Friday, February 22, 2008

How Do You "Shop" For Books?

This morning, as I perused the book section of the local newspaper, I wondered how other people find books to read.

Me, I troll constantly for books. I feel a little like a shark. Seeking books to read is as natural to me as breathing. It's not that I don't have enough to read, for heaven's sake. Even after my moratorium, my nightstand creaks under the weight of the pending book pile. We won't even mention the "vertical" stacks in my den (one of which nearly beaned a cat last weekend).

I just love books. I love the news stories about them, the adventure of seeking them, the thrill of encountering a new gem. I love the feel of books, turning them over in my hand as I ponder them, reading the dust jacket blurbs, wondering just how accurate the reviews are. (I mean, one doesn't expect to read "Ick!" on a dust jacket, does one?)

The thrill is as much in the hunt as in the actual discovery. I check out book reviews, book news, book and literature blogs, author interviews. I check out list of award-winning books. I look at paragraph-long reviews in The New Yorker. Sometimes book discoveries aren't anywhere near the arts and literature section. When that new television show is based on a book (only the show's writers disavow hearing about that suspiciously familiar storyline), the story can be in the Regional or Metro section of the paper.

Nearly every day I find a new gem: a new book, an interesting new author, a tidbit about a dead author.

I also keep a list of books in my organizer. More often than not, I'll recognize a title buried in the sports section of the thrift store book section and hold in my hands that bio on cousins (tsars, emperors and kings) that started World War I. My list is ever-growing and, frankly, it's terribly long. I started to have to annotate it with when I read it and, if I didn't finish it, why. However, I will continue to add to the list (and update Terry Pratchett's book list, which ends with books set to be published in 2006, shame on me).

Most importantly, I listen to people whose opinion on books I respect. Carole is my go-to person on books; we may not always agree on books, but I trust her judgment. If she likes a book, I am more likely to give it a chance. I also trust Kathy's opinions on books, especially since she recommended No Angel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Feast of Love. I also trust Lois, whose recommendation of The Red Tent compelled me to give it the college try it deserved and whose comments on Heart-Shaped Box prompted me to keep my Reading Buddy close.

How do you determine what books to read? Where do you look? Whose opinions do you trust?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fan Letter and Poem to George Washington

Phillis Wheatley was a remarkable poet. Born in Africa, she was brought to the English colonial town of Boston as a child and purchased by the Wheatley family in the early 1700s.

Though her life was humane, even fortunate as compared to others in her circumstances, she was still a slave. Yet she rose to amazing heights because of her talents, even writing a letter and poem to George Washington when he was named leader of the Continental Army.

James Madison University's Web site has a wonderful page with not only the letter and poem to Washington, but his reply to "Miss Phillis" as well. I encourage you to go there.

Now, in celebration of the birthday of the man "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen," here is the letter and poem Phillis Wheatley wrote to the new "Generalissimo" in 1776, on the eve of the Revolutionary War.

To His Excellency
George Washington

I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt. Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am,

Your Excellency's most obedient humble servant,
Phillis Wheatley

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and veil of night!

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel bind her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven's fair face deforms,
Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou knw'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.

Happy George Washington Day! Or Happy Washington's Birthday, as the federal government recognizes it. Just don't call it "Presidents Day" -- that's a shopping holiday.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

About That Moratorium....

As you most likely remember, Carole and I famously declared a moratorium on book purchasing in January. I say "famously" in part because it was a public declaration and in part because Rose didn't believe me.

My skeptical co-worker was not convinced that I could survive such an animal. She watched me distribute Borders coupons throughout the office in December, counsel people on what books would be suitable for whom (and even where they'd find them at My Borders) and discuss what books I would find on my bookshelf after the holidays (including a copy of Weird Virginia she let me win from the office gift exchange).

She laughed long and hard when I told her about my agreement with Carole, but she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

Until the first book arrived in the mail January 10.

She looked me right in the eye as she handed me the padded envelope and asked, "This isn't a book, is it?"

(Try explaining in a situation like that. Ordering Peyton Place and A Christmas Memory on December 26 was not the same as breaking the moratorium, even if the books were delivered in January. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Aside from People of the Book, those were my last two books purchased from Christmas until February 2.

And it was glorious.

Don't get me wrong, I missed many things about hunting for books. In January, I did not wander the aisles of My Borders. I did not haunt Yesterday's Rose. The local library was closed, so I did not find books for a dime. Even Salvation Army was off-limits. I did not want to slip.

However, I did not suffer the guilt of stacking on the nightstand one more book that I knew I wouldn't read anytime soon. Nor did I add too many more books to the towering stacks wobbling on the floor at home. I received many books as gifts for Christmas, and I still had to find homes for them somewhere in the home library. I had my hands full.

