Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sociology of Beach Reading

Beachy...and Fun!

Here's a note on the very importance of beach books: not just that books are objects that we enjoy taking to the beach, taking on vacations, or just taking with us to keep us occupied, but something else.  In the paper I recently gave at the ATLA conference in St. Louis (which I'll discuss all so briefly in a forthcoming post), I spoke about what I called the "valence and hybridity" of reading.  Effectively, I used this phraseology to describe both the types of readers in the world and their relationships with books and the world around them.  More specifically, I assessed the reader as "social," "solitary," or "hybrid."  And within these categories I noted that not only is the role that the reader plays important, but also the "observer."  People--myself included--watch, observe, see, recognize, (another verb?) other people read.  And within this capsule of action, there are spaces of orientation found among the participants (reader, book, and observer).  And during the summer months, this is perhaps nowhere more relevant or apparent than on beaches across the country, even around the globe.  Now take these folks in the colorized photo postcard above, supposedly an image from a beach in California taken around 1905 (and appropriated from Wikipedia, thank you very much--and of course, in the public domain).  They are enjoying themselves.  Playing in the sand, carrying parasols, and entertaining friends among other things.  Surely, a few of them were beach readers (even if this antique image doesn't testify to that).  But today I went to the beach with the family.  We enjoyed the fresh sea breezes (aka "Lake Michigan breezes"), the clear blue sky, and the scents of charcoals burning, and off-gassing the comestibles of choice (for one could tell if you were sitting next to a Pole roasting chops or the Landsman of choice grilling skirt steaks marinated in salsa verde).  What I also noticed, though, while the wind wasn't whipping up like the inside of a Cuisinart, was what people were reading.  Like some of the studies I've done in the past, the books that people carry and read demonstrate or show to the world a certain aspect of the reader without that person having to say a single word: the semiotics of the book at work once again.  But it goes further than this.  The carrying of books in public places, especially at beaches, which are wide open spaces where people go to relax and read, and may attract hundreds, if not thousands of beach-goers, is a social space and social location where another symbiosis takes place.  This symbiosis is somewhat of a confluent praxis.  That is, we observe the mass of readers in their locales, positions, in their trunks or bikinis, reading their books.  And for those of us interested in what other people read, we glance quickly at the covers of their books to see what it is they're reading.  What is that book?  Do I know it?  Have I read it?  What does that title say about the person?  Well, many things could be said about this, and certainly you readers of this blog will have your own opinions as well.  For now, though, let me share a few brief observations of the books I came across (and now remember) from this afternoon:

John Locke, Treatise on...  (read by a scruffy 20-something, laying on his back, on the grass): I don't even remember the full title, but the fact that someone was reading JOHN LOCKE at the beach is all I have to say!

Kate Jacobs, The Friday Night Knitting Club (read by a bespectacled twenty-something woman, sitting on a wall near the beach):  look, someone's gotta read this stuff, why not?  Maybe it's even a decent read.  I checked out the reviews of this book, and I'm sure I'll never read it.  But again, it tells me something about a complete stranger in a very mysterious and curious world...whether or not I wanted to know it!

Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (held by a young 20-something Asian / Asian-American woman) Perhaps most interesting in this observation was that there were 4-5 young women going to sit on a bench together.  One of them was holding two copies of this book.  The book, again, one which I've never heard of, is a tale of early 20th century Jewish immigrants and the details of their quotidian experiences in a new culture.  What might we see?  Book group...women's literature...immigrant and "ethnic" literature, among other things.  Could be a book I might read.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (held by late-20s/early-30s geekster-cum-hipster) I didn't even have to read the title...I could see the design from afar!  I wonder what that means?  This IS a book that I've wanted to read, and will probably do soon.

