My Reviewing Philosophy

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This summer I will be coming up on eight years of reviewing books on the blog (and a few more before that of reviews on Goodreads) accounting for something like a thousand book reviews. Since this is one of those days when I don’t have any books I’ve finished waiting for a review, I thought I’d reflect a bit on my reviewing philosophy as it has evolved over the years

  1. First of all, I try to review books that I’m actually interested in reading. I avoid requesting or accepting books to review I know I won’t like reading (one of the privileges of doing this work as an unpaid reviewer). So most of the time, I will be fairly favorable in my review of a book. That will be true even of books I don’t agree with.
  2. The major exceptions to this rule are when a book is badly written, or poorly argued, or takes too long to say what it is trying to say. I read such a book recently. It was on a topic I was interested in and had some information that I found enlightening. But it was repetitious and there was a lot that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe 200 pages worth. I was especially unhappy because this was a book I bought because of my interest!
  3. Speaking of concision, I try to write fairly brief reviews, in most cases 500-800 words. My aim is to give people enough for them to decide whether or not they want to buy the book. That means a summary of the book’s ideas, maybe a quote to give a sense of the author’s style, and some brief evaluation.
  4. I try to write for literate people rather than the academic guild. While I read some scholarly theological works and more serious works of fiction and non-fiction, I try to write for people somewhat like me, those with some education who want to benefit from those who are specialists without becoming one and who want to read good works of literature and enjoy them rather than overly deconstructing them. I think it sad that there are some in the academic world who cannot remember when they last enjoyed a book!
  5. I’m committed to respecting authors. I know how hard it is to do what they do both in writing and in launching a book. I believe respect means that I represent a book fairly, even when I disagree with the book or cannot appraise it favorably.
  6. Speaking of disagreements, I believe there is a fine line reviewers walk. Properly, a review is about the book, not about my personal views. So you will see books I don’t fully agree with. I often find much of worth in such books. Where I may engage a book is in appraising the arguments of a book, and whether they’ve fairly engaged my own views, when there is a disagreement between me and the author. Even here, this will usually be brief, with more ample space given to the content and what I see of value in the work.
  7. That said, I recognize that as a reviewer, while I try to read carefully, I cannot help but read from my own social situatedness and my own views of the world. I try to be aware of them, acknowledge them when relevant, but I will not apologize for them.
  8. I do have interests, which can be fairly diverse from mysteries to presidential biographies. I also have areas of focus from Pauline theology to environmental writing to anything decent by an Ohioan or about Ohio. I am interested in promoting Ohio writers as well as friends who are writers, if I think I can say something helpful about their books.
  9. I am still learning to review fiction. The art of brevity here is to say just enough to interest people in the plot of a book without taking away the fun of discovering the plot twists and turns for themselves. It goes without saying that one doesn’t leave spoilers. More difficult is the avoiding of connecting dots that the perceptive reader could use to deduce a conclusion. I have to learn more about the analysis of characters, of themes, and writing styles, again without giving away too much. I probably need to read other reviewers of fiction more to learn how they do it.
  10. Finally, I want to do my best to honor the relationship between reviewers and publishers. I love when I get to know publicists. I try to always express appreciation for the consideration of being sent a book for review and to do so in a timely fashion. And I make sure they have a copy of or a link to the review.

I am thankful for the chance to write and talk about what I think are good books. I’ve come to realize that reviewing is its own craft, and worthy of being done well. While I’m glad when an author says, “you got what I was trying to say” what means more is when a reader writes to say a book was illuminating or helpful or just a good read and a pleasant diversion. I’m even glad when someone tells me that my review convinced them this wasn’t a book they need to read. None of us can read everything!

I’m blessed to have friends who are authors and friends who are readers (some are both!) and my great fun is introducing these friends to one another in a way that enriches the social, intellectual, and literary capital of the world. That (and some free books) is pay enough!

