I call it a window not only to trot out the clichéd metaphor but because my bookshelves were originally just that. When my house was built, that space was a window that opened onto the back yard. The family who owned it before mine built a porch in that spot with doors leading from this room and the master bedroom. At some point before I was born, the porch was walled up and made into a third bedroom. Rather than rebuild the whole wall, the window was converted.
Not only is it a unique construction, it's substantial. This was before crumbly particle board shelves or *choke* fitted plastic stackers. These shelves are real wood, a full 12" deep, the frame as solid as the surrounding walls. Growing up, I often climbed up it to retrieve books from the top. My now 140lb brother, Michael, still does this to reach the central heating vent above it. You might say the first impressions of stability and authority I had came from this. Loaded as it had been with encyclopaedias and reference books since before I was born, this window was my introduction to the world inside the world we see.
Most of what has sat on these shelves has been replaced dozens of times, but on the top one still sits a certain World Book Year Book that is one of the (if not the) first that I read cover to cover (I was a geek in the womb, baby). 1970, a chronicle of the previous year which included, among other historical events, my birth. Is it any wonder I became so interested in science and other mind-expanding subjects?
Taking the top shelf and the World Book supplements as a beginning, we can work our way down through the years. I don't think the Year Books and earlier Science Years were put on the top shelf to force Michael and I to climb to get them, of course. They were put there by my older two sisters, who no doubt found them far less interesting than their own `70s gossip magazines, stacks of 45s, and Nancy Drew Mysteries. My oldest brother, Donny, joined the US Navy in `74 when I was just turning five, leaving only a three foot tall barrel half full of science fiction pulps out in the garage that I wouldn't start on until I'd had my fill of the Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer (and Swift), dozens of Smithsonian magazines, and the LIFE Nature Library. This isn't to imply that I taught myself to read, however I'd love to be able to say that. My parents had read to Michael and me from Mother West Wind, the Brothers Grimm, and innumerable Little Engine that Could's since before we could hold our heads up. I'm not sure, but I think school might have had something to do with it; although by the time reading classes got around to supplying us with rich anthologies like Serendipity, I had had years of longer, more mature stories under my belt.
This is also not to say that I've based my education merely upon the long out-of-date dusty reference books, though they undoubtedly formed the kernel. Thanks to my family's yearly vacations, I actually got to see Cape Canaveral and the space center in Houston. I didn't just read the LIFE book Evolution, I became a Junior Paleontologist at Dinosaur National Monument and visited all the major, and many more not so major, National Parks. From Mesa Verde to Antietam and Fort Ticonderoga, I saw American History where it happened and often got to play on the cannons or explore the ruins. I didn't just read The Universe, I took a tour of MacDonald Observatory and saw a wavy, yellowish Saturn through the main telescope. The encyclopedias were stepping off points, but the paths they started always drew me outward.
But knowledge is a two-edged sword. During my childhood, I learned about the Founding Fathers not only from The American Presidents, but from visiting Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. I learned about the words they wrote, but also saw the slave quarters on their plantations. I wandered around the battlefields of Yorktown and Gettysburg, but also Andersonville. For every Carpenter's Hall, there's a Little Big Horn, and I'll be damned if my parents didn't drag me to them all. The first thing I learned from World Book was that the earth was far more complex than I could imagine, but what I learned when I left those behind was how much they left out.
So, there's my two upper shelves, holding some books that are older than me and hopelessly outclassed by what a five year old can find now in seconds on the internet. I can't even climb up to reach them any more, but that's okay. I just put up J.R. "Bob" Dobbs to watch over them. They were fascinating, but only until I discovered Donny's barrel of pulp sci/fi. Among the leaning and stacked volumes there are the World Book Science Years from 1966 through 1975, Year Books from 1967 through 1979 (my mother still gets the Year Books, but just stacks them on the Encyclopedia itself in the living room), the entire LIFE Nature Library ca. 1972, a few Reader's Digest Condensed Books (also from the `70s), the first half of a two-volume Young Reader's Bible (don't ask, I don't know), my grandfather's Tom Sawyer, Donny's 1974 auto shop textbook, the complete John Jakes Kent Family Chronicles (curtesy of my romance-loving mom), and my first radio (AM, older than God, but still works). Besides the Face™, I added to the second shelf a sign that says "NOTICE: Hardhats must be worn on this construction project" which was given to me by a nameless fratboy right after he ripped it off the recently burned-out TCU Bookstore. Between them are two well used drumsticks ganked from equally nameless garage bands in the area. On one hangs an AOL CDROM, because I never had any other use for them. From the other hangs a string of red Mardi Gras beads with a lobster (or cawdad depending your taste) that has its own story I cannot reveal and my Universal Life Church Clergy badge, because I'm the only doubly ordained atheist you'll probably ever meet.