The main point of this exercise was to examine the power of symbols and images and the "imaging" that books put forward in our social contexts and locations.  For me, to see books in public is not simply to "see" them, but to engage with them, even if I'm not even touching them or reading them (i.e. reading their content, rather than their covers for information).  This engagement is a relationship of action, where I am actively learning and acquiring information. I am learning new titles and texts--not from reading the NY Times Book Review or some reviews in journals or online, but from seeing the physical object in the hands, in the presence of someone else.  I make (and I think many people make) judgments about texts based on their responses or reactions to "covers" or "their readers."  How many of you do this?  The sociology of books and especially on beaches is something important for us to think about.  It has a role for all of us.  Oh, I guess the beach does too. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Axiologies and Books: Comments on Commodification, Value, and Cost

Cost and Value, Among Other Things

Recently, I purchased four used books at a thrift shop--my "bookshops" of choice. One of the reasons I search for books in thrift stores is that these locales often yield the most surprising finds: true "bibliodipitous" moments. Usually, I search for books to buy in either used book shops or thrift shops. There are distinctions, though, in both categories: some book shops are better than others, because of variety of topics and choices. So too are many thrift shops. For instance, the Brown Elephant "chain" of resale shops tends to have a much broader variety of books, but also better quality, higher "brow" literatures, as well as contemporary fiction, histories, and biographical works. The Unique Thrift Shops and Village Discounts (both Chicago institutions of 'thriftery') generally have more popular fiction, Christian fiction, and an occasional classic of Western literature (I've found Shakespeare, Conrad, and other classics usually published for High School English classes to consume). But yard sales, antique shops, and church basement shops often yield similar finds at much discounted prices. A recent acquisition I found in a church basement shop was a hefty biography of Bach for which I only paid a quarter! To name two great purchases: a) The Tale of Genji, which I purchased a few years ago for a mere $1, but new would have cost over $35, while used copies today run between $4 and $20; and b) Heimito Von Doderer's massive two-tome, 1,000+ page The Demons for $9 at a rural upstate New York used book shop, which I purchased, because I'd only seen it in a Chicago used book shop for nearly $35! Certainly there are questions of "cost" and "value," but also what the elemental meaning of commodity is. Who wants it? Who has it? What is it "worth?" Surely, these terms are loaded with connotations and valuations, but it is for us to consider what all of this means in our own individual contexts. And of course, prices vary widely depending on whether or not there is someone who can determine "worth" in a sales environment. And in most thrift shops, these distinctions are not made.

Now here is a list of books that I just purchased. I want to discuss some aspects of these books, including what the books are, whom they were written by, and their condition, among other things:

1) Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan. An imprint of "newpress" Canadian Classics. 412 pages. This edition published in 1991 by General Paperbacks out of Toronto. The thing that is initially interesting about this book is its cover, a painting by Marian Mildred Dale Scott (b. 1906) entitled Escalator (1937)--though I have not put it here, as I couldn't find a photo of the cover. To the left is a collage I created with the cover of the book and another painting by Marian Scott. Rarely do artists get coverage or credit of equal stature to the authors whose books are being decorated, and Ms. Scott's painting has full credit at the very top back of MacLennan's novel in this edition. The cover of this book was ripped, almost completely off, in which case (or most cases) I'd have left the book on the shelf. In fact, I argued with the thrift store clerk to discount the already diminished price of "50 cents," because of this glaring imperfection. He said he couldn't do it. Alas. But I bought the book for the next reason: because it was among the lesser known ranks Canadian literature. "Lesser known" by Americans, I mean. We seem to forget that there's not only a country just north of us, but that it is a dynamic set of cultures and societies that has an astonishingly impressive body of literatures that have been produced by its people, even beyond the more well known narratives of Robertson Davies (who has become one of my favorite writers, incidentally, and accidentally!). Interestingly, the first page of written matter in this work contains on its verso side a listing of those works in the New Press Canadian Classics, which could be worth investigating. These include:

Hubert Aquin, The Antiphonary (trans. Alan Brown)
Sandra Birdsell, Night Travellers
Marie-Claire Blais, Nights in the Underground (trans. Ray Ellenwood)
George Bowering, Burning Water
Anne Hebert, Kamouraska (trans. Norman Shapiro)
Martin Kevan, Racing Tides
Felix Leclerc, The Madman (trans. Philip Stratford)
Antonine Maillet, Pelagie (trans. Philip Stratford)
Leon Rooke, Fat Woman and Shakespeare's Dog

A couple curious items of note are that half of these entries are translated. And my bet is that if I went to look them up now, they'd likely be French Canadian titles. This is nice, because it gives a broader feel to the traditionally linguistic anglo-centrism of our North American literatures, and presumably another sense of literary character to our readings. My other observation is that Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are on this list (though I haven't included them above); they were at this time in their literary ascendancy.


How much did this book sell for in 1991? This trade fiction sold for $6.95 (but I'm not sure if it was Canadian or American!) The day I bought it, in June 2009, I spent 50 cents (as I noted above). Was it worth it? I'll let you know later.

2) Kamasutra, A new translation by Wendy Doniger & Sudhir Kakar (With Colour Illustrations). 231 pages. Published by Oxford University Press. 2002.


The original cost of this book in 2002 was $26.00US. I purchased it for $1.00. It is, for the most part, in fine if not pristine condition: only ~5 pages have minimal high-lighting. And on the front piece, there is an inscription from the author to one "Marion," which reads: "...and for Marion with best wishes and gratitude from Wendy, March 21, 2003." Hmmmmm. I hope Marion wasn't a good friend, rather someone who waited in line at a Borders or Barnes and Noble to purchase a copy! So I wonder what the value added is with the author's signature added? I've met Wendy, took a class with her in grad school, and have had numerous conversations with her at University of Chicago functions. She is the kind of author who puts herself into her work. So whether or not the inscription means anything, perhaps one day it will. A change in cost or price between 2002 and 2009 from $26.00 to $1.00 (because it was hardback) is a dramatic drop, yet the value of this work is far greater than that one single $1. In fact, I bet she could sell her signature alone for $1, maybe $10 or $100! But the book itself, too, being the Kamasutra, and the newest, freshest, and maybe dirtiest rendition out of the King's English (back through Sanskrit) and into Wendy Doniger's should commodify this book-object into a much more valuable text than one sold for $1 at a thrift store.

3) Salammbo: A Romance of Ancient Carthage, by Gustave Flaubert (with a Critical Study on Flaubert by Guy de Maupassant). Vol. III. Simon P. Magee (Publisher), Chicago, Ill. 1904. 221 pages.


This book, listed as "$4.00" was sold to me for $1.00. Originally published in 1904, I'd have to look up in a directory what its original cost was and a commensurate price for today. According to the "Measuring Worth" calculator--there are several ways to compare temporal worth--I checked out this calculator:

But according to the consumer price index, this $4.00 used book would have been a $0.16 used book in 1904. As for a brand new book? At another interesting website, which tells us how much household items cost in a town in NJ at a given time, in 1904, you can find that household items cost x-amount by searching their lists:
What is interesting is that a newspaper--the only reading item on this list--cost only $0.01. We might deduce from this a price of a book in 1904, if we compared the ratio between paper and book in today's costs, (say a paper today costs about $1-2, while a new book can go for between $12-35, if we're talking major main stream publishing). In this case, a book in 1904 might cost somewhere between $0.12-0.35 new. But used? Hard to tell. One other item: this book seemed interesting to me not just because it was a book by Flaubert, but that it included a critical study by my favorite short story writer, Guy de Maupassant. That adds another layer of value...

4) The Red City: Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century, by John M. Merriman. Oxford University Press. 1985. 332 pages (including index, bibliography, and notes).

For most, you either love or hate the French. I, for the most part, "luv 'em." And this book is just another example. A glance at the Library of Congress subject headings in the front matter reveals immediately the nature of French historiography (even if it is done in America):

"Labor and laboring classes--France--Limoges--History--19th century."