Reading When We “Shouldn’t”

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Have you ever tried to read when you really shouldn’t have? It is so tempting, especially when we are in the middle of a good book, or have something we need to read before an imminent meeting, to try to read and do something else, sometimes in situations where this might be a very bad idea.

I asked the Bob on Books Facebook page about this and discovered there are a number of instances where this might occur. The instance pictured above was surprisingly common. Almost everyone who mentioned this said they gave this up long ago. I hope so–probably just as dangerous as texting or even looking at your cell phone. I can think of a few instances I tried it on a long boring stretch of road. I really couldn’t focus on what I was reading. So I gave it up. I want to read books when I can enjoy them.

I was surprised how many read during classes–something other than the textbook. There is the book inside book trick (ideal for comics) or the book in your lap approach. Sadly, some felt so ignored by the teacher that this was how they coped.

Then there was the forbidden reading–those “adult” books that we snuck into our rooms. As an adolescent boy curious about sex, I got an education of sorts reading a number of Ian Fleming books until dad caught me and the books ended in the trash can. Another wrote about reading her mother’s hidden copy of Forever Amber back in 1950!

Of course, nearly all of us dedicated bibliophiles were accomplished at reading under the covers in bed with a flashlight! When a flashlight wasn’t available, one person captured fireflies in a mason jar and read by the light of them under the covers. Some of us still stay up all night reading a page turner only to pay for it the next day.

Then there is the creative multi-tasking reader. One was so caught up with a book that he read a book while showering by holding the book outside the shower. Another tried to do this while proctoring a test. One was reading while their flight was leaving (presumably without them) and another during her labor (I mean, what do you do between contractions?).

The funniest stories were those where the person got busted. Of course, sooner or later most teachers caught us with books inside of books or on our laps. A few even let us do it if we got our work done and got good grades. Then there were those who gave us more work or had us write a book report on the book we were reading. Then there was the guy who read while waiting to bat in baseball practice and ended up doing a lot of running. Or the doctor who got pretty angry when his patient (8 years old) started reading after retinal surgery. Sometimes we bust ourselves, particularly if we try reading while walking and trip or walk into walls or light posts.

Sometimes we really ought to be doing something else–hosting a party, listening to a sermon, washing dishes, running a die cast and trim press, or just listening to our son. We readers are an incorrigible bunch. For many of us, our books are the introvert’s refuge. For some of us, the worlds created by an author are preferable to the hum-drum of our lives.

The point of this post is not to tell other adults what they should or shouldn’t do in terms of reading habits, other than I’m pretty persuaded that reading and driving are a bad combination. What I have personally come to is that books, at least good ones, like good friends, don’t deserve to be multi-tasked. They yield their greatest benefits when we give them our full attention–whether to amuse or instruct. But as long as no one is hurt, I have to admit that the stories of reading when we “shouldn’t” can be pretty fun–and if you are a reader, you have them! I know I do!

Reading as a Competitive Sport

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Jamie Canaves published an article today on BookRiot on “Calling a Time-Out on Reading for Sport” She speaks of tracking books read, page counts, planning your next book before finishing the one you are in, frenetic reading in the spare moments, and not reading fat books when you can read a couple thin ones.

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. I have a Goodreads Challenge, I do watch page counts (and have used my librarian privilege on Goodreads to add them when the publisher leaves them out!), and because I review books do think ahead about what I’m going to read. I think twice before leaning into a long book. Some of this is fun. It didn’t bother me that my reading numbers were down in 2020. After all, it was 2020. My reading challenge usually is at least 25 percent less than what I read the previous year.

I sense a certain uneasiness of readers about reading under pressure. I asked recently about how people who had set reading goals felt they were doing. I shared mine, which weren’t numerical, but about kinds of books I wanted to read to get out of my own “reading ruts.” Most of the responses I received were a pushback about numbers and simply reading for enjoyment and moving from book to book serendipitously.