The third shelf begins and ends with authors that are well known to science fiction and fantasy buffs, yet in between goes off on tangents few would take on the same literary journey. After my older brothers and sisters moved out, this was the first one I used for my own books, so it became my 'shuffle shelf', the one that held most books only temporarily. This has changed, inevitably, as I've gotten some that I consider irreplaceable, like the hardback 2010: odyssey two I bought for my father (we had watched 2001 together in a theater on its 20th anniversary), my signed Warped Factors by Walter Koenig, and a yellowed paperback copy of City by Clifford Simak, which is the only remaining book from Donny's barrel besides the Earth Abides that he himself owns. I say tangents because though Donny amassed many books from 'golden age' authors, some drew me to the speculative edge. Sure, there were the Dune and Foundation series, as well as tLotR+tS, but there was also a variety of ones of questionable morality for younger readers, like Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Sam Delany's Dhalgren and Triton. Needless to say, these were the kind I eventually came to love the most, so it is these types that remain after so many others have come and gone. Add in a sprinkling of traditional 'masters' that I keep for reference and nostalgia, and you have a collection that fairly echoes what I found when I first waded into the Salvation Army barrel in my garage sometime around 1979.
From left to right, we have the first three Martian Chronicles by Edgar Rice Burroughs, followed by a book of shorts by John W. Campbell, Jr., Alice's Adventures etc. by some frumpy child molester, The Tao of Physics, The Canterbury Tales, Expedition to Earth (containing the short story seed that became 2001: a space odyssey), Coelho's beautiful The Alchemist, and John Crowley's bittersweet Engine Summer. Now, if you think there's one or two strange bits in here, just wait. The next ten works are all by Samuel R. Delany, who is one of my faves. Here, we have Driftglass,an otherwise extraordinary yet in present context unremarkable book of short stories; Equinox, the single most shockingly immoral book I've ever read; a newer four-volume collection of his Return to Nevèrÿon series, which I waited over a decade for him to finish; Heavenly Breakfast, an autobiographical basis for the next-; Dhalgren, possibly the hardest novel for readers to get into since Joyce (see below); Triton, a book about a thoroughly self-interested character with whom I identify wholeheartedly; and Nova, a homoerotic feminist take on Moby Dick.
We're about halfway through this shelf, and therefore through the lot, at a convenient spot to elaborate on my tastes overall. The non-Delany works mentioned in the last paragraph are all books I happened upon during my swim through the barrel (though all are actually second or third versions I've owned of the same). books that for one reason or another I considered good enough to reread (The Tao of Physics more properly belongs on a different shelf, but I'm lazy). Burroughs is a master of serial storytelling; all of his works are orgies of action and chivalry, and wholly incredible. John Campbell was a writer and editor from the age of pulp sci/fi magazines who helped others like Asimov, Heinlein, and McCaffrey see their dreams come true, yet himself was relegated to second string status. Carroll needs no introduction, except that if you've only read his "Alice" tales, you don't know a tenth of the story. Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics was the first 'science' book I ever bought outside of Asimov's nonfiction, boy was I surprised when I found out it was even more fantastic than Carroll's wildest chortles! Chaucer introduced me to a merrie olde engalonde far more cynical and yet somehow more real than my encyclopedias and nonfiction histories could touch. Clarke evoked more wonder for me in his shorts than he eventually gave in four volumes about HAL 9000. Coelho, along with Antoine de Saint Exupéry, gave me a more hopeful childhood than the outside world offered. Crowley, in Engine Summer, as well as Little, Big and other novels, made me cry in a good way. All of these and many more I loved and still do, yet they were, for me, children's books. Sam Delany doesn't write for children.
There were some odd nutters in that barrel, don't get me wrong (Robert Heinlein comes to mind), but when I got into my 'thick book' phase and opened Dhalgren, I felt as if I'd fooled a doorman into letting me into a Times Square strip club. From the first disjointed non-paragraphs to the last (or was it also the first?) sentence fragment, I knew I'd found something unique in American literature. And literature is the only thing it can be rightly called, for it defies any traditional definitions of science fiction or fantasy. Metafiction, Delany himself calls it, the novel is the only one I know that comes close to a kind of self-consciousness. And that, despite its apparent admission that its writer/narrator/main character is insane. I first read it walking back and forth to junior high school and during classes. I couldn't get enough of it. I've lost count of how many times since I've bought and reread it. Yet I say to you, if you're a stickler for grammar, plot coherence, character integrity, or 'traditional' morals, give this one a wide berth.