Sure, this is the nature of almost 90% of Franco-historical research, mostly because of that thing called Revolution and the tepidly dulcet prose from de Tocqueville, but it is still striking and interesting to this Francophile. I only by chance happened upon this book in a section of miscellaneous non-fiction, and was drawn first to the words "Red City," which made me think it was a work about some Chinese town (how communistically incorrect I was!), and then "Limoges." I knew this word from my grandmother, or more precisely, from someone who admired my grandmother and her collection of Limoges "china." Which, of course, it all makes sense: "Limoge" is not a red city "in China," but "Limoges" is a red city that "makes china!"

There are some artifactual items of importance in this book, for whatever future historians may be interested. The front inside cover is inscribed with "from the Old Days, 1988." And inside, between pages 166 and 167 is an order slip labeled "Shanachie Records, P.O. Box 284, Newton, N.J. 07860." Well, that means nothing to me! Onward the New Days!


I am not sure of the original cost of this book, but would guess that in 1985, it probably cost around $18.00 new--I will have to research this. But when I bought this book in June 2009, I spent only 50 cents on it!--again, because it was paper-bound, not hard back.

Axiology and Axiologies?

So what exactly is "axiology?" And how does it apply to us? I have come to recognize this "study of value or cost" as something important to our understanding of books, as well as our relationships with books. Axiologically, questions about how we take care of our individual books, our collections, our libraries, and the ethical dimensions of book "stewardship" all play into this understanding. It is important to continue to ask questions about "cost" and "value" and what these terms actually mean in the commodified worlds that we live in. It is by no mistake that my first class in library school was a class that highly emphasized the idea of commodification and what it really meant in terms of information, knowledge, organization and access of information, and book culture. Books have value and books have price: two distinct economic ideas. For most of you, who know me, I value books greatly. Yet, from this blog, you also know that I look for good prices, which in some ways enhances their value, because of the deal I may get on the book. In some ways, if I purchase a high value book, the lower the price (even to the point it is free), the greater the axiological experience becomes. There is some relationship at work here. Such reminds me of a time I needed a book on the history of Australia (The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, by Robert Hughes). I went out and bought the book new, because I was under a time constraint, and it cost $20 new (soft cover). Since that time, nearly 2 years ago, I have seen at least a dozen copies (hard and soft cover) at thrift stores around the city. Recently, I saw TWO copies in one store--all for under $1. That has elicited a very different feeling, but one that also has to do with "value" and "cost" and "commidification."

Books, value, money. Still lots to think about.

And for those of you interested in last week's ATLA Conference in St. Louis, fear not, I'll be posting my reflections on that shortly.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Books, Libraries, and Print Culture in Puerto Rico

Books, Libraries, and Print Culture in Puerto Rico: A Report (June 2009)
by Anthony J. Elia (for

On Sunday, June 7, 2009 I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico where I was to teach a workshop on designing online educational environments. I arrived late that night into the open embrace of San Juan's sea-spelled warmth and humidity, and readied myself for the week's activities. To my delight, I would also discover a trove of book environments, many fine libraries, and an historically significant exhibit on early print culture in Puerto Rico. This entry will detail some of my visits to libraries and archives, meetings with Puerto Rican librarians, and chance encounters with other interesting individuals relevant to book and print culture.

My own airport reading was Catch-22 and The Penguin History of Latin America. Both held my attention, until I arrived in Puerto Rico, at which point I was more interested in all that was around me. I suppose that is usual.

DAY 1 (Monday):
University of Puerto Rico: English Literature Seminar Library
Caribbean and Latin American Studies
The Book in Latin American Culture and Liberation Theology

To my surprise and delight, the University of Puerto Rico is located directly across the street from the Seminario Evangelico, where I was staying and working. On the first morning of my visit, I went for an early morning walk to the lovely campus. As I walked in, I tripped over rotting mangoes, dried coconuts, and other tropical fruits that had fallen from their respective trees, which inhabited the campus grounds. The great Roosevelt Tower dominates the campus, decorated in glazed terracotta and bright blues and golds.

