Friday, January 23, 2015

- Remembering: A life in books

When I posted the picture of popcorn and hot chocolate yesterday, I commented to Don that it reminded me of the so-called grad school food groups that could be found in the vending machines between  classes. That got me thinking ...

It isn't surprising I ended up studying librarianship, since I was a "weird little girl and a strange teenager" (as kindred-spirit-in-print Anna Quindlen described herself in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake). Preferring books to playing outside, each summer I would set myself the task of reading an epic tome ... Moby Dick, War and Peace and the King James version of the Bible come to mind ... not always to the end (in truth I got lost early on in the biblical begats), but I could always console myself with yet another reading of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings ...which I did countless times.

A recently acquired hardcover edition of  The Lord of the Rings,
plus my original Hobbit and Fellowship in paperback.
Note the hand carving on the bookshelves ... more about that later.

Fortunately, after heading to college I was lucky in love and later, as a young mother, I landed a part-time paraprofessional job at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library with full-time family health benefits. Good luck finding a deal like that these days! Better yet, when I decided to make a career of librarianship, CWF paid my tuition to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. My degree work started in 1988, with Meliss still in diapers and Meg about to enter Kindergarten.

Many of the classes were taught by adjunct instructors at Old Dominion University in Norfolk and the University of Richmond, both about an hour from Williamsburg. Because most of us (adjuncts included) were working stiffs, CUA offered the classes every other Saturday from 9-4 ... two weeks worth of instruction packed into 6-hour marathon lectures with an hour for lunch, followed by two weeks of studying and writing papers ... seven times a semester. On those endless Saturdays, I would buy Classic Cokes and candy bars, bags of chips and nut bars ... trying to make it through without falling asleep.

Out of necessity, I learned the gentle art of how to write a paper in one night ... no matter if it was a five-page precis or a twenty-page research piece. This was before home computers were ubiquitous, so using my work computer figured in to the routine. On the assigned night, while Don watched the girls at home, I headed over to Second Street after work, invariably ordering a spinach salad with ranch dressing, a pint of Bass ale, decaf coffee and dessert. Between bites, I would sketch out the bare bones of the paper on a legal pad, having already done whatever research and/or reading was necessary. By the time I returned to the office (most) everyone would be gone so I could write uninterrupted until the requisite paper was done. Limping home at one or two in the morning, then getting up early the next day to head off to work wasn't uncommon. But it worked, earning me a 4.0 GPA ... a far cry from my undergraduate record at William and Mary where I had avoided like the plague any course that required papers.

CUA did require that three courses be taken on-site in DC. The best was a two-week Institute on Federal Library Resources taught by Frank Kurt Cylke, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (which was in a very sketchy part of town, making for some quick hoofing). Wheeling around town in a full-size van packed with students, Mr. Cylke would regale us with stories that could only appeal to librarians, but which we tried to discourage as he had an unnerving habit of turning around to deliver punchlines while the van was threading through rush hour traffic.

We went to the Library of Congress (how ironic that this is a link to a Wikipedia article) where we pored over the rarest of rare books, saw huge stacks of cataloging in progress, and learned how the Congressional Research Service provided unbiased background papers to ensure informed voting by the members of Congress (hard to believe, right?) ... we marched through miles of concrete corridors to get to the Pentagon Library (which was moved after 9-11) ...  marveled at the map collections at the United States Geological Survey ... and here I pause, trying to recollect the other libraries, but what I remember instead is the side trip we made to a cooperative studio which specialized in the production of one-of-a-kind artist books. Amazing stuff.

It took four years, from 1988-1992, to finish the requisite 36 credits for my Master's degree ... twelve courses leading to a piece of paper that opened up new "earning opportunities." The truth is, I alternately loved and hated librarianship. Always did I love paging through a new book, helping a researcher to a "Found it!" moment, or learning something new myself that I never would have thought of looking up on my own. But supervision and management? Ugh, what soul-sucking work that was. Work that left my introverted self drained to the point where each year I had less and less energy for my own creativity on my own time. And so, when the opportunity to retire presented itself, I ran at it with open arms ... never looking back.

These days I have three public library cards and regularly haunt BookPeople and the Half Price Book stores in Austin and San Marcos (where I recently found a discounted copy of Suzanne Tourtillott's Making and Keeping Creative Journals recommended by Mo and more serendipitously happened upon The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy that Grace is reading right now).

No surprise then that one of the first things Don and I did when we bought our current abode was to have (more) bookshelves made. We found our way via By the Bridge Antiques to a gifted artisan named Robert Briones. I'm not sure if this link is to father or son, but on the day the two of them came to our house to plan the bookshelves, we bought this bench from Robert, Jr. out of the back of their pickup.