Where the article hits me is that I do recognize that reading has changed for me. Some time ago, I knew someone who started making some stained glass items for a few friends, and this suddenly turned into more, and a hobby became a job. That’s what has happened with reviewing and blogging on books. While I still enjoy it, especially when I can put on some good music with a good beverage at my side, reading often seems a bit more like work. I’m aware of the pile awaiting review as well as books I’ve purchased that I wanted to read. I’m thinking about what books I’ll finish for review in the coming week. And I spend time keeping track of and requesting books that I think will be interesting to review. Some of the books I read are for work–I interview authors as part of my job, usually about a dozen a year. Other books I read, I choose for their relevance not only for me but for work colleagues

In fact, if there is anything that would bring reviewing and blogging to an end, other than a health crisis, this would be it. And that is a warning signal. Maybe I need to listen to the BookRiot writer. I want others to know the joys of a good book. If I lose that, I suspect it will come across in my reviews. It may be time to revisit the old books I’ve wanted to re-read but have deferred because of the new ones awaiting. Maybe I just have to admit that I cannot read all those new books people are buzzing about. It may be a matter of reading when, and at a pace that keeps it enjoyable. At some point, I may need to scale back the blog from six days to three or four. I’m not there yet.

I do believe reading should enrich our lives. When it doesn’t, something has gone awry. It could be pressures we feel from others or ones we place on ourselves. I appreciate the friends who push back about reading goals. I suspect most of us have enough of these in the rest of life. Sometimes we just need to lose ourselves in a book. At other times, we may read something with such challenging ideas that we need to read slowly and reflectively. As Mortimer Adler put it, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

My 2021 Reading Challenge Update

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A number of you at least took a look at my Bob on Books 2021 Reading Challenge from back in December. I never heard if any of you took it on, but a query from a Facebook friend suggested it was time to pull it out and see if I’ve made any progress or if it was just a fanciful New Year’s Resolution. Turns out, I had read in a number of areas, and was reminded of things I need to look at. So here is what I wrote, with notes in vivid red on what I read:

Old. Read one book that was written before your lifetime. One of the hazards of reviewing is that many of the books I read are published in the same year I’m writing. Old books can give a sense of perspective at times. My book: Death Of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1940. Not exactly an ancient classic, but at least before my lifetime.

New. At the same time, I tend to read authors I like and am familiar with in different genres. Most have published a number of books, so I can keep doing that for a long time. Find a new author in your favorite genre–read reviews, talk to your bookseller, or local librarian. My book: I had never read either Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood. Read The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Different genre. We tend to have our favorite genres. Get some recommendations and a book in a different genre. My son introduced me to graphic books, which I’m coming to like. A friend has been bugging me about reading a few thrillers. That might be the different genre for this year. My book: Thanks, James for reminding me about this one and giving me some suggestions. Dean Koontz will fill the new category for me as well!

Science or technology. I’ve observed that most people have never talked to a working scientist. The ones I’ve talked to have opened my eyes to the wonders of the world. There is so much we see but don’t really understand. I want to read something that will help me understand some part of the physical world a bit better. My book: Carl Zimmer’s Life’s Edge fills this category exploring what we mean when we say something is alive.

Issues. Go deeper on one issue in the news. If you’ve already formed an opinion, try reading something that takes a different perspective. There are people as intelligent as I am who disagree with me. I’m curious why. Are you? My book: Early this year, I read a book about reparations rather than just racial reconciliation. I wasn’t convinced before and still am not sure, but I better understand the case. The book? Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey.

Foreign country. Read a book about a country or a person from a country other than the one in which you reside. It could be history, biography, or even a travel book. My book: Closest I’ve gotten in this category is Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff on a rescue effort on the icecap in Greenland.