Truthfully, I enjoyed the time off.

And when it was over, I perused my favorite secondhand stores and purchased eight books for about as many dollars: two were gifts, two were for the L3 (Lunchroom Lending Library) and the rest sounded too interesting to pass up (heads up, Carole!).

Am I reformed? Absolutely not. But I am sated for now. After forcing myself to think before purchasing, I think I know the difference between books I pick up while the ink is still drying (Jasper Fforde, Geraldine Brooks, Khaled Hosseini) and others I can pick up when I have the time. Wanting every book published is all well and good, but where will I keep them?

(That is not the question I asked myself when I picked up a first edition hardback copy of the Warren Commission Report or a pristine first edition of The Godfather to replace my tattered crumbling oft-read copy. I am, after all, only human.)

And if tomorrow I walk out of Yesterday's Rose with yet one more handful of books, I give you permission to laugh at me. I'll join in.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Two Sides to Every Coin

Every have one of these days, or nights? First, Things; then there is Peace.


There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

- by Fleur Adcock, from Selected Poems. © Oxford University Press, 1986

The Peace of Wild Things

When the despair of the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with the forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the sun-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

- by Wendell Berry

I thank The Writer's Almanac for "Things" and MC for "The Peace of Wild Things."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Economy, Customer Service and the President of the United States of America

The President of the United States of America wants to give the American people money to spend to stimulate the economy.

However, I have a dilemma: I don't want to spend it on the American economy because:
  • Customer service is the worst I have seen it in years.
  • My credit card recently was used improperly by restaurant staff.
  • I can't support vendors under these circumstances.
Because of me, the economy suffers. I am a bad American.

Maybe part of it is my fault because I expect service from people who are overworked, underpaid and subject to people like me who have unreasonable expectations (i.e., service). However, I also work in a customer service-based industry and I manage, for the most part, to tell people what they need to know. (Note that I didn't say "what they want to hear," which is a different issue altogether.)

Here is my latest lament: inkjet cartridges. Yes, those little devices with weird codes that are supposed to represent a model number of said cartridge that will fit in our printers, whose model number most of us can't remember, even if we write it down and put it in our pockets.

All I needed was an inkjet cartridge, and Office Depot was made to suffer for it.

Office Depot had two different brands of cartridges, the Office Depot "generic" and the brand name cartridge. The Office Depot brand has its own model numbers, which are not printed on the cartridge packages. What is on the Office Depot brand packages is the name brand's cartridge model number. So, to purchase an Office Depot generic item, the purchaser must know the brand name cartridge model number.

Not even the salespeople at the store knew that. The department manager actually yelled at me for not asking the right question — when I asked, "How do I find Office Depot cartridge model number XYZ?"

It took three trips to the store, more than an hour of my time and David's time, as well as my own Internet research (on Office Depot's Web site) to get the information. I have very little incentive to go back to this retailer for service in the future — as in this situation, "local" does not always translate to "convenient."

If only every store was like my Borders....

That was sales. Now for the credit card part.

Last month, I paid a Great American Restaurant bill with my credit card. The restaurant posted another smaller charge the next day. It seems the total I approved, and the cashier processed, was $3 less than the actual total of the bill plus the tip. The restaurant charged the additional amount to the card without notifying me.

I contacted the restaurant's management, and they apologized and promised to never do it again with anyone. (I refused the offer of a gift card for the restaurants.)

Now, however, I fear using my credit card on any transaction, a practice that was implemented solely for its convenience. I also fear my usual method of payment: my debit card for my checking account, an even greater convenience than a credit card.

This, of course, will end my "casual" spending. Whipping out the ol' card is no longer an option, I am not about to change a lifetime of habit I inherited from my father: not a lot of coin rattling around my pockets. That probably is better for my bottom line — a month's worth of book moratorium prompted me to realize just how much I supported the economy before the President even asked. (Never to my financial detriment, of course — I do not carry a balance on my credit card unless I'm too lazy to make the full payment.)

However, this new conservative practice will not provide the purchases the President of the United States is counting on me to incur to prevent this recession. With no customer service to speak of and companies killing my use of credit and debit cards, there will be little spending in the House of Chris for a while.

I am sorry, America. I can't help this time. Maybe next recession.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

List Fever, With a Little Monty and Al

If ever you get the urge to wile away a ridiculous amount of time, check out The List Universe.

Tonight alone, while waiting for the Super Bowl to actually start (and checking out the jade on GemsTV), I read a few fun lists:

Now, as with all lists, you will not agree with everything the list author includes (or excludes). Heck, you might not agree with any of them. But you will enjoy them. Just try to overlook the typos and some awkward attempts at English "grammar."

Two musts:

Now, go read an interesting list. Or two. Or 10. (Betcha can't read just one....)