After getting my requisite cup of cafe con leche, I discovered that the university had several libraries apart from the "Main" library. I happened to find myself in the English language department, which has a seminar reading room and library, but this library is not technically a library according to the university staff. But it had a fine collection of classics in English language literatures--the typical 19th and 20th fare: Dickens, Faulkner, Woolf, et al.

After leaving the English language seminar library, I went back to explore the Main Library (image above shows Pablo Casals "In Exile" exhibit, just above the main entrance), which had been closed when I'd passed by it earlier. I found on the first floor the prestigious Caribbean and Latin American Studies Library (, and met both the director and catalog librarian. We had a brief discussion about information access and the nature of the collection, which had originated in the southern Caribbean. According the the pamphlet (image below), which the director gave me...

"The Caribbean Regional Library was established in 1946 in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Library belonged to the Caribbean Commission, Caribbean Organization, Economic Development Corporation (CODECA), and the North-South Center.

In 1965 the Library was transferred in trust to the Puerto Rican government. Since 1975 it is located at the Jose M. Lazaro Building in the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Pedras Campus. In 1980, the Puerto Rican Legislature transferred its administration and organization to the University of Puerto Rico.

The Latin American Studies Collection and Caribbean Regional Library merged in 1985 and since then, it is known as the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Library."

Of interest too, is the observation that many, if not most, library collections in Puerto Rico, at least in the University, are closed stack circulation. There are historical reasons for this, but it would be interesting to examine this phenomenon further.

Later in the day, my host drove us out to the sea side town of Dorado, where we had dinner. Part of our conversation was about books and liberation theology in Latin America. The discussion turned to the history of violence in El Salvador during the last thirty years. Both my host and I had traveled to El Salvador at different times, and we spoke of our experiences there.
One in particular struck a common chord and dealt with books--two books specifically. At the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, when you visit the center where the famed university president and liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría was murdered with five other Jesuits, you are immediately greeted by the caretakers, who show you two books: one is a photo album of pictures showing the massacred priests and housekeepers--including the most gruesome photo of the slain Jesuit's head bashed open; the other is a theological tome soaked in blood. Though this has nothing to do with Puerto Rico itself, the conversation was a reminder of the significant semiotic value that books such as these have in both Latin American and other contexts. Here, though, it made us recall the book as artifact of violence, as well as history.

DAY 2 (Tuesday):
University of Puerto Rico: Education Library

Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art
Borders Bookstore, "Mall of the Americas" (aka Altar of Mamon)

Silencio! That was my introduction to the Education Library at the University of Puerto Rico (at left). Despite the announcement to keep quiet, there were no "shooshing" librarians. In fact, the librarian (Marisol Gutierrez Rodriguez, MLS CLA--the "Bibliotecaria Jefe") and her staff, including the most friendly Hector Torres (Bibliotecario Auxiliar), spoke with me for a while, and even gave me some gifts for visiting! --including a calendar from the UPR and a paper clip container. I also found some great books on the history and philosophy of education here...some interesting titles I copied down included:

The Proustian Quest
, by William C. Carter (1992)
Degrees of Control: A Sociology of Educational Expansion and Occupational Credentialism,
by David K. Brown (1995)
The Origins of Composition Studies...1875-1925, ed. by John C. Brereton
The Organic Philosophy of Education, by Frank Wegener (1957)
Popular Education and Democratic Though in America, by Rush Welter
Great American Degree Machine, by Douglas Adkins

Next, it was off to the Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art, where I met the director, Flavia Marichal Lugo. We spoke a little bit about the exhibit that was now running called "De la pluma a la Imprenta: La cultura impresa en Puerto Rico (1806-1906)." This exhibit, literally "from quill to press," was a documentary history of printing in Puerto Rico during its first hundred years. The exhibit, though moderately small, was outstanding. It was curated by Dr. Lizette Cabrera, a specialist in print history in Puerto Rico, and is well worth visiting. I highly commend the work that both Dr. Cabrera and Directora Lugo and her museum staff have done. It is very well organized, interesting, and engaging, and presents the visitor with a slice of Puerto Rican and, more broadly speaking, Caribbean print culture that is not very well known. The image to the left is the informational brochure that is handed out at the Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte and is very well documented and historically rich. A larger art and documentary book was availabel for sale (~$25.00), but I did not purchase it.