Local history. From writing about the town where I grew up, I’ve discovered that both I and many of my readers knew little about the place where we grew up. So, now I have a book about Columbus on my reading stack–I’ve lived here 30 years and don’t know that much about my current home town. My book: I read that book, The Columbus Anthology, kind of a literary review edited by Amanda Page that exposed me to a number of writers who call Columbus home. Still feel like it would be good to read a good history of this place.

Foreign fiction. Fiction written by someone not from my country of origin allows us to see the world through a person who sees it from a different perspective. My book: In addition to a couple of Louise Penny Inspector Gamache books, I’ve read Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Old People, as well as the Atwood and Marsh books.

Re-reads. It can be a fascinating thing to re-read something we read at a different time of our lives. The book hasn’t changed but it is a mirror reflecting how we have. My book: No re-reads, I’m afraid. I’ve wanted to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia probably last read at least 25 years ago.

Religious Text. Here I have several suggestions. You could go deeper in exploring something in your own faith or you could read about a different religious tradition within your faith. You could read about another faith to understand it better. Spiritual but not religious? You might try a work of philosophy. Whatever is the case, we all could do with living up to the tenets of what we believe and understanding others better. My book: I read Thunder In the Soul by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the outstanding Jewish religious leaders and thinkers of the 20th century.

A possible new hobby or interest. Yes, I know, reading is your hobby. It is one of mine as well. But you might try reading about a hobby you might take up or an interest you could pursue. My book: None here, but there is a book on singing technique that I’d like to get into, and perhaps I ought to read a book on painting technique before joining my wife in plein air painting outings this summer.

Health. This is a year that has reminded us we can’t take our health for granted–physical, mental, or spiritual. Read a book for you. It might be to better understand your body and care for it, or perhaps books to help us understand ourselves. Books on the Enneagram have helped been helpful in my own self-understanding. Perhaps you’ve discovered how important resilience is and want to learn how to cultivate that. My book: Nothing here. My last visit to my doc suggests I might want to read something about low carb diets. Any suggestions?

Actually, that’s not bad for two and a half months and without trying too hard. Taking a look reminds me of the reading areas to take a look at and suggest some things I want to look for or just pull off the shelf and onto the TBR pile At some point, I want to read some older theology, something I’ve not done so much since I’ve not been part of the Dead Theologians group. How about you? The idea of the Reading Challenge was to suggest some goals to get out of one’s reading “ruts.” Yours will likely be different than mine, but part of the value of reading is new ideas, new perspectives to help us avoid “hardening of the attitudes.” There are still nine and a half months in 2021 to work on that!

Ten Things Readers Would Like Publishers to Know

I suspect most of us take publishers for granted. We may not even be aware of who published the book we are reading. For most of us, unless we are writers or are in the book trade, publishing is a “black box.” That doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions about publishing. That’s true of my reader friends on Facebook who recently shared what feedback they would give publishers. Here are ten of their suggestions:

  1. The biggest beef they shared was poor proof-reading. Some of the errors reflect the use of spell-check or autocorrect, sometimes resulting in a correctly spelled wrong word. If you were raised to pay attention to grammar, punctuation, and spelling, these kinds of errors are huge distractions. Also keep the convention of quotes around dialogue.
  2. Maps were a big deal for some reason. One person requested maps at the back easily folded out for reference at any time. Maps are always appreciated when there are geographic references and territory changes. Some of us like pictures as well.
  3. Covers are a big deal. People really don’t like it when you change graphic style in the middle of a series. Also, don’t make all the covers in a genre look alike.
  4. Romance covers came in for criticism for racy covers. This is particularly objectionable if you are not heterosexual.
  5. People like “soft” soft back covers that don’t crack.
  6. People do want options of both physical and e-books. Don’t release books in only one of these.
  7. Print size. Make it so that people don’t need magnifiers to read the page.
  8. One person asked for the abolition of endnotes–footnotes only. I understand. Flipping back and forth can be frustrating.
  9. Release books at the same time in different countries. It can be aggravating when friends in another country have a book months before you do.
  10. Finally, some people would love to see publishers open to new blood, to give a chance to new writers, whatever their age.

