Introduction to this Project
May 19, 2012 Leave a comment
“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.” – Edward P. Morgan
“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” – Anna Quindlen
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” — Augustine of Hippo
‘Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible,’ she said, ‘but that alone doesn’t make it true.’ – Franz Kafka
There have been an estimated 129,864,880 books written in modern human history. If you count from 1 to 100 in one minute, and you keep counting every minute of every hour of every day, it would take 6 days, 22 hours, and 40 minutes – almost one week – to reach one million. Counting to one 130 million, or in this case, naming almost two of those books per second, would take almost two and a half years: more than twenty-six months of nonstop counting to acknowledge even the individual titles. Reading one book per day, it would take more than 356,000 years to read all 130 million; at the rate of thirty-five books per day, it would take ten thousand years, essentially the amount of time that humans have been writing them. Fifty-thousand books per year are published, meaning that 100,000 more books have been added to the list since they estimated the number in early 2010.
From a storage point of view, the physical presence of even a fraction of that amount books is incredible, let alone the unimaginably tremendous entirety. The Ohio State University, the university in my own backyard and one of the biggest in the country has almost seven million volumes – housing their collection requires an enormous eleven-story complex and huge warehouse-like depositories scattered all over the campus. Storing even a twentieth of these books is a massive undertaking – even looking at such an amount renders it incomprehensible.
The following project is a chronicle of my attempts to read them all.
OK, not really, not even close – I love to read but I won’t pretend I am up to the challenge, even if I do plan to live for the next 100,000 years. I do, however, devote much of my time now to being around books – reading, studying, perusing, writing, and researching – and this project is a chronicle of doing just that. With a peripatetic twist.
In addition to my love of reading and learning, I love traveling. I have a restlessness within me and a marked indifference to stability that compels me to keep moving. I probably always have an unsettling, far-away look in my eye that comes from hearing about someone’s adventures, their travels, the smells of another place – I agonize over wanting to experience it too. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the here-and-now, it’s just that I have a desire to see things, to be awed, grossed out, annoyed, and enthralled and will gladly jump at any chance to experience to do so, both within my regular stomping grounds and far outside of them. Perhaps it is an unoriginal sentiment, but that doesn’t diminish its clarion call: drop me anywhere and I will be thrilled.
Let me throw some more numbers at you: the United States has more than four million miles of paved roads. As the country is roughly 3000 miles across, this means driving from one coast to the other 1333 times, or 667 round trips. The farthest you can be from a road without running into another is twenty-two miles (and this is in a southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park). Driving sixty miles per hour (as that is the speed most conducive to easy time-based equations), it would take 66,666.666 hours of non-stop driving to cover them all. This translates to 2777.77 days, or 7.61 years needed to cover every paved road in the USA. This doesn’t take into account the fact that you can’t drive that fast on most of them, that routes would be incredibly convoluted and filled with doubling-back in order to meet up with a road you may have missed, or that time would be needed for not only gas but to pick up a new car after driving years at a time straight. But for the sake of illustration, don’t take these real concerns into account – the point of this clever little exercise is to emphasize that there is a lot of road to cover.
I won’t make another “joke” that this project is a chronicle of my attempt to explore every road, but I will say that I realized that the best way to travel and write about books is to travel and write about books – traveling not only with some books in my backpack but to the books themselves. Books are generally found en masse, and so the phrase ‘travelling to books’ entails travelling to bookstores. What this project is, plain and simple, is a collection of stories of trips I’ve taken to build my personal library while seeing as much of the hilarious, heartwarming, and aggravating sides of my native land as I can while doing it.
Originally, this project was intended to be a continuous trip across the United States. I got ahead of myself and planned a trip lasting three or four months, riding around, seeing things, meeting people, wandering aimlessly…the dream vacation for someone who has read too much Paul Theroux (who is responsible for forty-seven of humanity’s 130M books, by the way). While the resources for a trip of the magnitude I dream about have not as of yet presented themselves, I didn’t want to wait until I had enough money to begin the project. Therefore, what follows is the account of many shorter jaunts to bookstores instead of one long trip.
