Tuesday, June 19, 2018

So Many Books

The book that may have survived the longest on my shelves is a battered used copy of The Manual of Heraldry that I acquired while still in elementary school. I predicted the Manual’s detailed Order of Precedence would prove useful someday if I ever throw a dinner party for assorted nobility. I won’t need the Internet to confirm that an Earl’s eldest son outranks a Marquess’ younger sons and the Bishop of London, but not a Duke’s younger sons or the Archbishop of York. 

Actually, the Manual abides on my eclectic bookshelves because I’ve always been fascinated by the rules for designing and describing coats of arms. For example, did you know that the black-and-white shield with the eagle that appears on US dollar bills is secretly in color? The top part of the shield is engraved with horizontal stripes, signifying blue (or what the heralds call “azure”); the stripes below alternate plain white – which is called “argent” because it’s generally interchangeable with silver – and red, or “gules,” which is signified by vertical stripes. 

The language of heraldry is like a top-secret Medieval code that anticipated Nicholas Cage movies, paint-by-number sets, and full-color copy machines.

Forty-five years later, I still remember enough lingo from The Manual of Heraldry to offer a translation of the herald’s formal description of the colorized coat of arms pictured above:

Or, on a bend sable, a spear of the first, steeled argent; and for his crest, or cognizaunce a falcon his wings displayed argent, standing on a wreath of his colours, and supporting a spear or, steeled as aforesaid, set upon a helmet with mantles and tassels as hath been accustomed.

“Or” means the background shield is gold. "Bend” means the shield is crossed with a wide downward diagonal stripe. (If the stripe sloped up, it would be called a “bend sinister,” and signify illegitimacy.) “Sable” means the stripe is black; “of the first” means the spear on the stripe is the first named color, i.e. gold; “steeled argent” means the gold spear is tipped in silver.

This description come from four-hundred-year-old records maintained by the College of Arms. The coat of arms belongs to William Shakespeare, or rather to the Shakespeare family. John Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms when his son William was still a child. However, John fell upon hard economic times, and the application was abandoned. William apparently renewed the application twenty years later when he was a successful playwright and property owner. The Garter King of Arms ultimately granted the application (although someone objected, unsuccessfully, that a mere player is no gentleman). The family coat of arms appears together with Shakespeare’s bust over his tomb in Stratford-on-Avon.  

The Shakespeare family motto, “Non Sanz Droict,” translates from the heralds’ archaic Franglais as “Not Without Right." 

If my family applied for a coat of arms, our motto would probably be “So Many Books.” 

There’s some question about the motto’s proper punctuation. I favor an unpunctuated sentence fragment, like Shakespeare’s and so many other heraldic slogans. As a writer, I’m all for ambiguity. 

My thoroughly modern children’s motto would be printed in lower case, presumably by autocorrect. You can expect an excess of horrified exclamation marks. Even within a direct quote, I can barely bring myself to type them all: “so many books!!!” 

Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol to convey Eleanor’s valley girl upspeak version.1

1Confidential to Eleanor: I did track down a useful socioeconomic glyph:  

The phrase “So Many Books....” often appears with ellipsis dots. Ellipses allow for ambiguity, but in a more bludgeoning way. For the Leishmans and Phillipses, most of the bookish phrase’s connotations will involve abundance.

Typically, however, the ellipses after “So Many Books….” are intended to refer to a specific following phrase. When combined, the two phrases may be seperated by a comma, semi-colon, or space. That concluding phrase is “So Little Time.”

The Internet teems with cute and/or oppressive pictures of the entire “... so little Time” aphorism, often credited to Frank Zappa. None of them represent the Leishman family motto.2

2Confidential to the Pinterest Crowd: There aren't any cute pictures out there showing just the “So Many Books” half. I had to create mine with PhotoShop. 

There is always time to read. Now is always a good time to read. There will always be a time when you can read. We therefore are grateful for the blessing of So Many Books. Time doesn't enter the picture.

Despite what you might conclude from our sardonic comments and our past history of plagues, we Leishmans are incurable optimists. There will always be time to read. And, fortunately, So Many Books to read and write.

As I wrote in "Reading Again," anhedonic reader's block eclipsed my longstanding writer's block a couple of years ago. Fortunately, both finally lifted.

Here is the list of books I’ve finished reading so far in 2018:

Bruce Handy, Wild Things: the Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?
Robert Wright, The Moral Animal
Isaac Asimov, Foundation
Angelika Huston, Watch Me
Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
Joe Hagen, Sticky Fingers
Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain
Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
David Sedaris, Theft By Finding
Mary Karr, Lit
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
Mark Ausiello, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies
Tina Brown, The Vanity Fair Diaries
Marie Phillips, The Table of Less Valued Knights
Robert Nye, The Late Mr. Shakespeare
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members
Roger Ebert, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
Michelle Dean, Sharp
Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Sheryl Sandberg, Option B
Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair
Michael Chabon, Pops
Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life
Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant

The current list is much longer than it's been for many decades. For example, the corresponding book list for the second half of 2016, when life was at its worst, has zero entries.

If ellipses dots must qualify “So Many Books,” there can be only one appropriate completing phrase, always spoken with a sigh: “So Little Space.”

As we age, even inveterate readers like members of the Leishman and Phillips clans eventually reach this begrudging epiphany. (Except for the worst of the hoarders, and you know who you are.)

Whenever my kids' classmates come to our house for the first time, they invariably exclaim "It looks like a library!" Even in 2018, I insist on taking that as a compliment. But nowadays I secretly sigh, thinking of the mountains of books I’ve “deaccessioned” in the last few years. "Deaccessioning" is a library's euphemism for literary euthanasia.

I noticed when a similar change occurred a few years earlier at my parents’ house. Like doting pet owners who ultimately acknowledge that it would be cruel to prolong Fluffy’s life any longer, even my mother and I finally accepted the inevitable: some books would have to go. It starts with the duplicate copies, and then the textbooks. Then the out-of-date encyclopedias. Finally the boxes of books in the attic or storage unit that haven't been opened for years. Bloody floodgates.

Eventually you become capable of sending to a "better place" not merely an unloved book, but also some of your pretty-well-liked books. You ultimately adopt a heartless Zero Population Growth approach – at least one old volume must be deaccessioned before a new book is allowed to come home from Henderson's or Village Books.

To my father's and my children's relief, the libraries at our houses no longer inexorably expand. Instead, just like when we lived in Utah thirty years ago, we are singlehandedly keeping our local public library in business. In fact, my mother and I have an entire pickup shelf to ourselves in the alphabetic “Online Holds” section of the Bellingham Public Library.

My children are right, I’m becoming my mother. Particularly the So Many Books part.

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