. (This may suggest to you, as it has to others, that I should have been a professor. That model works well for me, right up to the point where I would have to profess something. Then it falls apart completely.)
In each book shelf encounter, I had a general idea of a subject I was curious about, scanned any books that looked related to the subject, and ended with a pleasant surprise. It’s a great feeling to know what you are looking for and then finding it. Granted, no normal person likely would find such books toutable or inviting. So substitute your own good reads to capture the essence of the moment. (If toutable wasn’t a word before, it is now.)
Before the Internet, there were places like Powell’s and OpAmp Technical Books on the West Coast, as well as larger university book stores, where success was possible for someone like myself, even if not likely. Amazingly, Powell’s and OpAmp are still out there and competing, but Amazon, eBay, and Bookfinder are so much more convenient, especially if you don’t live in LA or Portland.
This is our modern conundrum, still valuing the old ways but seduced by the efficiency of the new. Thus the old ways have a habit of just disappearing on us, and we sense our grandchildren will be the poorer for it. I will feel a nostalgic loss if those businesses or others like them go away.
I enjoy getting a book in the mailbox (often a math book – I still struggle to understand math and keep hoping for a magic read that will cure this affliction). But I will never pass up a chance to visit a bookstore if I happen to be nearby. I enjoy the atmosphere, being in the company of others with my sensibilities, just hanging out and enjoying the smell of books. And sometimes I even get lucky (with a good read, of course).
The iPad mini is a great e-reader; I use the Kindle app. By using the Overdrive app, I can check out library books electronically. Also, many classics, now beyond the reach of copyright, are freely available for download. Shakespeare has found a home on the iPad. Now, I understand companies are toying with plans for selling subscription book services, modeled on the success of subscription movie downloads that have become big business. I will never read enough to make a subscription worthwhile.
Since my bookshelf is full, any new book must necessitate giving away an old one, a tremendous conflict for me (I still have many of my college books). An e-reader solves this problem. But I still can’t pass up a good book store. It’s sad I am no longer much help in keeping them in business. Hopefully the next generation of book lover, with more space yet in their bookshelves, will take care of that for me.
As you can probably sense, I am a purpose-driven soul who does not much operate in the realm of impulse and pure pleasure. I’ve often wondered how much more enticing a bookstore would be if I would go in and say ‘surprise me with something that would never occur to me within the normal workings of my mind’. But due to my bookshelf limitations, I will need to depend on recommendations of others and my e-reader to experience such excursions outside my normal box.
For those who celebrate the openings of new bookstores, give a cheer for Out West Books in Grand Junction. I understand they specialize in the history and resources of the area.
Reading academic stuff does have practical application. Shortly after reading Mallory’s book, I attended a dinner and was randomly seated across from a professor of linguistics. Wishing to open conversation and thinking baseball wouldn’t get me far (I know little about baseball beyond the Dodgers of the Koufax era), I mentioned Mallory and how I liked his book. I believe the professor was quite astonished that something of interest would slip from the lips of a software guy. It turned out he had done field work with Mallory early in his career and was happy to discuss the topic. He later sent me an extended reading list.
But best not to let such an experience go to one’s head. Emboldened by this success, at a subsequent dinner, I dared enter conversation with a professor of physics seated next to me. I didn’t fare nearly as well. He responded, to an interjected observation of mine, with “oh, is that how it is?”, which I believe is Nobel-speak for “Who are you to breathe my air, sir?”. No reading list was offered that night. Granted, my manners were suspect, and likely warranted a flesh wound. But even at worst, do you think a protocol faux pas ever justifies the nuclear option from a great superpower? Those Nobel medals are sharp.