Wet Books

Both my mothers-in-law have said, “Elizabeth, you have too many books.” Others have said it as well, but I particularly remember the comments  of my mothers-in-law. They are right, of course,….., in some sense, but I am unrepentant, …,  for the most part.

Because I have too many books, most of them are stored in the basement I share with my husband, although he does not think I am a good sharer of basement space. My husband likes a free-flowing, emptyish sort of basement, while I have thought that a basement is for storage. A bit ago I had some support from a nice electrician. He said, “What difference does it make? It’s just the basement. No one lives down here.” I will always remember his pleasent, unconcerned, unjudgemental face as he made this comment.

However, a torrential rain hit Ithaca at the end of the week of August 6, 2013. We have had basement floods in the past and thought we had all points of entry sealed, but it was not so. A river poured through the back basement (no books) into the middle basement (books) and soaked about four to five boxes that I thought were safe. (Most of my books are on shelves with feet.)

To Google I went, and typed in “how to dry out wet books” and got a nice article from the University of Maryland (I think) that said to put the books on their heads with absorbent paper underneath and blow a fan at them, something like that. Which I did, adding a powerful dehumidifier as well.


I emptied the dehumidifier repeatedly, turned the books on their other heads, and changed the scot towelling underneath. I made some progress. The pages gradually dried and fanned out, like the gills of a mushroom.


My daughter came home from a long trip and suggested I try the sun. I pointed out that the weather in Ithaca had not been reliable, as storms would come up out of the blue letting loose further torrential rains, but I followed her advice.

Wet books in sun on terrace by door to basement

I realized as I carried the books up and down the stairs, thinking about digital books all the time, that I value my tangible books despite the energy I spend in their upkeep. I value their presence–the titles on the spines, the words and the stories and the images that they hold, and the space they take up in my basement and my life. Books have been the only friends I can lean on with total freedom in times of loneliness, stress, and happiness. I do have human friends, but they have their problems as well, and I am loathe to add my burdens to theirs. Why not seek a book, even if not to read it, but dry it out?

The flood particularly hit some of my cricket song books and John Daniel’s Winter Creek: One Writer’s Natural History, which I will be reading once again with my Writing as a Naturalist students soon. I am particularly happy to be reunited with my books about cricket songs, e.g., Cricket Radio by John Himmelman, because it is that time of year when crickets announce the end of summer with that hum, the zzz-zzz-zzz’s of which make me happy and sad at the same time. As I was thinking about my wet cricket song books, which are proving the hardest to dry out because of the glossy full-color photographs, I stumbled on a posting in the Music Blog of the Guardian (UK) titled “Andrew Bird’s Sonic Arboretum reminds me of the natural music we are losing: music of the fields and the woodlands, the lapwings and bunting, is giving way to the sounds of the city, the new housing estates, the motorways” by Laura Barton. Composer Andrew Bird uses natural sounds he has heard on his Illinois farm to inspire his compositions and musical installations.

Wet books in the sun.

Wet books in the sun.

Having left my still wet books in front of the dehumidifier in Ithaca and transported myself to Vinegar Hollow in Highland County, I am tuning in to my own cricket radio, thinking about the wonderful little musicians rubbing their wings together to make August’s gentle hum.

Pages from The Songs of Insects by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott

Pages from The Songs of Insects by Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott

What a pleasure to dive into books about crickets–I hear better after reading. So, I plan to give all my dried out books center stage for a while. They are twice as big, the surfaces of the pages wavy, crinkley, and wrinkley, and I will read or reread as the case may be with greater insistence and diligence.

An Homage to Charles Dickens on his 200th Birthday

Some of my Dickens

Some of my Dickens


On February 7, 2012 I am on my way to work to meet an 8 am class with Ithaca College first-year writing students when I hear on NPR that it is Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. My students and I are going to be discussing another great writer with initials C. D., the one with the haunted eyes and the flowing beard, Charles Darwin. We are reading The Voyage of the Beagle: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World. We call it The Voyage. I share with my students the news that Dickens birthday parties are being held worldwide, and some of them look pleased. We had discussed their tastes in literature. About half loved Great Expectations, and the other half shook their heads.

The NPR story featured an interview with Claire Tomalin, author of a new biography of Dickens called Dickens: A Life. Tomalin tells the interviewer that Dickens wrote extremely fast, and his books were published with little to no revision by him or by editors. No revision??? Revision is one of the core values of writing instructors.  So this I do not share with my students. Tomalin says that there is “bad writing” in Dickens’ books, but it is outweighed by the good. I muse that if Dickens had been as energetic a reviser as a writer, he might have found himself at square zero, i.e., no books, but more to the point, in his day sheer volume was one way of satisfying reading appetites. There were no motion pictures. While it may not be accurate or fair or useful to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, Dickens painted many scenes with thousands of words. He wrote fast, and that was the method to his madness.


Another Dickens from my library

Another Dickens from my library


After class, hurrying off to make my appointment with a propane deliverer in Aurora, 30 miles up Cayuga Lake from Ithaca, I make a dash-by stop at my local library to get a Dickens on tape for my own little Dickens birthday party. No David Copperfield. No Great Expectations. Bleak House! Oh no. I remember one of my academic debacles in college. An English major, I signed up for a semester-long Dickens course. A young visiting professor from UPenn got us off to a fast start. We were to read an entire small Dickens novel per week and a half of one of the big ones, like Bleak House, per week. I was a fast reader and I liked Dickens, especially his lengthy sentences, his word pictures. I started copying out sentences and passages that I liked as I read. My stack of note-cards grew almost as tall as Bleak House was thick. I fell behind. I stopped going to class. I foundered in the wealth of his words, like a pony in spring clover. I either failed the course, which I don’t think occurred because there are no F’s on my transcript, withdrew (but there are no W’s), or the professor had a medical emergency and the class was terminated (a faint possibility according to my memory because I remember a sense of guilt that she, the professor, had foundered because students like me couldn’t keep up). I had kept up with Henry James, but Dickens….



I slip the CD into the player and prepare to re-engage with Bleak House. The Prologue is witty but dryish; when I start to drift a little I am brought to attention by the mention of a woman dying of spontaneous combustion. What? It’s too late to figure that out because the first chapter is beginning. I am attentive. The slate-blue waters of Cayuga Lake and low gray clouds are on my right and the rolling folds of Lansing fields on my left as the first chapter begins. It’s a very beautiful beginning, very grand, suitable for a big book. A slender book would not need such a beginning. The sun is dead. Fog swirls out of the nooks and crannies of England’s landscape and seascape, descending  into the heart of London, to surround the High Court of Chancery. Dickens invokes the fog, and mud, and foul weather to begin his passionate assault on this high court, “most pestilent of sinners.”  He repeats the word “fog” over and over, but it does not feel overused. We know that when it’s foggy, fog is everywhere, and fog is fog. There are not that many other words for it. Just one or two. Then Dickens uses one of the synonyms so beautifully near the end of this opening passage. We are now in the presence of the Lord High Chancellor, who sits in the court “with a foggy glory around his head.” And his minions–they are “mistily engaged” in their miserable tasks. For me, the attachment of “mistily” to the human activity is stunningly effective. Nature and chancery are one. He has brought the fog from all over England to the fingertips of these workers in a befuddled, and often malignant, bureaucracy. I reach Aurora, but I am still in the first chapter of Bleak House because I replay the opening chapter again and again. Maybe some books should be written fast, but read slowly.