Friday, March 25, 2005

Gift or Temptation?

When I walked into the library Friday, my mind was still full of the past ten days of blissful exploration in the pages of my 'new' World Book Encyclopedia. I was anxious to get my business taken care of and get back home to them. Few things could have jerked me out of that trance. I can think of exactly four: Someone placing a baby in my arms while saying 'Welcome to motherhood.' Taking possession of my very own notebook computer. A book contract with a publisher. And owning once again Britannica's Great Books set with its indispensable Syntopicon of The Great Ideas. So when I came out of the bright outside into the fluorescent lit library, my eyes blinking fitfully to adjust, I can be forgiven for thinking briefly that I must be dreaming, for right there on the very same shelf the World Book set had sat two weeks before were the distinctive spines of the Great Books.

This was one of the missing pieces of the puzzle for me. (the only other being my own notebook computer) It felt like a gift from the Universe. A blessing on the work that I had done over the past year to get my manuscripts retyped and my web pages back up. I have been itching to get back to work on what I consider to be my magnum opus. One very long novel or a series of shorter novels on the theme of The Fruits of the Spirit. Though my list of the Fruits of the Spirit is longer than the one in Galatians. More on that later. In order to resume work on that project I needed frequent access to the most important reference tool second only to dictionaries: The Syntopicon of Britannica's Great Book set. A topical index of the Great Ideas that occupied some 3000 years of Western Civilization's evolving concept of itself. An intergenerational dialog which the editors, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, call the Great Conversation. With that Syntopicon I would, with considerable effort, be able to reconstruct the skeleton of that project. I could get access to most of the writings in question via the library, but libraries tend to keep the Syntopicon on reference shelves.

But just ten days ago I spent $20 out of the fund that I had set aside as untouchable except for one of three things. Retrieval of our belongings in storage in San Jose--now irretrievably gone. The move into our own place--which would take me another three years, assuming the same rate of accumulation. Or a notebook computer--possibly refurbished--so I could have 24/7 access to my work and never have to leave it behind again. And--most pertinent to our circumstances--have the tool that is the most perfect fit for both my talents and my disabilities and thus could enable me to rise from this unhealthy state of dependency and sense of burden on my family and begin to contribute financially. Have Computer Will: Write, Edit, Research, Tutor, Webmistress, Consult, Type, Desk Top Publish, Enter and Manage Data Base Data, Beta Test software…

The list could go on. My talent and experience in the manipulation of information is extensive. But my various health issues prevent me using them in the typical workplace under the typical workplace conditions. I need special tools and significant control over my working environment to accommodate my severe visual impairment. I also need significant control over my schedule to accommodate transportation exigencies, joint pain, easy fatigue and a sleeping disorder that makes sustained enforcement of the typical 40 hour workweek impossible. So working from home is the best fit all around. And a computer coupled with the internet and combined with my skill set makes that a viable option.

All of this roiled in my head as I blinked my eyes and the glittering gold of the embossed spines refused to vanish. I quickly counted, confirming the set was intact. Not only intact but in mint condition. I pulled one out and checked the copyright page. The set was from the 24th printing in 1982. But every volume was pristine. In fact, about fifteen of them were still individually shrink-wrapped! And when I fanned the pages the gilded edges across the top crackled, indicating that few if any of these pages had ever been turned. Oh, the pity of it. For twenty years these books had languished on a shelf or in a box, with the riches of centuries of wit and wisdom penned (pun unintentional but apropro) between their covers--nothing but a dead weight or a knickknack to be dusted. The sign said 'Make an Offer'. The other sign regarding the more typical Friends of the Library book sale fare quoted $1 as the price for hardbacks. How could I offer less? Yet how could I justify the $54? But how could I walk away from them? I had only minutes to decide.

Either way I was set up for a marathon wrestle with second guessing? Was this a gift and a reward from the Universe in acknowledgment of the dedication to my work and talents I had evinced over the past fifteen months? Or was it a perfidious temptation to deviate from the plan, a distraction and an offering to the grasping and greedy bibliophilic genie in me that had often and often before lured me off on tangents that diverted me from tending to my work? One could argue that, at least in this case, the books had a direct bearing on my work. One could also argue that I had no right to spend money that way while my husband and I were still living with his parents. Yet the $1 per 54 volumes plus the $20 already spent on the World Book set amounted to much less than my husband spent monthly on cigarettes and designer coffee. But one can not argue that two wrongs make a right. I finally decided that if I had to live with regret either way, I would prefer to have the books as consolation even if sometimes their presence would seem a condemnation. So I made the offer and it was accepted. I said I was going to make the walk back home to get the money and my collapsible luggage cart but the librarian nixed that by offering to deliver the books to my doorstep on her way home from work. That gave me time to get home and do some juggling of things in our room to make space for a set of books that was twice the size of the World Book set that I had struggled to accommodate just ten days ago. I joked with the librarians that I was probably going to have to curtail my usual rate of check-out in order to make room and time for these two sets of books.

Update: as it turned out, the very boxes in which the Great Books were transported became jury-rigged shelving that actually increased the space for books. In the three months since I brought home the Great Books, I have increased the average of books checked out to my account from 60 to 90. It has been a long time since I actually counted them. I get that figure from the fact that I average a weekly turnover of ten books--those checked out and those returned. But more than 80% of the items I bring home are not in high demand and so they typically will renew the allotted twice for a total of three times three weeks. So that I have at any one time nine separate batches of books. This allows me to order books from the county system that I find cited in the books I am reading and have them arrive while I am still in possession of the book that referenced them.
Well, those three cardboard boxes gave me the space to accommodate an increased level of source acquisition. As for the extra time--I'm stealing that from TV (mostly a moratorium on MSM news programs, internet, and sleep accounts. Hence the great slowdown of postings here.

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