Then, after sketching out what we wanted, Robert, Sr. went back to Elgin and proceeded to craft the bookshelves of our dreams using scrap wood and metal, leftover paint and a great imagination ...

Each shelf has boards at the back and cunning metal rods
on the side to prevent books from spilling off

After all, if you can't have too many books, then it follows that you can't have too many bookshelves ... which is why we got two ... one for either side of our fireplace cum kiva ...

The shelves get progressively deeper and taller from top to bottom ...
a librarian's dream (note the large 3-ring binder at the lower left)

These days, between books and stitches, cooking and cactus-whacking, great kids and grandkids, I am well-contented.  Quoting Anna Quindlen again, "I have the feeling I may be cut out to be an old woman."


Dana said...

This post brought back lots of memories. I, too, thought I wanted to be a librarian but never got further than the 400 level courses the University of Washington offered as intoduction to their MLS program. I love books, but librarianship seemed more about the organization of information than about the books themselves. I do love a card catalog though. Too bad computers made those obsolete. Anyway, I figured out fairly quickly that it wasn't for me, although at the time I didn't have a clue what was and so the loss of librarianship was like a death. I also became a book collector with many bookshelves, although none so full of life as your beautiful carved ones. I like looking at the books you have... The Lord of the Rings is my very favorite of all time and I have several editions too. Just lately I have been thinking that my books are perhaps a shield and maybe I should thin them out. Its hard to begin.

Liz Ackert said...

When we got ready to move from Virginia to Texas we knew two things:
1. Our new home would be 20-25% smaller and
2. It would cost about $1 per pound to move our possessions
Talk about motivation. I took many bags of books to the book exchange, then consoled myself by buying more books (albeit far fewer) with the resulting credits.

Saskia van Herwaarden said...

books, books....what is it about them that I love (for it is love) the promise of entering another world, the looking into some else's mind, the solace, the learning , the experience, the physical presence of other lives..... all of this and so much more and now the job in the book shop, surrounded by Books!
somehow this doesn't bode well for my intention to have less rather than more, we'll see.

your's sounds like a fantastic career Liz, how absolutely wonderful your employer paid for your 'extra' education (same happened to my mother in the world of psychology) those were the days....
the furniture is absolutely fantastic, I especially adore the rough and sturdy garden bench

the Anne Quindlen quote is excellent and although I too am becoming older, I do not yet feel like a old woman, however it IS something to look forward to! Judging from your tales here on your blog, the life of an old woman it is another good chapter, all part of a full-filled life

Liz Ackert said...

Sas - Thank you ... your words made the writing of this post all the more meaningful. I'm so glad your life in books is growing in such a positive way.

Mo Crow said...

Ah books,m they are my life long passion, the space between the covers provides a quiet place of retreat, a private world to explore, a gallery I can hold in my hands and carry with me, full of wonder, fresh perspectives & inspiration. When the world gets too weird I love the solace of a library or a good book store to quiet my mind and ease my soul. Being an avid reader from 1st grade onwards my father challenged me to read A Tale of Two Cities when I was 10 then The Bible cover to cover when I was 14 when I stopped attending church due to hypocrisy on the part of the nuns (one of the girls was undergoing chemothearpy and couldn't afford a wig for the end of year presentations so she wasn't allowed to attend!!!!) but getting back to books... I had the most beautiful copy of Lord of the Rings, a black hard cover with thin rice paper pages and parchment maps, it took me two months to pay off on layby back in 1974, after reading it 13 times I gave it to a girlfriend in the early 8o's who had 7 kids and two grandkids at 40, she needed it and it was embedded in my soul, if I coud only keep one book it would be Thj Zen of Seeing by Frederick Frank

Mo Crow said...

oops please excuse the typos, must remeber not to comment before my second cup of coffee... it's almost 2am here on Australia Day

Liz Ackert said...

Blogger is such a pain to correct ... let the typos stand as your words are clear as day

Liz Ackert said...

I truly can't count how many times I read the trilogy ... the Fellowship of the Ring was always my favorite, though. And even though I have a hardcover edition, it is the smell and feel of the old paperbacks that transport me to my teenage bedroom, with Eric Clapton's Layla playing in the background.
I am looking forward to reading the Zen of Seeing ... always there is a new book in waiting ... life is good.

grace Forrest~Maestas said...

i love this because it tells me about You. About All that you Have been and ARE. Thank you
for much

Liz Ackert said...

You're welcome ... a lot of words, but that in itself is part of the story.
Likewise, I love reading the bits and pieces of your life in Windthread which underlie the stories in your cloths. A wonderful journey.