Dog Eared, Part I, Chapter 4

One Good Turn…

All right, enough procrastination. It’s time to start cleaning bookshelves. But where should I start? Isn’t this always the question? Even though I haven’t cleaned my office bookshelves for a decade or two, still it’s not rocket science. And just like Inventory Counting Day, I’ll need several things to complete the job: a six-foot ladder, a bucket of soapy water, a vacuum, and two rags (one to clean shelves; one to dust books). But first, let me give you a quick tour of my office.

My wife calls it “The Cave” (not only because it’s small, about 7’ by 13’, but also because it’s dark). What makes it distinctive is that three of the four walls have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. With a ceiling height of 10 ½ feet, that’s a lot of books. The ceiling height also explains why I use a six-foot ladder to get to the top shelf and not the easier-to-carry kitchen stepladder.

The room has three doors (a lot for a small room) and a seven-foot-tall, double-hung window, which faces the next-door neighbor’s brick wall (which explains why my office is dark). The one wall that is free of bookshelves—the north wall—has two worktables, one on either side of a two-drawer filing cabinet. Then there’s my office chair (no high-back, ergonomic, good-for-the-back chair for “active” sitting; just a straight-backed wooden chair my wife found in the alley). But enough of the furniture, let’s return to the books and bookshelves and how I plan to clean them.

First of all, I set up the ladder at the start of a row of shelves and slowly climb to the top of the ladder, take down a dozen or more books within reach (one at a time, of course), and place them on the little paint-can holder that flips out from the backside of the ladder. When the mound of books on the paint-can holder that flips out from the backside of the ladder is sufficiently high, I begin the long journey down the ladder, taking several of the books from the top of the mound with me. It’s practice for what I have to do next: climb the ladder with one hand while grasping the handle of a bucket of soapy water with the other.

For this phase, which is exactly as advertised, I haul a bucket of soapy water up the ladder, place it on the paint-can holder that flips out from the backside of the ladder, and clean as much of the shelf I can reach (I used to be able to reach more shelf than I can now, but that’s because I was better able to suppress my fear of heights). Climbing the ladder with the bucket of soapy water is by far the most dangerous part of my bookshelf-cleaning project. In fact, it’s probably the most dangerous thing I’ll do all year, which tells you a lot about my life or my age—or both. Of course, I don’t clean the shelf with the bucket of water: I clean it with a rag that I immerse in the bucket of water, careful to wring out as much excess water as possible so as to not dampen the shelf excessively. This action is repeated the full length of the bookshelf with several time-outs in order to replenish the bucket of soapy water and to clean the rag in the slop-sink in the basement. (It also gives me a chance to catch my breath.) Yes, the amount of grime is unbelievable. But once I have finished this unpleasant and quasi-dangerous task, I have a genuine sense of accomplishment—as well as several piles of books on my office floor.

Now, for the fun part: cleaning each book by hand. I used to do this while perched at the top of the ladder, but that was when I was younger and more agile. Now, I clean each book while standing squarely on the floor of my office. Yes, this is the part of the bookshelf-cleaning project that I look forward to the most—picking up each book, turning it over in my hand, and carefully—even lovingly—dusting it off before retracing my steps back up the ladder to place it back on my shelves. Actually, I don’t dust the books; I vacuum them (after my wife mentioned that it would be a tad easier, not too mention more efficient if I did). Nonetheless, the cleaning process—no matter how I do it—is less physical than emotional, because in the process of cleaning a book I get to reacquaint myself not only with the contents of the book, but with an earlier part of my life when the book meant so much to me (it must have since I bought it). It’s like thumbing through an old family photo album that you haven’t looked at in years.

In the digital age it’s quite easy to lose track of the physicality of a book—how it feels, how it smells, how it looks, how it sounds, especially when you rustle through the pages. It’s not that I’m a Luddite, a holdout against the constant stream of digital books available on the market; rather, as a writer brought up in the pre-digital age I still have a healthy appreciation of the physical book. I do buy both—e-books and physical books—I just buy more physical books (though that might be changing in the future: it’ll be a heck of a lot easier to move an e-book library to the nursing home than a library of physical books).

E-books, of course, have their place. And they’ve already impacted me, particularly my book-buying habits. When I buy a physical book I’m much more discerning in what I buy: aside from intriguing content, the book has to delight my senses, which usually means a hardcover book with an alluring dust jacket, exquisite endpapers, engaging front matter, attractive interior design, a unique blend of font styles, and last but not least pleasing paper stock.

Case in point: Several years ago I bought Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw. I found it in one of Daedalus’ book catalogs (if you don’t know Daedalus, you should as they offer an odd assortment of remaindered books at quite affordable prices). Rybczynski’s book on the history of the lowly screwdriver caught my eye. I mean, how on earth can you squeeze a book out of that—a screwdriver, for God’s sake? Well, Rybczynski more than did: it’s as much a history of human tool-use as it is a history of the Western World, with some interesting side adventures along the way (like a quirky discussion about 16th-century armorer’s tools).

Daedalus offered Rybczynski’s book as a paperback, which I’m not opposed to buying (not only am I not a purist book collector—hardcover first editions and all that—but I figure at my age a paperback has as good a chance of outliving me as a hardcover). Rybczynski’s book was all it was advertised to be: an exceedingly entertaining and informative book for such a slim volume. Several years after purchasing the paperback, however, I stumbled upon the hardcover edition while scanning the shelves of a local used bookstore. I immediately fell in love with the hardcover edition. Everything about it beckoned me: its cover, endpapers, selection of fonts, interior design and organization, but especially its thick, deckled paper stock. I didn’t equivocate: I bought it on the spot even though I had a paperback edition sitting on my bookshelves at home.

When all of the physical elements of a book conspire to overwhelm my senses, I don’t hesitate: I buy the book, often deciding later if I like the writing. And I usually remember when and where I bought the book—even years later. I doubt that most people remember when and where they bought most of their e-books. I certainly don’t, and I don’t even buy many of them.

            Right. Now back up the ladder.

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