This last reminds me of what a challenge publishing is, sometimes because of the sheer number of manuscripts to evaluate and the challenge to calculate what books will do well, going through multiple printing, and which will go to the remainder sales. One person responded, “None. I believe it is hard enough to be a publisher without any additional advice and I would not like to see the end of this essential species.” There’s something to that. They take the risks, make the calls, and we get to read the finished products. We may not always like the books and have probably wondered how some made the cut. Then there are those wondrous books, sometimes from a new voice, that make you grateful that they took the risk.

Author Photos–Do They Matter?

I’ve seen a number of websites with tips for authors that stress the importance of a good author photo for the cover or inner flyleaf of their book. The basic advice is have a professional photographer do a photo shoot. Don’t use that picture from family vacation. A good photo helps sell the book. After all, people judge books by their covers and the author image on the cover is part of that.

Take the photos above. Tara Beth Leach has a new book coming out titled Radiant Church. The author photo conveys a radiant person–someone who would light up a room and make you feel welcome. At very least, there is a congruity between the person in the photo and the title of her book. Esau McCaulley wrote Reading While Black, reviewed here earlier this week. The book is somewhat scholarly, exploring how the Bible is interpreted in the traditional Black church in ways that offer hope for its people. Notice the glasses and the tweed jacket that gives the author a friendly, professorial look (he is one!) and the warm smile that suggests this is a person of hope. Again, the author photo is consistent with the book theme.

Theory meets reality. I asked the Bob on Books Facebook Page “How do author photographs affect your decision to buy a book?” The overwhelming response is that they are not a factor. One person wrote, “I don’t care what an Author looks like. Only how well they write. Sinclair Lewis was not a photographic man but he wrote many good books. Agatha Christie was plain as porridge but also was a great writer of mysteries.” One person wondered why the big deal about this–it is not a modeling job they are applying for. Cover art, the synopsis of the plot, a sense of the quality of the work, even the book blurbs seem to play a bigger part in why people buy a book. I also was reminded of the fact that many reserve books through libraries that they are interested in or buy e-books online where they rarely pay much attention or even see author images.

Before authors wonder why they spent all this money on a photoshoot, I still think there is a case to be made for the author picture. When we read, we are engaged in a kind of a conversation where we listen to another’s words, enter the mind and world of another person. Haven’t you found yourself wondering what kind of person this is who would write this way? I’ve looked at images of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and read whole biographies of both authors to try to get a sense of the persons who brought us so many wonderful works. One of the wonderful things about author readings when they were being done, and the many interviews we can watch online is that we can get a better sense of the people whose written works mean a great deal to us. To be able to look at a face offers a glimpse into the person. Somehow, for example, I look at pictures of James Lee Burke and see how he could create the character of Robicheaux.

I realize as I write this that the photos become more important as I read an author’s work. But I do also find myself trying to get a sense when I browse a book of whether the author seems the kind of person to deliver on what is said about the book. Am I going to like spending a number of hours with this person?

All this makes me realize how important the work of the photographer is in this enterprise. The author is trying to capture the person who wrote this book. No more and no less. Sure, dress, lighting and pose matter. But what we want is something of the essence of the person. We don’t want to be disappointed. And the author doesn’t want to be misrepresented. I wonder if there is an award for author photography. There probably should be.

These are at least some of my musings about this aspect of books and publishing. What do you think? How important is the author photograph to you when you pick up a book and decide whether you want to buy it?

