We’re all familiar with it: that incredible and endurable icon of Italy—Torre Pendente di Pisa, a.k.a. the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is the campanile, or freestanding bell tower, located behind Pisa’s Cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. Was it built with a tilt on purpose—perhaps to attract tourists, which it certainly has over the centuries? Or, was it one big goof-up? After all, construction on the tower began in 1173 when building techniques were still evolving.
In any case, it tilted, almost immediately. In 1178, after construction had progressed to the second floor, the tower began its slow incline to the right (or left, depending upon where you’re standing). The reason: not only was the marble foundation only ten feet deep, it was set in weak, unstable substrata. In short, the tower was doomed from the start. The only thing that saved it was greed and hubris. It turns out that the Republic of Pisa liked to fight with its neighbors (especially Genoa, Lucca, and Florence) over trade routes and political prestige. Because of this, construction was halted for almost a century allowing sufficient time for the underlying soil to settle, which most certainly kept the tower from toppling over.
In 1372, one year shy of the structure’s bicentennial, the tower was completed. That’s the year that the bell-chamber was added (the bells—seven in all, comprising a major scale—would take another three centuries to be hung, with the last and largest bell installed in 1655). But all of this is prologue to one of the most distinctive tourist attractions in Western Europe, which should have toppled ages ago, had it not been for the Italian government (and the U.S. military that spared it from bombardment during WWII even though they knew the Germans were using it to spy on their neighbors).
For several decades after the War the Italian government, recognizing the tower’s powerful attraction as a tourist destination, tried in vain to stop the tower from tilting. They closed the tower to tourists. They removed the bells. They girdled the tower with cables. And just to be safe they evacuated all of the residents in the path of the tower (just in case their efforts failed and the tower suddenly collapsed, as the Civic Tower of Pavia did in 1989). They even thought of adding a counterweight of 800 tons of lead to the raised end of the base in order to stop the tilting.
Finally, the government assembled a consortium of engineers, mathematicians, and historians and took them to the Azores (I guess they needed to get away for a while), where they decided to straighten the tower to a safer angle. Over several island margaritas (or whatever they drink in the Azores), they planned to remove 1,342 cubic feet of soil from underneath the raised end of the tower. The margaritas worked, because when it was all said and done, the tower was straightened by almost 18 inches, returning it to its 1838 position, which meant that the Leaning Tower of Pisa could be opened for business once again. And it was, on December 15, 2001. By the end of the decade, a team of engineers declared the tower stable, and that it should remain that way for another 200 years.
It turns out there are leaning towers all over the world: some of them, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the result of bad judgment; others, built on purpose. And one of them (one of the “on purpose” towers, that is) is in my backyard. Well, not literally, but close. It’s a couple of townships over. If you were walking along West Touhy Avenue in 1934 you might stop to watch workmen put the finishing touches on the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa—isn’t that in Italy?
The original, yes; but industrialist Robert Ilg of Niles, Illinois, built a pint-sized tower (actually, it’s a half-sized replica) that year as part of IlgAir, a recreation park Ilg began in the 1920s for employees at the Ilg Hot Air Electric Ventilating Company of Chicago.
Some say the tower was to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the original tower’s construction. Let’s see: 1934 minus 600 equals 1334, which makes no sense at all because the last architect to work on the tower was Tommaso Pisano, who worked on the tower from 1350 to 1372, the latter date marking the tower’s official completion date (unless you count completion from the installation of the last bell in the bell chamber; then 1655 is your magic number). But all of this really doesn’t matter because a more plausible theory exists. The theory postulates that the real purpose of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Niles, Illinois, was to store water for the park’s public swimming pools.
In either case, residents of Niles, Illinois, don’t have to worry about the tower falling over (in the same way that residents of Pisa, Italy, had to). The reason is twofold: not only had building techniques improved considerably by 1934, allowing for such an off-kilter building to rise over a public space, but also, and more importantly, the city of Niles became the first city in the United States to offer free ambulance service to its residents. It did so in 1946, anticipating—possibly—a building collapse or two.
But neither of these towers concerns me right now. What concern me are the piles of books lining my office floor, what my wife calls my Leaning Towers of Pisa (smirking when one of them occasionally falls over). The towers represent the contents of the bookshelves from the east wall of my office. You know, the one that I had counted earlier, coming up with 240 books, plus or minus.
These now decorate the perimeter of my office, scattered here and there in precariously arranged stacks. The stacks are not thematic, however, as I had first imagined. When embarking on my yearlong office-cleaning project, I thought that as I took books off of my bookshelves I’d arrange them thematically into separate piles: ancient history, medieval Britain, legends and fables, art, music, literary criticism, etc. Not so the books from my east-wall bookshelves: these are arranged by trim size.
Yes. (I knew that would catch your attention.) You see, over the last few years I’ve become quite interested in the trim size of books. The reason: as a self-published author I have to be cognizant of the trim size of a book because not every trim size is “standard,” which means that they may or may not be available in various bindings: paperback, case laminate, cloth hardcover, and so on. This is important information because I usually publish a book in three editions—paperback, e-book, and hardcover—using three different companies. I do so because each company offers unique promotion and distribution opportunities that the others don’t. But they also don’t share the same standard trim sizes (of course here we’re talking paperback and hardcover, and not e-book). So, I have to be mindful of the trim sizes that they share in common so the transition from paperback to hardcover is shameless; I mean, seamless.
And that’s why the piles of books on my office floor are arranged by trim size. But there’s another reason: I got it in my head several months ago to arrange the books on these shelves by height. I just wanted to see what it would look like to arrange a shelf of books by height, rather than alphabetically by the author’s last name or by theme. (Think of it as a variant of the train-set-turned-roller-coaster experiment.) The exercise, arbitrary and nonsensical as it is, has proved to be rather useful: in the process I culled out books that fit every standard and not-so-standard trim size published by Ingram and CreateSpace, two of the print-on-demand publishers that I use for my self-published books. The books in this group are measured, labeled, and shelved on a separate bookshelf (on the west wall of my office, which we’ll get to later). Whenever I start a new project, I first consult this set of books in order to help determine which trim size might work best for the particular project I have in mind.
And, yes, like many things in my office—and in my life—I could go on and on and on. But right now I can’t: I have to get ready for a trip to Florida.
Postscript: When Robert Ilg’s workmen were putting the finishing touches on the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Niles, Illinois, in 1934, making sure the tower leaned at exactly the right angle, workmen in Pisa, Italy, were doing exactly the opposite. Under the direction of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, head of the Italian Fascist Party, workmen were frantically trying to straighten the tower. Apparently, Mussolini, a.k.a. Il Duce, thought the leaning tower an embarrassment to Italy and ordered it straightened. To do so, Mussolini ordered several hundred holes—361 of them to be exact—drilled into the foundation of the tower. That was step one. Step two involved filling the holes with cement, a whopping 90 tons of it, all in the hope that the weight of the cement would wrench the tower back into its original upright position. Unfortunately, not only was Mussolini a bad dictator, he was also a terrible architect. When the cement was poured, instead of forming up in the holes, as Mussolini had expected, the wet cement flowed right through them, settling in the clay substrata beneath the tower, causing it to tilt even more, leaving us to wonder if Il Duce was actually a misspelling.
Might the correct spelling be Il Dunce?