Friday, August 25, 2006

Of the breeding of books... by Greg Hartman

This is a rather funny piece of work, and sadly, it is not mine! To see it in its original location, go to Focus on the Family.

Of the Breeding of Many Books There Is No EndBy Greg Hartman

You can learn a lot from books. Not by reading them — by observing their behavior. Some people are book lovers. Me, I'm a book breeder.

When it comes to books, I'm like a cat lady. I never buy books. They migrate to my house from miles around all by themselves, so I can save money for essentials like food, clothing and shelves.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, Food, clothing and shelves? But I'm serious.
I can't remember the last time I actually bought a book, yet every time I turn my back it seems I have more books in my office. When I'm working I sometimes take a break and go get a soda, and when I return, the floor is covered with books.

I pick my way back to my chair, sit down and survey the books on the floor: a Calvin and Hobbes comic book, a book of electron microscope photos of germs, the 1974 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records, a Dave Barry anthology, two Hardy Boys mysteries and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

These are all fine works of literature, of course, but I don't recall needing them for my research into the life of Job. In fact, I'm pretty sure I didn't take them off the shelf at all.

Again, I know what you're thinking: You're thinking I'm just messy and I leave books lying around on the floor. But you're wrong. In fact, I never take any of my books off the shelves anymore. I can't afford to. If I take, say, five books off a shelf, wait an hour, then try to put them back, I can't: the shelf is full again. The books still on the shelf quickly breed to fill the empty space, and I have to buy more shelves.

When Sarah and I bought our first libr — I mean, house, it had two large glass-covered bookcases built into the living room. I put all my books in them, with room to spare.

But glass bookcases are like incubators for books. Soon they began spreading throughout the house, multiplying like tribbles. They started filling my office, then our spare bedroom. Before long, they had even encroached on the dining room, filling our china cabinet. Sarah wasn't happy about this. She wanted to put dishes in the china cabinet. If you can imagine.

This created other tensions. Sarah's parents raised her to believe reading at the dinner table is rude. I, on the other hand, trained my own parents to let me read at the table whenever I wanted. I employed the time-honored method of behaving so abominably when I didn't have my nose in a book that they were willing to do anything for even a remote chance of having a civilized meal.

When Sarah complained about me reading at the table, I protested that having a bookca — I mean, china cabinet full of books within arm's reach was too great a temptation for me. Sarah responded that having forks, knives and other weapons within arm's reach was beginning to greatly tempt her.

"Just get rid of some books!" she would say. I was indignant. Why should I get rid of any books when I hadn't bought any in the first place? Besides, even though I had never read the handbook on elephant physiology, the illustrated history of fire hydrants, or the 1962-1970 Chilton's Auto Repair Manual, I never knew when I might need them.

So I covered the walls in my office with shelves, from floor to ceiling, and managed, with the aid of a crowbar and a few strong friends, to wedge all my books on them. And the breeding seemed to stop for awhile. I think maybe the books were afraid of heights. Either that or I had them crammed on to the shelves so tightly that they couldn't get loose to migrate across the floor.
But the books were more devious than I thought: They invented cloning instead. When we moved to Portland back in 1995 and I started packing my books, I discovered multiple copies of book after book. I had five copies of C.S. Lewis' The Problem Of Pain. Maybe the books were trying to tell me something.

With the addition of the extra cloned books, the books were packed on to the shelves even more tightly. So tightly, in fact, that some of the books sort of grafted together. I had throw away several bizarre hybrid books that had resulted, such as The Late Great Pilgrim's Progress, My Utmost For His Screwtape Letters, and The Lion, The Witch And This Present Darkness.

The tightly packed shelves probably caused structural damage to our house. I never measured my office before or after I built the bookshelves, but I suspect the walls were bowed outwards when we left. And taking the books off the shelves was downright dangerous. When I pulled a book out, the rest of the books on that shelf would often explode free, the way deranged soccer fans burst into a stadium when the gates are opened, spraying the office with cloned English/Tamil dictionaries, handbooks on glove manufacturing, and copies of I'm OK, You're OK (which I used for kindling in our fireplace). I had to wear a bulletproof vest to finish emptying the shelves.

I knew we'd have less space when we got to Portland, so I got rid of several hundred books, and Sarah only had to threaten to go for the knife drawer twice. I tried a garage sale, but the cultural Philistines in our neighborhood didn't want to read the 1941 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Reader's Digest Condensed Bible.

This whole thing is my mother's fault. She got tired of breaking her back carrying all the books I wanted to check out from the library every week when I was a kid, and she made me start taking my little red wagon along. Really. She and the librarians thought it was cute — I was embarrassed.

That minor trauma has grown into a full-blown pathology. I'm just like the aforementioned cat ladies, who seem to like wading around through knee-deep cat hair. I like having to tiptoe across my office as if I was crossing a river on stepping stones. I like sliding out off the foot of the bed when I get up because of the small mountain of books on the floor on my side of the room. I like knocking over stacks of books in my cubicle at work with my elbow every time I reach for a cup of coffee.

Well, I tried donating my excess books to the library and discovered that librarians were not the mild-mannered pacifists I remembered. If they didn't want Moshe Dayan's memoirs or 88 Reasons Christ Will Return In 1988, they could have just said so. It was hardly necessary to call security.

I finally gave the surplus books to the rescue mission. I didn't want to be ostentatious in my generosity, so I left them by the back door at night. The remainder of the books fit into about 25 boxes.

But I didn't count on the Oregon climate. When we first arrived in Portland we had to leave some of our things in storage for a month or so. This caused a dangerous mutation in my books: Besides breeding and cloning, they now could also create new boxes to pack themselves into. When we emptied our storage unit, I discovered at least 40 more boxes of books, none of which had existed when we loaded the truck in Kansas.

As we were unpacking, Sarah walked by my office, glanced in, and saw me standing in the 23 square inches of remaining floor space, surrounded by chest-high piles of boxed books and trying to figure out where I was going to put my desk.

"I thought you were going to pare down your books before we moved!" she said, hands on hips.
"I did!" I protested. "Don't you remember how much I whined about it? They followed us here! Like in The Incredible Journey!" Sarah stomped off, exasperated.

"We are not putting any bookcases in the dining room!" she said over her shoulder.

I know you won't believe this, but I could hear snickering from some of the boxes.

Greg Hartman is a senior online editor at Focus on the Family.
Copyright © 2001, Greg Hartman. All rights reserved.

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