My Post-Pandemic Bookish Bucket List

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I’ve missed places that look like this for the past year. It’s been OK from a reading point of view. With plenty of unread books around the house, new books that have arrived for review, and book orders from a few of my favorite book outlets, I’ve not lacked for books. Perhaps I’ve spent more time reading books rather than looking for them. Ordering online makes me more selective. But with the hope of a return to some kind of “normal” and staying healthy (Lord willing), there are some bookish favorite things on my post-pandemic bucket list:

  1. Browsing at our local Barnes & Noble with my wife and enjoying Caramel Frappucinos together and sharing our finds.
  2. Selling the boxes of books that have accumulated in the last months at our local Half Price Books and seeing if we can spend less money than we get for the books.
  3. There are a couple of newer bookstores around town I haven’t visited yet (ordered from one during a Small Business Saturday): Prologue Bookshop and Two Dollar Radio (I love the name). Two Dollar Radio is a brick and mortar indie that is also the headquarters of Two Dollar Radio, an indie book press.
  4. Visiting my local library. It is always a good place to learn about new books that I missed or browse ones I’m interested in. At various times we’ve been e-book only, reserve online only or restricted in person. It will be nice to just make a leisurely visit to the library.
  5. It has been a long time since I’ve visited one of the best used bookshops in the Midwest, the Book Loft, located in Columbus’s German Village. They have 32 rooms of books in this rambling store.
  6. Among the in-person events I look forward to is gathering with people to talk books. I’m in an online book group with my church. It’s been good. I’m torn–one of our members is from out of town, but in person would be enjoyable.
  7. Donating some books to a couple different organizations not currently accepting donations due to COVID.
  8. I look forward to scoping out bookstores in towns we are visiting. No plans yet–just something that is always fun to do. Hoping some of my old friends will still be there.
  9. Someday I hope to actually visit Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, PA. Need to find a reason to go to eastern Pennsylvania. I’ve been friends online with the owner whose newsletters I always look forward to. I love ordering from him and getting the meticulously wrapped books.
  10. This would really be a lark, but having read about the various libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie, I’d love to visit and photograph some of the Carnegie libraries still operating.

A few of these are technically possible (and many are not due to COVID restrictions) but being in an at-risk population, we’ve been very conservative about exposures. We are able to start signing up for vaccines for our age group on February 8. I’ve no idea when any of my bucket list will be possible, but at least it is fun to dream about the day when these may be possible. However, for me, none are worth taking the risks while infection rates are high, so until then, I’ll keep working on that TBR pile!

What items are on your post-pandemic bookish bucket list?

Bob on Books 2021 Reading Challenge

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There are lots of reading challenges that have to do with how many books we read. Some of us like them. Some don’t. We all have our own tastes. But I thought I would come up with my own reading challenge. An ongoing challenge for me as I get older is settling into familiar ways, ruts, maybe even my own “echo chambers.” So I thought of some “challenges” that at least will help stretch my reading habits. No number of books are involved (although if you read one of each you will read twelve–one for each month). You are welcome to join me for some or all–or none. The point is to keep reading both fun and enriching.

Old. Read one book that was written before your lifetime. One of the hazards of reviewing is that many of the books I read are published in the same year I’m writing. Old books can give a sense of perspective at times. My book:_________________________

New. At the same time, I tend to read authors I like and am familiar with in different genres. Most have published a number of books, so I can keep doing that for a long time. Find a new author in your favorite genre–read reviews, talk to your bookseller, or local librarian. My book________________________

Different genre. We tend to have our favorite genres. Get some recommendations and a book in a different genre. My son introduced me to graphic books, which I’m coming to like. A friend has been bugging me about reading a few thrillers. That might be the different genre for this year. My book________________________

Science or technology. I’ve observed that most people have never talked to a working scientist. The ones I’ve talked to have opened my eyes to the wonders of the world. There is so much we see but don’t really understand. I want to read something that will help me understand some part of the physical world a bit better. My book___________________________

Issues. Go deeper on one issue in the news. If you’ve already formed an opinion, try reading something that takes a different perspective. There are people as intelligent as I am who disagree with me. I’m curious why. Are you? My book_____________________________