This was a break for me, a saltus in the graph of the function, as it were. I dug in to the barrel, looking for more Delany novels, but only came up with City of a Thousand Suns and Empire Star, both more like the pulpy greats than the 900p Dhalgren. Although I had been awakened to a more gritty literary universe, I soon fell back into space operas and Heavy Metal magazines. I soon sold Dhalgren to a bookstore on Berry St., which sucks because it was a first edition, having been bought by Donny only months before he left for the Navy. It was years before I found as pithy a book, but this one had raised my expectations beyond lasers, swords, and simplistic story arcs. It also showed me that you could find more salacious things in books lent at public libraries or bought in bookstores than you would dream of seeing in the centerfolds of Playboy. Aside from Dhalgren, Delany's Return to Nevèrÿon series is a good read for those who want something that makes them think, but its own metafictional elements aren't quite as well-formed as they seem to want to be. Delany's a genius when it comes to deconstructing the conventions surrounding heroes and myths, but he must have smoked one too many joints in the `60s to keep his diatribes on the level. Or maybe I haven't smoked enough.
Rounding off the (standing) books on the middle shelf, we have Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (I&II), a collection even stranger than the original; Nor Crystal Tears, Star Trek: Log One, and Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster, because I'm a bigger geek than you; Views from the Highest House by Richard Grant, who somehow found a more modern outlet for the voice of John Crowley; an uncorrected proof of the Jack McKinney adaptation of Robotech: Genesis, in case you still think you're a bigger geek than me; all three volumes of the Logan series by William F. Nolan, because they hunted me down until I surrendered; the space trilogy from C.S. Lewis, because Christian allegories aren't just for one planet any more; The Cat from Outer Space by Ted Key, because my brother Michael had book reports to do in school also (and it was cute enough to keep); Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry, where Nomad had gone before; the aforementioned City by Clifford D. Simak, which is my longest owned, if not most treasured book; Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia minus The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, because a certain person's sister still won't give those back after a dozen years (and still has my full set of L. Frank Baum "Oz" books because girls don't keep promises); John Shirley's City Come a Walkin', because I had a brain fart in 2001; Warped Factors by Walter Koenig, because you had to buy one to get the autograph; and, finally, 2010: odyssey two by Arthur C. Clarke, because my dad and I had at least one good time together before he died.
I said "standing" books because on this shelf are also many lying about lazily and a few things that have found themselves there without the distinction of having been bought in bookstores. Pushed in between The Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the frame of the shelf are two more drumsticks, from one of which dangles a handkerchief sent to me by larksambience, because she don't know me too well but likes me anyway. On top of the standing books, nudging its way into whatever space it can find, is the boxed set of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which isn't as much an antithesis of Christianity as you may want to believe but rather a critque of faith in authority in general. Making up the 'coffee table spirituality' pile are pocketbook editions of the Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Ghita, the more than compleat writings of Sappho, The Shadow of the Bamboo by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (who apparently never met a Roger, the bastard), and The Star Book for Ministers (so that I can marry gay people when Texas gets its head out of its ass). Sitting on this pile kept for quick reference (where I don't have the longer versions, the internet makes up for in spades) is the Lander portion of an Apollo 11 Lego set topped by a Jack 'N' The Box reindeer antenna ornament because I was born on July 16th 1969 and have a knack for irreverence. Behind the pile a box of Universal Waite Tarot cards patiently... waits. Next to the first pile is a second one of dictionaries and doodads. Italian-English, rhyming (because I was in high school too long), and Latin. These are the first of what you might call my reference library. Sitting on them are two 8mm video tapes (I'll never tell), several postcards from several different edges, a tiny wrench that just happens to fit a particular nut on my wheelchair, and a piece of pahoehoe lava my mom brought back from her trip to Hawaii. Behind that pile is a Chinese boxed bamboo sculpture given to my now deceased grandmother by Donny's wife, who is from Taiwan. Next, we have a green plastic ball from a ball cage in Six Flags Over Texas, an inch-wide 'super ball' with a stegasaurus locked forever within, and a Rubik's Cube^3 (because I'm still a bigger geek than you). Here, we leave the 'old' part of the shelf and come at last to the 'new' stuff. There is a complete boxed set of Led Zeppelin studio albums, currently hidden behind a holiday card customized for yours truly by becauseilive because funky juxtapositions are rampant among my peeps, yo; lying on this is a similarly complete set of "Twenty Years of Discord" for all the punks in me; topped off by several CDs I burned from