But first though, despite the enticing premise and my eagerness to talk at length about what I’ve seen, here is some background on myself and what it is like to live with acute bibliophilia:
I had always envisioned for myself a lair-like room lined with shelves filled with a voluminous dump of books. Naturally they would be arranged into fiction and non-, the former arranged by authors’ last names and the latter by subject, with no genre left unrepresented: the classics, biography, science, mythologies, mass-market crime fiction. They would all be reachable from my desk, easy to access if a quote is needed and always available simply to gaze upon and feel the level of my own erudition growing within me. I want to be able to retire to my cave where I can happily be a hermit, existing as just myself and my books (and my music library too).
As exaggerated as this may sound, in reality I don’t take that sardonic of a perception towards the collection of books. I haven’t just amassed a library for bragging rights or to lend credence to my assertion that I don’t watch TV (though I rarely do); like countless other people, I have for whatever reason always had a preternatural desire to read. My parents like to relate while shaking their heads – though with no small amount of pride – that I could always be found with a book in my hand, even if there were perhaps other things I perhaps should have been paying attention to. I recall hiding a book under my gown for my high-school graduation, opting to delve into whatever I was reading at the time instead of listening to the no doubt rousing speeches given by my classmates, and I was once reported to the anonymous tattletale complaint line at a job for hiding a book near my cash register to read in my down time. I make no apologies for these instances; they are the perils of an interest I am unavoidably drawn to.
Needless to say, then, that libraries personal and professional, academic and public, garage sales with boxes of books, book racks at thrift stores, and especially second-hand bookshops are homes away from home. I won’t start theorizing why a book in your hand is such a wonderful feeling; explaining this sensation is like attempting to express the eternally mysterious, terrifying draw of an ocean – no matter how many people have put words to paper after gazing pensively out to sea, and no matter how many volumes of only ruminations on the sea would actually run, there is always something new to consider when discussing the pleasures of the ocean. And like the descriptions of the sea, rhapsodizing about the enjoyment of reading has doubtlessly been done more poetically, more scientifically, and more oppressively than anything I could craft. Suffice to say, we all know why we love to read, and thus we all know why all tangentially-related activities are pleasurable as well.
The summer of 2007 was one of the best summers of my life, largely in part because of a brief visit to White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, where my family stopped to stretch our legs on the way to the North Carolina. We came across a used book store, and it was a specimen of the most timeless variety – it was in full command of its requisite creaky floors and the complex play of shadows and sunlight and the overwhelming mustiness of its used books. It was staffed by the obligatory learned older man and it had the aura of a place used to being populated with ideas and ruminations. It was one of those places that make you forget there is a world outside – so interesting are the treasures within that you have to tear yourself away to even remember you should leave at some point. I picked up five one-dollar books for the price of four off of a sale rack near the door, including The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, The End of a Mission by Heinrich Böll, Lafcadio’s Adventures by Andre Gide, and, to relax, a murder mystery by Jonathan Kellerman. With the stack carried in front of me like a trophy, we got back in the car and I eagerly awaited lazing about on the porch or the beach.
That summer I was also reading Lame Deer Seeker of Visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes and a lot of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, and it seemed that the usual sense of wonder I felt while reading was amplified to bear specific relevance to my life. I don’t know if I was maturing and suddenly found myself wielding what I assumed to be a greater understanding of myself and the world, or if disparate bits of my conscious and subconscious suddenly came together to help solidify a new sense of what I wanted from life. Whatever the reason, because of this experience, I can pinpoint the time as when I arguably not only became a man but truly became myself. Perhaps this sounds a bit melodramatic; it wasn’t that I had radically changed but that the ideas about what I wanted from life suddenly solidified: I wasn’t a new person but a surer one. I remember sitting on the beach and reading one of the books and feeling completely content, like a sort of equilibrium was reached. Notwithstanding the fact that I couldn’t buy the tree-shaded, tiny wooden cabin in which we were staying to maintain that feeling forever, I knew that these newfound feelings were to be recognized from that point on as the underlying guide for my life.
