Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Ritual

I am a sucker for books on books. When I came across this title at Brattle Books for $5.00: Rabinovitz, Harold and Kaplan, Rob (1999) A Passion for Books. A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, borrowing, Lending, Caring For, and Appreciating Books. New York: Random House (Times Books). I could not resist, even though I did not expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. I contains several interesting essays. Kaplan's "The Ritual" touched a cord. What he describes is familiar, as I follow a similar ritual when buying a book, though I cannot say that my ritual has only "changed in subtle ways over the years," and "has remained essentially the same for as long as I can remember." I have had many a false start and made substantive changes to my ritual, but I ended up with something that resembles Kaplan's ritual in many ways.

Just like him, I am more a reader than a book collector, and, also just like him, I have accumulated about 5000 books over the last forty-five years. Many of these books I bought in regular bookstores, but many I also bought in second-hand and antiquarian bookstores, though nowadays many come from Amazon. Nor am I opposed to e-books. The interesting part of "the ritual" starts once the books have been taken home:
I must admit that I am not only a confirmed bibliophile but also an inveterate list maker, and it's at this point that these two inclinations dovetail into each other. Because for years I've not only kept a running list of those books I've purchased—as well as those I've read, incidentally, but also an index card file, such as used to be found in libraries of all books in my collection (15).
He says he started this when he was ten or eleven old, "graduating to handwritten, then typed, index cards, and finally to a computer database program." Each title is assigned an acquisition number ("a consecutive number beginning with the number one of the first purchase of each year") (15). He writes the date of purchase in pencil on the upper right hand corner of the back cover. I just write my name and the year and month of purchase unto the front cover. And I only started to make a list of all of my books around 1995, using a Microsoft Word file (which I still have, but also imported into ConnectedText long ago).

Nowadays, he enters each title with the acquisition number and the pertinent information into a database program which, I gather from his description, is a MS-Access application. He also notes whether the book is a paperback or hard cover and specifies the subject matter up to three levels deep. In addition, he has a field for "To be read," "reference," and "reserve," where the last category indicates a book that is not on the primary reading list. Once the book is read, the database record is changed.

My ritual involves the primary program I use for all the information that is relevant for any aspect of my life. I enter the book as a topic in my Notes project with a special bibliographical title, like so: "(Kuehn 2012)." The topic itself lists the author(s), the title, and the bibliographical data. It gets the category "Book" and the properties bought ([[$PR:Bought:=20130504]]) and read [[$PR:Read:=20130504]], as well as the one that hard codes the creation date into the topic ([[created:=20130504]]). I have a simple template for bibliographical entries that contains two headings, namely "===Reference===" and "===Notes===". this allows me to create Bibliographies, among other things.

I used most of this system even before I discovered ConnectedText in August of 2005 (and ever since I discovered my natural affinity to wiki-writing).

Kaplan observes that "none of this serves any obvious practical purpose" and finds 'the process of cataloging new books to be one of the greatest pleasure of [his] life" because it provides "a kind of closure" (16). Quoting McLaughlin about Jefferson, he muses that "'assembling data of this sort had to be an end in itself for Jefferson, just as his collection of books was more than a convenient library of knowledge. collecting odd pieces of data and fitting these meaningless bits into a rational system was a way of structuring and ordering his personal universe.' And so it is with me—my catalog serves as a kind of safety net, a means of feeling that, at least to some extent, I have control over my life" (16).

I cannot deny that the ritual gives me some pleasure and suggests meaning where there may be one. But that is not its main reason for me. Having a topic of the sort "(author year)" allows me to refer to this book in any project and any topic in ConnectedText. And since I keep notes on everything I read, this is important in practice. It is one of the primary ways in which I incorporate the book into my mind.[1]

1. Over the past ten years or so, I have also transcribed many of the title on the list originally created in Word into my database, but I only do so as needed, that is, as I pick up a book listed and actually use it.


Anonymous said...

Great article, Manfred. I don't have a system like this for recording all the books in my library, but I have been keeping a list of all the books I have read. It began in a little composition book, which I then transcribed book by book into a flat file system on my old Compaq PC. That file has migrated into about 15 different computers and as many databases in the 30 years since. I now keep it in Bento on my MacBook.

MK said...

Thank you very much for the comment. As i said, I started out with a list as well, but found the other way more useful for my research and ultimately for life.

thiagoafdoria said...

Very nice! But I wonder how you keep the "one idea-one note" method with the topics being structured like that (Reference + Notes). If you pick more than one idea from the same book, do you create new topics?

MK said...

Yes, I create as many notes as there are ideas I find noteworthy.

thiagoafdoria said...

Thank's. I'm trying to do something like this, too.