Foreign country. Read a book about a country or a person from a country other than the one in which you reside. It could be history, biography, or even a travel book. My book_____________________________

Local history. From writing about the town where I grew up, I’ve discovered that both I and many of my readers knew little about the place where we grew up. So, now I have a book about Columbus on my reading stack–I’ve lived here 30 years and don’t know that much about my current home town. My book_____________________________

Foreign fiction. Fiction written by someone not from my country of origin allows us to see the world through a person who sees it from a different perspective. My book_____________________________

Re-reads. It can be a fascinating thing to re-read something we read at a different time of our lives. The book hasn’t changed but it is a mirror reflecting how we have. My book_____________________________

Religious Text. Here I have several suggestions. You could go deeper in exploring something in your own faith or you could read about a different religious tradition within your faith. You could read about another faith to understand it better. Spiritual but not religious? You might try a work of philosophy. Whatever is the case, we all could do with living up to the tenets of what we believe and understanding others better. My book_____________________________

A possible new hobby or interest. Yes, I know, reading is your hobby. It is one of mine as well. But you might try reading about a hobby you might take up or an interest you could pursue. My book_____________________________

Health. This is a year that has reminded us we can’t take our health for granted–physical, mental, or spiritual. Read a book for you. It might be to better understand your body and care for it, or perhaps books to help us understand ourselves. Books on the Enneagram have helped been helpful in my own self-understanding. Perhaps you’ve discovered how important resilience is and want to learn how to cultivate that. My book_____________________________

So there’s my challenge. I’ve not recommended particular books because I believe that discovering interesting books in these area for yourself is part of the fun and enrichment of reading that this is all about. I’ve left room for us to fill in our books. I’ll let you know next year how I did and I’d love to hear from any who decide to take up my challenge

Found Between the Pages

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Librarians, booksellers, and those of us who frequent secondhand bookstores and book sales have probably all had the experience of finding “surprises” between the pages of books. I asked those on the Bob on Books Facebook page about the things they found between the pages. That made for some interesting reading and I thought I’d share some of it with you.

Some of the more commonly found items were:

  • pressed flowers or leaves.
  • stamps, envelopes, newspaper clippings.
  • boarding passes and various kinds of tickets, including a Gone With the Wind ticket from a vintage theater.
  • bookmarks–stands to reason.
  • tissues–mostly clean ones fortunately.
  • postcards, holy cards, business cards, and pictures.
  • receipts.
  • money!

This last was interesting. Several reported finding anywhere from $20 to $500 in a book. In the latter case, the $500 was from a father to a daughter who took five years to find a particular book and included $100 for each year. Another found $40 in a book that he remembered had been his emergency bank stash back in the 1970’s that he’d forgotten about. Another forgot about the $40 he put in a library book and received back from an honest librarian. One person found 10 $2 bills, and another currency from Texas in a book on Texas history.

One takeaway from one of the people on the page was to go through your relatives books before disposing of them. It appears that the habit of stashing away money in books and then forgetting it is a widespread one. If you don’t someone else may get a very nice surprise!

There were some more unusual finds:

  • Someone found a toothbrush (fortunately in its package).
  • Several people left ultrasounds in books. One even received a congratulatory card from the book’s new owner!
  • A bank ATM card.
  • Several notes with the same phone number and the message “CALL ME.” Wisely, the new owner of the book didn’t.
  • A guitar pick.
  • A wrapped condom.
  • A book signed by JFK.
  • A mother looking through a son’s book found a nude picture of his girlfriend. I responded “busted!” to which the poster replied, “Yes, she was.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories was of someone who bought a box of old books at an auction only to discover that the 1890 invitation to a New Orleans Mardi Gras ball was worth more than the lot of them.

Part of the serendipity of shopping for secondhand books is that you never know what you might find. Usually we are thinking of the books themselves, but sometimes it is the objects one finds between the pages rather than on them. Sometimes we gain a glimpse into the previous owner’s life. Sometimes it is a great old bookmark. And sometimes, what we find may more than pay for the book. It may not be why we shop for secondhand books, but it sure can make them fun!