Additionally and equally as importantly, in the preceding months I had begun taking writing a bit more seriously. I had dabbled in the art with some sketches and shorter nonfiction pieces, and up to fall 2006, I had written about ten-thousand words of a novel I had been conceptualizing since I was in high school. Starting fall ‘06, I pursued the novel with much more seriousness and dedication; I took to heart my parents’ observation that writing seemed like the next logical step after reading and realized that it was in fact something I really liked to do. I wasn’t sure how the novel-writing process worked – I wrote and compiled and edited as I went, not knowing if there was a more efficient or disciplined way to do it, but it didn’t matter because it just seemed natural. Already I found myself being more observant and that I was paying more attention to the intricacies that make up daily life, not really searching for hidden meanings but more aware of how vivid everything actually is, as if I were preparing to write about it later.I remember specifically being in that cabin in the Outer Banks and writing a passage that at the time I thought was particularly mature and well-written. This compounded the sensations already stirring and writing solidified itself as not just interest but something much deeper, something that I always found myself thinking about, working on, and influencing the way I looked at the world; it was something I found to be inextricably bound with my Self.
And now, years later, with that novel finished and two new novels on their way and my first taste of publication thanks to the largesse of an editor at a college-oriented newspaper much trashier than his experience should have had him deign to accept, reading and writing and traveling, the keystones upon which much of my life now balances, come together anew with the sound of resounding fanfare: the “Journeys to Bookstores” section of my blog, the Yawning Chasm.
 This number, by the way, was estimated by Google for their Google Library Project: “The Library Project’s aim is simple: make it easier for people to find relevant books – specifically, books they wouldn’t find any other way such as those that are out of print – while carefully respecting authors’ and publishers’ copyrights. Our ultimate goal is to work with publishers and libraries to create a comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.” So what defines a book anyway?: “One definition of a book we find helpful inside Google when handling book metadata is a ‘tome,’ an idealized bound volume. A tome can have millions of copies (e.g. a particular edition of Angels and Demons by Dan Brown) or can exist in just one or two copies (such as an obscure master’s thesis languishing in a university library). This is a convenient definition to work with, but it has drawbacks. For example, we count hardcover and paperback books produced from the same text twice, but treat several pamphlets bound together by a library as a single book.”
 The complex holding only one million; ‘only’ of course being a relative term. Also of note is the most glaring flaw in OSU’s new library: the urinals they use are for some reason so low and with such shallow bowls that gross spattering will invariably result. Who would approve a design so obviously faulty?
 The route I had planned would have taken me to a ufology conferencea Faulker convention in Mississippi, the Association for the study of Esotericism’s 4th International Conference, and inspired a pleasant Southern drawl as I perused the Clinton Presidential Library. I planned to start small by going around my home state Ohio, and then blast off on a route that would circuitously include almost every state, from Roswell, Georgia to Roswell, New Mexico up to Petersburg, Alaska. I wanted to visit Nantucket because I found in Moby Dick a passage perfect for an epigraph for a chapter discussing a visit to that city (in addition to the fact that there is a used book store on an island). I wanted to experience reading and writing and life in all climates, from the deserts of New Mexico to the anonymity of Wyoming and to eat in diners that still offered plates of the day.
 And I was subsequently disciplined by being made to work a sidewalk sale in the sweltering summer heat – pants only, no shorts allowed. Though it went unacknowledged that I was being punished for reading, the sadistic gleam in my boss’ beady little eyes said it all.
 In the sense that I felt I was in control of my own destiny; as silly as that sounds, it really is the most accurate way to put it.
 The ‘tunnel’ section from Elegant Crisis, for all future biographers.