Skinny Books and Fat Books

A while back, I mentioned that my family was in the process of house-shopping. We closed on a home at the end of June. Between cleaning up after the previous owners’ rat infestation and compensating for some–ahem–puzzling choices by the contractors who redid the interior, we’ve started to pack up our apartment. That means packing books.

We have…lots of books. Before we moved from Minneapolis to Austin, I went through and removed many academic books I didn’t care about from the household library. (I also finally recycled 8 years’ worth of seminar notes.) Even after that liberation from the Academy’s lingering tyranny, we still had seventeen or eighteen boxes of books to move—north of 250 kilograms. Over the last year, most of the family’s acquisitions have been kids books, so at least we haven’t added much to our tonnage.

Packing up books is like playing Tetris without the underlying grid, but at least working at a college bookstore got me plenty of practice. After buyback, part of my job was to list and pack up hundreds and hundreds of textbooks for shipping back to the wholesalers. (The store’s book room was upstairs, too, which made things extra fun even with a good handcart.) Textbooks don’t come in standard sizes. Their sizes certainly aren’t related to standard box sizes, either. Filling boxes to their limits (but not beyond) is tricky, especially since you have to pack the books straight so their bindings aren’t damaged.

Being in the humanities and fine arts, I have not accumulated many textbooks. Instead, my collection is heavy on monographs and anthologies. They’re bound just as idiosyncratically as the big hardcover textbooks. Thin or thick, wide or tall, they’ve all got to go somewhere. I’ve discovered that the little Dover editions of philosophy are great for filling gaps. I’ve also still got a few scores around—I have no intention of giving up the Beethoven string quartets I scribbled so much analysis into. The scores are large enough they usually have to go at the bottom of a box, messing up everything that goes on top of them.

I also have literature and fantasy novels. They tend to be slightly more uniform in size—and much, much lighter—but vary in thickness. Because they’re light, they’re usually easy to pack. (It’s also nice to stumble on a light box of books while moving.) The variation in thickness, though…it got me thinking about what I like to read and how that has changed over the years.

The skinniest books in my collection are early printings of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Many of those are themselves collections of short stories that appeared in pulp magazines. Most don’t even hit 200 pages. Steve Brust’s Taltos books are the next category up, getting to about 250 pages—still pretty thin in the paperback printings. At the other end of the spectrum (discounting omnibuses) are Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books. These are epics. Though published in hardcover as a trilogy, the third book had to be split into two parts for paperback (and they’re still over 800 pages). Throw in the odd trade paperback and some hardcovers, and the fantasy collection is nearly as motley in size as the academic one.

It has been a long time since I found myself immersed in an epic. I’ve read most (but not all) of George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It didn’t exactly grow on me.  The best books I’ve read lately have been short: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the most beautiful gems of a book I’ve ever read, and it’s 181 pages in hardcover, including the afterword. Most of the “epics” I have left on my bookshelf are ones that I read in high school or the early part of college.

I have come to prize economy and the power of not laying everything out for the reader. (Gene Wolfe is an absolute master of this.) It’s an aesthetic principle, I know, a choice rather than some law of the universe. It’s still important to me. I think that my preference owes something to the work I’ve done in poetry and composition since I was “in to” fantasy epics. Those prize density of meaning rather than scope of narrative. They are about the right notes and the right details rather than raw volume. Some of that has certainly carried over to my fiction tastes and “serious” writing—if not my blogging, where my verbal sprawl can run amok.

There’s also the question of finding time to read. Getting reading into my day is much like getting books into boxes: my time is irregularly chunked by varying demands. Family responsibilities are like those big scores and omnibuses. They devour large quantities of time and have to go in first. It’s hard to sneak epics in around the edges or in the gaps. The skinny books, the little gems…they fit in the cracks. Perhaps after the summer, when the school calendar is again regulating my days and my kids’ days, I’ll find my way back to epics. Or perhaps I’ll just squeeze in more skinny books.


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