Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gerry Studds and the Librarian

"Everybody does that," my wife tells me in a warmly dismissive tone, that lets me know that I needn't worry. The warmth is for me. The dismissal is for my needless worry.

I don't use bookmarks, you see. And being a true child of the sixties, in the days before Barnes & Noble, when we got our books from the library, I know deep down inside that good people use bookmarks. We used to get them as gifts. But that might just be a New England thing.

Our house has not a single built-in book shelf. For me, this is even worse than not having a basement, which is the feature of our house that I usually complain about. But in truth, I don't care so much about the absent basement, because I know that it would just be a place to hide all of the junk that presently accumulates in the garage, where I am at least occasionally forced to clear it out. Who knows how long I could go ignoring a messy basement? Years, no doubt.

But bookshelves are a comfort, and I crave them. Filled with an odd variety of old textbooks and well worn paperbacks and unread mysteries of uncertain origin, they provide a feeling of refuge and personal history, with a promise of quiet and cozy companionship on a cold winter day. My Mom's old house even had them in the bathrooms.

The house I grew up in had built in bookshelves, and my parents had hopefully filled them with three sets of encyclopedias, each very different from the other. Britannica, the fanciest and largest, The Book of Knowledge, simpler to read, and People and Places, full of vivid and beautiful color pictures of the wildly different cultures that still existed in much of the world back then. As a boy I would use them to make my school reports, basically just rewording the encyclopedia's article into my own scrawlish handwriting. I always used Britannica. The others seemed too simple and I loved complexity. Later, after being shamed into using multiple sources, I would use them all. Sometimes I would just randomly read articles in Britannica, imagining that this is what Abraham Lincoln would have done.

The thing about encyclopedias is that they tend to be really well written. They're not hard to read at all. They look imposing, but they are really just like a giant newspaper or magazine, except that you can always find an article about something that interests you.

So, I'm in the kitchen of my shelfless house with the mail this past weekend, and there is a book box in the mail. Someone sent us a book. I like getting books in the mail. They were the first things I use to order from e-bay, before I moved onto sailboat paintings, ski equipment, and timeshares. But I digress. As I open the bookbox, ignoring my wife's urgent announcement that it's for her, I realize that we have received volume "A" of an encyclopedia! It's The Book of Knowledge! Well, well. My wife, who sternly advises unauthorized callers to our home that WE ARE ON THE DO-NOT-CALL-LIST AND YOU ARE BREAKING THE LAW, is red-faced as she hurries to interrupt my brain's simmering stew of mockery with a rapid-fire explanation of "what happened" on the phone that resulted in us getting one encyclopedic volume a month for the rest of our lives, no doubt at a very reasonable cost, automatically billed to our credit card for our convenience. And we can cancel anytime.

But I'm not really concerned about that. I'm just looking at the book and thinking, "I can't believe they still publish these things." Then I think, stupidly, "Who buys these things?"

"Where would we keep it?" I ask as the conversation has turned onto whether we send volume "A" back or not. She's clearly deep into buyer's remorse by now, but I'm thinking this may be just the catalyst we need to get some bookshelves installed. We have a local guy who does great carpentry for us. His name is Hiro. Like the old Emporer of Japan. Only not a genocidal maniac, as far as we know.

I've been scoping out spots for bookshelves since we moved in, and I have five good ones selected. So now I'm sort of onboard with the encyclopedia idea. But even though I never actually got to ridicule her for being seduced by an encyclopedia salesman over the phone, my wife is so embarrassed by having been caught red-handed that she's insisting she'll send it back. We'll see.

What has this to do with Gerry Studds? Not a lot.

Gerry Studds was my congressman when I was a teenager. He represented the 10th district in Massachusetts, where I grew up. He was an odd man, smart, reserved, dorky and cross-eyed. Everybody I knew in the 10th district loved him. We were proud that he was so smart and that he really cared about us. He dove into fishing and marine issues, which were very important to the district, that included Cape Cod and the Islands. He had a sex scandal with a male Congressional Page that revealed that he was gay. Even though he was a 40 something single man who lived in Provincetown, the Gay Mecca, this surprised some people, but not a lot. But we all rallied around him because he was our dorky gay Congressman, and people who you would not expect it from, like fishermen and carpenters, seemed to be relieved that he was not leading the lonely, ascetic life that he seemed destined for. So this led to a now old, and still bad, joke about the use of bookmarks and Gerry Studds getting in trouble with the Congressional librarian for not using them. He kept bending over the pages. Ho ho ho. Massachusetts people may love you, but that doesn't mean they'll be nice to you.

So we are back to bookmarks, which are really just an example of my need to find something to worry about at all times. My wife knows that my mind will feel guilty for bending over the pages, so she tells me it's ok. Oddly, this works and I stop worrying for a while. I'm thinking that maybe having the encyclopedia would be good for the kids. There's something about reading a book that's qualitatively different than reading the same stuff from a computer. Of course, I could say the same thing about cave drawings. I wonder if I'm just being nostalgic.

I still want to get some bookshelves, though.