If possible, the fourth shelf is even more cluttered than the third, with ideas as well as books and other tidbits, because most of the books here are from my post-bullet phase of introspection and god-hunting, with an unhealthy overdose of Tolkien. Again, from the left, there are seven books (in four volumes) of the Mahābhārata, the seminal mythological underpinning for much of Hinduism, containing within the Bhagavad Gita and abridged epics of Krishna Vasudeva and Rama; Rob Brezsny's The Televisionary Oracle, a whimsical take on feminist masculinity and Rock Gods™; Paul Williams' Das Energi, because you're God, too; Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wherein Buddhism meets modern American feelgood lyricism and lays a giant bird turd; Zen Comics by ioanna salajan, because what I really needed was a cup of tea; the first ten volumes of Christopher Tolkien's mammoth The History of Middle-earth, because I was bored last summer and needed to refresh my memory on just who came first, Manwe or Ulmo; a 'pocketbook' encyclopedia of "Great Civilizations", because my mother knows I like that kind of stuff, but not the full degree to which I go in it; a genuine Salt Lake City LDS edition of The Book of Mormon, which shows a striking resemblence inside and out to the OT, with a touch of OMG, you've got to be kidding me!; two (count them) books on the Tarot, because archetypal divination deserves at least two independently researched laughs; a compilation of the teachings of the compassionate Buddha, because a flaky hippy chick never returned my Sacred Works edition (do you women understand the meaning of the word "borrow"?); a study of The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u, Hawaii, because my mother gets it right sometimes; the 'Outragious #1 Bestseller' The Peter Principle, which is about as close to universal Truth as mankind deserves to get; John Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason, which a story about a man more boring and vacuous than me written by a man even more boring and vacuous than his main character; George Orwell's 1984, the ravings of a man who really needs some reeducation (actually, it's doublepluscool); Anaïs Nin's House of Incest and Cities of the Interior, of whom I'll speak more later; Pierre Louÿs' Two Erotic Tales, because I dig the girl-on-girl action, beotch; Cleo Odzer's Patpong Girls, because that last blurb was a joke; and The Great Romantics including works of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, because they knew how to party.
Lying precariously atop the books on my fourth shelf are several others unfortunate enough to not find a place to fit with the rest. Among these are two dictionaries,German-English and French-English, to go with the Italian and Latin as handy reference; another unproofed original novel called Home Fire by Carey Blackwell, a local punk singer of some repute during the early `90s; the Sleepy Tree Book II, an anthology of Texas poetry published here in Cowtown; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, which details the movement before and during WWII through their own documents; various papers I've accumulated such as a genealogical record of my family compiled by my mother, a sheath of copied Tarot decks sent to me from one of my more spiritual friends, a copy of a picture of The One That Got Away, another of the Hubble Deep Field, and a watercolor-on-paper of me done by some guy a dozen years ago at the Dogstar Cafe.
Lying out in front of this is another hodgepodge of piles of books and toys I no longer play with. We have three pulp sf novels of no real interest, used only as a stand for my telephone and backstop for a small handicapped "reserved seating" sign; a mix of two Lego sets, containing Darth Vader (driving a moon buggy) and the Emperor; a sleek, black Hot Wheels™ car (in much better condition than it would have been were I still twelve); a clear glass electric line insulator, because I used to be a thief as well as a monkey; a 'man-sized' watch I'll never use because I have girly forearms; the stretchy watchband from my dad's first and last Timex; a greeting card printed with M.C. Escher's "Waterfall", because I was a geek long before it was printed on tee shirts; a book of Apollo Mission postcards, because I'm moonboy, donchano; the command module and Saturn V rocket from the Apollo 11 Lego set, because ditto the last bit; two more drumsticks, with one holding a Christmas fireplace boot because I felt like it; a stack of Anäs Nin and James Joyce that I'll get to as soon as I finish the hard science pulp sitting on my nightstand; a Hodge's Harbrace College Handbook, which I'm blaspheming as I write; and a pocket Roget's College Thesaurus, surprisingly not that different from the unschooled variety.