Stinky Books

No, I’m not talking about books with lousy plots.

I’m talking about books that smell. I’m not talking about that faintly musty smell of “old bookstore” which is the smell of book love for most bibliophiles. Older books do, of their own, give off a smell (VOC’s) as paper and binding material ages.

I’m talking about the smell that makes you and everyone else who walks into the room wrinkle their noses and say, “Ew, what’s that smell.”

It happens. Sometimes we don’t notice it in the store. Some of us don’t have as strong a sense of smell as others and we don’t notice until we get home–or our spouse or partner notices

Sometimes the book smells really musty, probably if it has been stored for some time in a very damp place with little light or air circulation, like in a basement closet against an outer wall. The big thing here is to check the book for mold or mildew. Mold looks like any mold, fuzzy growth on the surface. Mildew is evident by smell and by discolored spots or a powdery flaking layer on the surface of a cover or page. You want to get these away from any other books you value because mold and mildew spread by spores. This kind of damage takes some work, either by you or a conservator, so you will want to decide how valuable the book is. If it is not, your best bet is to discard it–mold and mildew can be harmful to your health. This website offers good tips if you do want to try to conserve these books.

The other big problem is books that have been owned by smokers or by pet owners, particularly cats. I understand. I have a clock from a grandfather who smoked cigars. He died over 40 years ago and I swear I can still smell cigars when I’m up close to that clock.

In a conversation on my book page, and in surveying book pages, it seemed like people found four methods useful in dealing with book smell:

  1. Fresh air and opening the book, fanning the pages. Some suggest sunlight, although the light can yellow the pages or even curl them if damp. Hairdryers can be used to dry and air out a book. I would use this “air books out” method first to make sure the book is not holding any residual dampness.
  2. Some try cleaning the books, with Lysol spray or de-natured alcohol wipes. Of course, you want to be careful not to damage the pages and make sure the book is thoroughly dry.
  3. Others try various scents or sachets of flowers or herbs–or Febreze. I wonder if this only temporarily masks the odor. Dryer sheets between the pages sealed in a food storage bag also is a version of this that may also absorb some odor.
  4. The one that made the most sense in avoiding further damage to the book was using some form of odor absorbent material with the book in a sealed environment. People mention newspapers between pages, sealing the book in food storage bags, or putting books in some sort of sealed bin with anything from baking soda to cornstarch to kitty litter. Some sprinkle cornstarch or baby powder or baking soda between the pages. Some just have it sealed up with the book. Just don’t use the baking soda you’ve had in the fridge. It has already done its job. Get fresh baking soda. Store these in an airtight container for at least three days. Don’t have the books tightly packed but upright, fanning the pages.

If these methods fail, discard the book, unless it is valuable enough either emotionally or monetarily to warrant the cost of a professional conservator. With online searches, many books are replaceable.

There are two other lessons in all this. Unless you are buying online (check on returning books in this case) give any secondhand books a good sniff before you buy them. If the bookseller ask, you can always just claim you love the smell of old books.

The other has to do with your own books. The basic considerations are:

  • Clean. This is the first line of defense against damage. Dust your books periodically.
  • Control moisture and humidity. They should be under 60 percent humidity and stored at around 70 degrees.
  • Circulate air. Some HVAC systems have a continuous fan feature to move air. Fans may also help. Taking books out when you clean and fanning through the pages is also a good idea.

While we may like the smell of old bookstores, we probably don’t want our homes to smell like one. If we have been away for a time and notice a musty smell, it is worth addressing, both for our own health, and for that of our books, especially if we have some stored away. If we think we would like to pass along some portion of our book collection, we want to make sure we are not passing along stinky books. That’s a gift that keeps giving, but not in the way we would like!