I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I am a book lover

I started this article with the idea of writing of a book I had just read, but got lost in reminescences.  I found covers of books I read more than 50 (yes, 50!) years ago and got sidetracked.  Very few, if any, could possibly be interested in my book-reading experiences.  But then, who cares?  I don't want to throw away this article simple because I am not a celebrity!  After all, with so much new stuff appearning on the Web every minute, most pages are never read or even accessed.  I'm very happy if somebody reads what I write and finds it either useful or amusing, but, ultimately, I write mainly for myself, because I have the need or simply the pleasure of expressing myself.  The article about the book I originally wanted to write about will come later.

Since when I was a child, not even a teen-ager, one of my favourite pastimes has been reading.  I started with adventure novels by Emilio Salgari.  After that, I read books like The Last of Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, the Tarzan books by Edgard Rice Burroughs, and also the Ruyard Kipling's books.  Or perhaps I should say "L'ultimo dei mohicani" and "Tarzan delle scimmie", because I only understood Italian then.

I remember buying books published by Viglongo and Marzocco.  They were large-format books, sometimes quite thick.  My mother would come with me to the bookshop and chat with the salespersons while I choose the next book to read.  Sometimes, it took me the best part of half an hour because I couldn't decide what I wanted to read next.  Each book would cost 500 Italian Lire, which, at the time (we are talking about the late 1950s or perhaps the first 1960s), were worth less than one American Dollar.

When I was in bed with parotitis, my mother read out to me La città del re lebbroso (256 pages, published by Viglongo in 1956, available online), and she loved it too.

Then, I discovered Science Fiction.  The first book I read was Death's Deputy, By Ron Hubbard, published by Mondadori in 1954 as No. 37 of their SF series I Romanzi di Urania.  I didn't know then that most translations were also arbitrarily shortened to fit into the standard length of the series!  A shame, really.

A bit later, I discovered the crime novels.  In the early 1960s, the most widely known series of crime novels was I Gialli Mondadori, published by "Arnoldo Mondadori Editore" (founded in 1907 and bought by Berlusconi in 1991).  "Giallo" in Italian means "yellow" and, indeed, the book covers were all yellow.  In fact, they were (perhaps, still are) so popular, that in Italy all crime novels are simply called "libri gialli", regardless of who publishes them!  Here is the cover of the very first "Giallo", published from 1929 to 1941:

After the war, in 1946, Mondadory restarted the series with Erle Stanly Gardner's The Case of The Silent Partner (sorry I couldn't find a better image):

In the early 1960s, when I discovered Perry Mason, I bought all the novels I could find (eleven, I believe).  In one week, I read ten of them.  That got me saturated and never touched a Perry Mason novel again till very recently, when I read (obviously in English this time) two of them re-published by Penguin.

In 1963, I started attending high-school and kept reading all sorts of things.  Unfortunately, one day, my mother decided that I wouldn't re-read my adventure books and donated them all to a charity.  I would love to page through them again, but the past is the past.

Years later (in 1978), when I moved to Germany, I left all my stuff with my mother.  Unfortunately, her cellar was very humid and, one day, she indiscriminately tossed away everything I had left to remind me of my youth: books, magazines, pictures, small cameras, memorabilia, and even my school certificates.  If I had been there, I would have tried to salvage something, but I was 1,300km away.  What a loss!

It is true what the Buddhists say: attachment causes suffering.  The more you have, the more you are afraid of losing your possessions.  Eventually, everything will go.  The more you are aware of it, the less you will suffer.

And yet, I am very attached to my books.  Sometimes, I think I should give them all away and be free of that attachment, but I don't think I will ever really do it.  Actually, once, I almost did it.  I think it was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  I decided I had to give up my possessions, including my books, to detach myself from "having" and fully embrace "being".  But I couldn't separate myself from three books: La venticinquesima ora, by Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu, Siddharta, by Hermann Hesse, and La dottrina del Tao, by Alberto Castellani.  Well, to be entirely correct, I also kept some reference books like a sky atlas and some textbooks.  But you get the idea.

I currently own 1,142 printed books, 143 of which are stored in cartons that fill the bottom level of a couple of wardrobes.  I have several bookshelves in my study, but a non-negligible part of the available space is taken up by DVDs, CDs, and various stacks of papers.

Now, you might wonder how I can possibly know the exact number of books I have...

I know it because I keep a spreadsheet with the full list of them.  Each item includes the following information:
  • Category (e.g., Hist);
  • Identification code (e.g., ha.01);
  • Last time read (e.g., 2002_04);
  • Language (e.g., E);
  • Title (e.g., The Custom of the Sea);
  • Author[s] (e.g., Neil Hanson);
  • Number of pages (e.g., 458);
  • Format (e.g., p);
  • Location (e.g., b).
In the example, The Custom of the Sea, by Neil Hanson, is a paperback of 458 pages, written in English; I classified it as Hist-ha.01; it was the fourth book I read in 2002, and is to be found in the "big" bookcase.

Yes.  You got it: I keep a list of all the books I read.  Each reading entry also includes the start and end dates and the number of pages I actually read (because sometimes I don't read them from cover to cover).  Unfortunately, I only started in 1991.

After studying the various classification methods used in libraries, I decided to develop my own.  The problem was that I didn't want to have to learn decimal classification (like in the Dewey system) or arbitrary letters (like in the Library of Congress system).  That is, I wanted to group the books in a way that would tell me what the book was about.  Here it is:

I initially placed the books in the proper order, but things got messy over the past couple of years.  I will have to put them back in order and then, perhaps, identify the books I should give away.

I also keep the list of books I read but no longer have, either because I gave them away or because I had borrowed them from libraries or friends.

And then (obviously!), I make all sorts of statistics.  For example, I know for each year since 1991 how many pages I read of books in each category.  It turns out that between 1991 and 2013, I read 45 books/year  and 39 pages/day, but the averages are increasing: in the ten years from 2004 to 2013, I read 49 books/year and 47 pages/day.

Now, eBooks in EPUB format are making my statistics more difficult to keep because their text "flows".  But I can still estimate a number of virtual pages by counting the words in an eBook page, multiplying it by the number of pages in the eBook, and dividing the result by 250...

In any case, although I bought an iPad and a Kindle, I don't really enjoy reading books in digital format.  I love the physicality of printed books.  In other words, although I recognise that the real value of books is in their content, I also love books as objects.

But enough for now.  I will write on the subject of printed books vs. digital books in my next article, when I will talk about The book is dead, by Sherman Young.

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