The image at the left here is the advertisement banner that was hung outside of the Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte. It depicts an antique printing press with a flowing swirl of letters spinning out from the press itself.

Perhaps one of the most interesting experiences and observations on this trip, was a visit to the Plaza las Americas--the "Mall of the Americas" in San Juan. It is a gigantic super-mall, with over 300 shops, and is affectionately known to Puerto Ricans by its moniker "Altar of Mamon." But the great observation of the night was the passing through the massive BORDERS bookstore, which was bigger than any I've seen in the USA. Even more striking was the number of people standing up and reading among the bookshelves of mostly English books, though the Spanish books were to be found in large quantities too. Most readers were in the magazine sections, but there were still several hundred people in the store when I passed by the first time on the way into the mall, and on the way out a few hours later. Reading and Book culture are far from being dead on this island--that is for certain! Mamon or no Mamon!

DAY 3 (Wed.): San Juan and Ponce
Seminary Library, San Juan
Folklore Institute, Ponce

The first part of the day was spent in the seminary library, where we completed the course I was teaching in online education. Later in the day, my host and I drove to the southern city of Ponce, which is in a drier climate. Though there are libraries there, including those that are part of the Pontifical University, we didn't visit any, partly because it was so late by the time we arrived, so many places were closed. Included in this was the Folklore Institute, but I did take photographs of its entrance.

This was the group of participants in my workshop. We were on break in the Reference Section of the Seminary's Library.

While in Ponce, we happened upon the Folklore Institute, but it had just closed a half hour prior to our visit. I knocked on the door to see if they had a brochure, but they didn't. Too bad. Here is the full name of the institute: Centro de Investigaciones Folklóricas de Puerto Rico, Casa Paoli (Ponce, P.R.).

DAY 4 (Thursday):
The University of Puerto Rico: Rare Books and Manuscripts/Archives

Seminario Evangelico Archives

The Sociology of Airport and Airplane Reading
(First Try!)

The morning of my fourth day, I went to explore more of the University Library and especially to revisit the librarian at the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Collections, but she was not there. So I went to the second floor of the University Library and discovered other collections, including the Literature Collection (Zenobia and Juan Ramon Jimenez Room), again arranged by Dewey Classification (boy!--they love Dewey here! I even had a heated discussion with one librarian, who insisted Dewey was better than LC because "he was an educator!") and more interestingly, the Colleccion Josefina del Toro Fulladosa Libros Raros y Manuscritos, which is overseen by Aura Diaz Lopez, MIS. Ms. Diaz Lopez was a very generous and kind hostess, who showed me around this phenomenal collection. In fact, she described the collection cataloging protocols (organized mostly by size, not subject) and told me that she'd written her Library School Masters thesis on the history of the cataloging of this Rare Books and Manuscripts Library! A wonderful treat, indeed! The image to the upper left is part of the Coleccion Alfred Nemours de Historia de Haiti. This collections, as can be deduced, is one of the great Haitian French collections. In fact, during my visit, we went into the inner sanctum of the rare books vault, and Ms. Diaz Lopez openned some archival boxes containing Haitian artifacts, including an antique flag, administrative reports from the 1790s and 1800s, and even handed me a finely preserved letter of Napoleon! She along with two other scholars published bibliographic access controls and information about the collection in the July-December 2004 issue of the Caribbean Studies Journal published out of the University of San Juan.