Of this lot, I'd like to mention the religious stuff and the Nin and Joyce. Although I came out of Fort Worth Rehab a still viable, if shorter, person, I found I had enough time and new urges to get back to reading. I started by going through various scriptures, many of which made it to my permanent collection. Many didn't. If I can say anything about that experiment, it's that I was confirmed in my suspicions about most faiths and surprised at the utter absurdity of some. God as charioteer? Jesus in America? Fruit made by spirits to look like penises? Gimme a break. Wilder still, the 'nonscriptural' works. Fear is a bacterial disease? Osiris impregnated Isis after death without his cock? Somebody stop me! So I eventually lost interest in what amounted to very imaginative ramblings and got back to looking at things from a more mundane viewpoint. After watching "Henry and June" in the theaters years ago, I had an inkling to pursue the works of Nin and Henry Miller (Miller's three-in-one containing Tropic of Cancer sits on the shelf over my bed). Miller was easy, his stuff was natural for me to get into, given my bent for perverse or pornographic subjects, but Nin was another story. A looong story. Quickly running through her erotic tales, I resolved to read her diaries, of which the unexpurgated versions have just begun coming out. So, I started with Linotte and am still going over a decade later. She's a great writer, and quite a ribald liar to everyone including her diary; but easy to read, for me she is not. On facing pages, I am at once in love and total disgust, enchanted and disinterested. Reading her Cities of the Interior drew me back to her 'June Miller' and 'father' periods, so Incest and Fire find their way back to my shelf. I'm supposed to be into her 60s by now, damnit! What a bitch. Joyce reminded me that Delany wasn't the first writer to throw out conventions, his circular Finnegan's Wake and difficult Ulysses being in part prototypes for Delany's Dhalgren. Of course, I've read and reread both until my head throbbed.
The last shelf, the lowest and the one with the most vertical space, I have mostly reserved for traditional reference books, though a few oddities have snuck in because of their irregular size. There is little clutter here, it's strictly business (or kill me). From the left, there is my calculus text from Tarrant County Junior College, sizeable but nothing compared to the CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics I keep beside me here at my desk (it simply won't fit anywhere else); a book of tables of indefinite integrals I'd hoped my Mathematica would make obsolete; another TCJC text for Ordinary Differential Equations, a subject I thought answered everything until I moved up to the next; eight Dover Edition texts I bought off of Amazon and ravenously consumed, including Generalized Integral Transformations, Partial Differential Equations for Scientists and Engineers (to supplement my two primary texts on the subject I keep under my TV), Complex Analysis with Applications, Conformal Mapping, Abstract Algebra, Theoretical Physics (the old version), and the Theory of Functions together with its book of problems; The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, cool but not in depth enough for my taste; four more TCJC textbooks including Fundamentals of Physics, Horizons (astronomy), Earth: Then and Now (geology), and Looking Out/Looking In (intro to psych, laugh and I'll cut you); Einstein for Beginners, which I keep because it's so unusual; Chronicles of the Crusades, because neither Tolkien nor the Nazis have anything on these freaks, and it's a helluvan epic story; The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, because it's an even bigger epic story; The Book of the SubGenius (because I'm a doubly ordained atheist, remember?); the source book for Mathematica, because I once glimpsed those heady heights while a student and still can program in it; Programing in Mathematica, for the larels of Ubergeekdom I so richly deserve; Fractal Creations, because I always take geekdom one step too far; four volumes (originally six) of the Sacred Writings editions of The Analects of Confucious, The Rig Veda, The Qur'an, The Tanakh, with their companion guide, because my mom borrowed the NT for the Apocrypha and a certain girl traded the Dhamapadda for some instant karma; and The Ādi Granth, because everybody needs a Sikh guru hiding out on his bookshelf.
Sitting on the Dover math books are Research Findings on Medical Properties of Marijuana sent to me by the same buddy who gave me the copies of esoteric Tarot decks; the operating instructions for my (first!) CD player; and... wait for it... another Dover Edition math text, Integral Equations. Above the Sacred Texts is The Collected Tales of Pierre Louÿs, because it's very old (MCMXXX), very rare, and he's a very raunchy bastard. In front of the Dovers is my nine DVD set of "Super Dimensional Fortress Macross", because no one outgeeks me; the DVD of "Melody", because the Bee Gees were better before disco and that girl just kills; and the game "Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile", because the one video game I've ever bought just had to be the most obscure. In front of the Sacred Writings proudly stand a Jim Beam bottle I made into a Christmas candle at a Cub Scout meeting in 1978, because I a gangsta from da ole skool, and an empty Catholic candle I keep around to hide my Jeebus in when he gets out of line.
So there you go, thirty years of reading and the book on my nightstand is yet another pulp sci/fi novel. Aside from that, teh Math, Dhalgren, and my more recent love/hate relationship with Anaïs Nin, everything else has been momentary lapses of reason. Along the way, however, I've gone to the ends of imagination and back, found two legit religions that would accept even my sacreligious ass, wiled my way into the email inboxes of Larry Niven and Phillip Pullman, met one of the Enterprise Crew™, and pissed off every god I could find. Can you say the same?