The link to the UPR Archives can be found here--

I continued my exciting morning among Haitiana and Napoleona and returned to the Seminario Evangelico, where I had another surprise waiting for me. The Academic Dean, Prof. Jose Irizarry, asked me if I wanted to see the Archives of the seminary, after I had told him my story about visiting the University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. And I certainly jumped on the opportunity.

The unique items in the seminary archive collection included journals of early missionaries, manuscripts of Puerto Rican faculty, who served the seminary (including individuals, who were students of Tillich), and even materials relating specifically to Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited the Seminario Evangelico half a century ago. I was told by my host that the Cuban-American Church Historian Justo Gonzalez served as MLK's translator! There are also materials dealing with West Indies and Antilles Missiology from the earlier part of the 20th century, as well as Puerto Rican philosophical and theological journals dating back mid-20th century.

After my tour, it was time to finally head home. I had an afternoon flight, and sat next to a young woman who was reading the Diary of Anne Frank. I ended up reading a magazine article--among the dreadfully countless popular articles on this subject!--about the Kindle. It was by a man, who described himself as "never finishing a book," but that he loved the Kindle
because it was technologically interesting. He was fixated over being able to download James Joyce's Ulysses, and then hit the search function, subsequently looking up the word "book" in the text. Apparently, according to the Kindle, the word "book" appears 103 times in Ulysses. (By the way, as I write this today, June 16th, "Today is Bloomsday, the 105th anniversary of the events of the novel," as NY Times Op-Ed Contributor Colum McCann writes in his magnificent piece "But Always Meeting Ourselves" today, which I highly recommend--that was a rather Joycian sentence: I used "today" 3, now 4 times!) The point, though, is that the author of this article, Adam Sachs, in United Hemispheres magazine, is obsessed with the technology, and its ability to look up instantaneously obscure words in a big book he's not even going to read--like the word "oxter," which means "armpit" in Scottish. Alas. I'll just give up on this one. I should have after the title caught my eyes: "The Page Turner: E-book readers like the Amazon Kindle 2 can fundamentally alter the experience of travel. Especially if you read between the lines."

Unfortunately, the plane never took off. It broke down on take-off. No more Kindle articles. No more teen-agers plodding through Anne Frank. I was sent to an airport hotel, and put my books on furlough.

DAY 5 (Friday):
More sociology/anthropology of Airport and Airplane Reading (Part 2)

I finally got off the ground. I really did no reading today, except for my plane ticket, where I had to search my departure gate. But on the plane, I discovered that the woman next to me was fairly religious, and was reading a Spanish language Bible--Santa Biblia--as well as some prayer books in Spanish. We didn't speak much on the five hour flight, but I knew she must have been a somewhat devotional woman. We could have had a fine conversation on religion and the Bible, but I let the symbolic value of these books tend to themselves. I'd already had a pretty expansive and educational experience this week when it came to books, libraries, and print culture in Puerto Rico. I needed a rest.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Biblioscavengry, Bibliodipity, and Biblioschade!

Nearly once a week I come upon an open (or hidden) treasure of books in my neighborhood. And this led me to think about what I might call this experience: biblioscavengry? bibliodipity!? Well, perhaps both. But let me explain further what might be meant by these rather cumbersome terms.

Biblioscavengry: The idea of searching for books in other people's trash may seem rather socially anathema to some, but it may also be something exciting for others. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a biblioscavenger, but have been known to act in such a way on occasion. There is the sense of forethought behind biblioscavengry, though; the thought that you are going out for the purpose of finding a book or books that you'd enjoy reading in someone else's trash. Or, in the case of my neighborhood of Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, this may be the case of free book bins. The famed Powell's bookshop on 57th Street almost always has book bins, though in their case, these are old cardboard boxes.

This is the most well-known and local form of biblioscavengry, because everyone knows about Powell's and their "free books" boxes. Admittedly, I've found some great works in these boxes, including Dicken's Our Mutual Friend (though tattered) and some yellowing copies of Sartre, a crisp, new novel by Annie Proulx, and some other contemporary fiction, among other items. The closest I've come to biblioscavengry in trash bins, was claiming a plastic bag placed next to a public waste bin on the corner near 57th Street Books (just a few blocks west of Powell's), in which there was a copy of a biography of the 19th century Mexican leader Benito Pablo Juárez García.

Bibliodipity: What then might be the difference between biblioscavengry and bibliodipity? This latter term is the idea that you come upon books in some location and they are both a great surprise and a happy, satisfying surprise. Two instances come immediately to mind. About a year and a half ago, I was walking down another street in Hyde Park (of course, every street in Hyde Park has books on it, because the proximity to the University of Chicago and the characters who inhabit this realm are both biblio-drenched entities) and I came upon a box, set up next to a silver maple. In the box were three books, one of which was Gilbert Rist's The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith. Rist's work is rather insightful and is a broad reaching analysis on the term "development." I was pleased by this "bibliodipitous" find, and still cite it as one of my favorite examples of book-finding in my neighborhood. Though, perhaps my favorite find, was around the same time, when I came upon several large boxes in front of a fairly lovely (and expensive) home in the neighborhood. When I looked in the boxes, I found several volumes on Beowulf--original language versions, translations, commentaries, even guidebooks to sites in Denmark that had some connection to that era of Anglo-Nordic literature. Though, I did not take all of the works that were in this box, I acquired much of the treasury at hand, and have since thought it to be my greatest example of bibliodipity! It also piqued my interest in Beowulf and literature from that era. I began studying the texts and translations and even attempted to learn some of the antique terms in the original. The guidebooks, though dating back to the mid-1970s, were full of colorful images of Denmark and historical descriptions of landmarks in Jutland and environs.

Certain locales are more likely to be sites of bibliodipity than others, especially if you live in a community with a high concentration of readers, book lovers, and libraries. One last thing comes to mind though: an experience where I've found books (of course, in my neighborhood!) in a back alley, and after rummaging through them I discovered that they were old trashy romance novels. The sense of delight and bibliodipity soon turned into disappointment, because it was in the find that nothing suited me. In fact, the find disappointed and annoyed me. As a result, I turn to the Germans and their mastery of colorful language to define this feeling: biblioschade.

Biblioschade: (biblio + schade [Ger. "too bad"]) "the feeling which, upon finding a book or collection of books, turns from excitement to disappointment, when discovering the books you've found are of no interest to you; or, the books are too damaged to be claimed." -AE, June 2009


"Capsules of Knowledge"

Looking across the room of the reference collection, I see piled high the tomes of dictionaries, encyclopedias, biblical commentaries, historical theology series, Greek lexicons, and Hebrew inter-linear texts. Each of them sought after, found, extracted from the shelves, perused, consulted, used, and returned to a table. I've often heard the expression "capsule of knowledge" or "capsule of information" used to describe books. Perhaps the latter is more accurate in description. But this moniker for the book is a typical attestation to the role that books play in specialized higher education. Even if we are living in a technologically saturated era, that does not mean that the carriers of information must be technologically dominating and, thus the question becomes "what is technologically relevant in this day and age for specialized higher education?"

One of the values of books, as noted by faculty and students in various disciplines of seminary education, is that they are "finite entities," which have a defined character and limit. This idea of limit is very important for many. The finite object is part of how we see and interact with the book, as we see its limits--the limits of the construction of the text, the limits embodied by the author, and the limits of information in this given object called the book. Having limits, for some, may seem restrictive, but for others, the idea of setting limits also means a certain amount of intellectual rigor, vetting, and editing. It means that more thought was put into creating the written object than say something put up on the internet (even a blog such as this!).

But the value of books that may be found in Reference collections is still very high, because reference materials online are few and far between when it comes to the specialized texts in theological education. And the book will continue for a long time to dominate this field of knowledge, despite any presumptions by Kindle-ites or the Google-cosmos.