30 June 2021

Lending Library


 Last summer we had a minor household disaster.  The water heater burst and half of our possessions spent several months in a storage unit in our driveway while flooring was removed, new doors installed, etc.  Everything is fine now, better than ever.

But I had an interesting experience when I was reorganizing the fifty or so shelves of books that reside on our lower floor.  Specifically I noticed a certain category of books scattered throughout.

These are the books we have more than one copy of.  There are a few books that I buy an extra copy of whenever I spot it in a used book store.  Why?  So I can give them away, and not worry about getting them back.

As a dedicated reader and a recovering librarian I have a strong desire to proselytize, to tell people "You just HAVE to read this book!"  Not surprisingly they tend to be books I reread every few years.  So let's talk about a few of them, in chronological order.

Don Marquis.  archy and mehitabel.  (
1930)  Marquis wrote a newspaper column which, by God, had to be filled with something every day.  And so one morning he claimed to have found a cockroach jumping up and down on his typewriter keys.  The literary insect was archy (he couldn't reach the capital letters), a free verse poet who had been reincarnated as a bug.  mehitabel was his friend, an alley cat who claimed to have been Cleopatra in another life.  "you want to know / whether  i believe in ghosts / of course i do not believe in them / if you had known / as many of them as i have / you would not / believe in them either"

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle For Lebowitz.  (1959) One of the great post-apocalyptic novels, and a very Catholic one.  It concerns the bookleggers, an order of monks who salvaged the few remaining books from the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific riots that followed nuclear war.  Canticle consists of three novellas spread over a thousand years  - and one character appears in all three. 

H. Allen Smith. The Great Chili Confrontation.
(1969)  One of the funniest nonfiction books I have ever read.  Smith wrote an article about chili which so offended some Texans that they challenged him to a contest.  And so the Terlingua Chili Cook-off came into existence - and Smith fell in love with the Lone Start State.  Here is a Texan discussing his wife's views on religion: "She believes things a mud turtle would blush to believe."

Donald E. Westlake.  The Hot Rock. (1970)  One of the funniest crime novels ever, it concerns a gang of burglars who have to steal the same emerald over and over.  "I've heard of habitual criminals, but never the habitual crime."  Westlake intended it to be a standalone novel but John Dortmunder was such a great character, the smart but luckless sad sack, that he appeared in a dozen books.

Russell Hoban.  Riddley Walker.
  (1980) Another post-apocalyptic novel.  Thousands of years after a nuclear war progress is just beginning to show its head.  And that ain't necessarily a good thing.  What makes this book unique is the language it uses, a simplified English that is just starting to be written down again.  Take for instance one phrase that appears in the book several times: "the hart of the wud." Depending on context this could mean a deer in the forest, a kiln (hearth of the wood), charcoal (heart of the wood), or the human spirit (heart of the would) - or all of them at once.  It will blow your mind, just as it destroyed Hoban's ability to spell.

Thomas Perry. Island.  (1987) Harry and Emma are conmen who steal a ton of money from a very bad guy and flee to the Caribbean.  Their problem is how to invest their loot.  So they take an unclaimed island, barely high enough out of the water to stand on, and pile junk on it until it's big enough to be a country.  The plan is make a fortune off loose banking regulations and no-extradition laws.  But it turns out you have to think about other things, like: What should be illegal?  Do you accept refugees?  Turns out running a country is complicated.  Who knew?

Terry Pratchett.  Small Gods.
(1992) A British reviewer said Sir Terry is the greatest satirist in English since Chaucer.  His Discworld books consist of at least seven separate (and interconnecting) subseries. I urge people to start with Small Gods because it is one of the best and because it is a standalone.  Brutha is a very minor novice in the Omnian religion so he never expects to meet the great god Om - especially in the form of a tortoise.  Om is having a bad millenium...  “The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy but they were listening in gibberish.”

Harry Turtledove.  Guns of the South.  (1992) The greatest alternative history novel I know.  Some Afrikaners build a time machine and decide to nip Black independence in the bud by selling machine guns to the Confederacy.  A brilliant piece of fiction and a meditation on American history.

So, what are the books you try to talk people into reading?


  1. You have three I remember fondly. Canticle, Hot Rock & Riddley Walker. Glad these and most of your books survived.

  2. I'm with Janice in being glad most of your books got through the ordeal. I love Canticle and Island, too. I am/was aware of most of the others except the Turtledove, which I'll have to check out.

    As for books I try to push, Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven about the 1918 coal strike, told through several distinctive voices, Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer, Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane (actually, ANY Gaiman), along with Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.

  3. Canticle, Riddley Walker, and anything by Terry Pratchett.
    Also, Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel), The Mask of Apollo (Mary Renault), Kim (Rudyard Kipling), The Calamitous 14th Century (Barbara Tuchman - actually anything by her), The Left Hand of Darkness, Four Ways to Forgiveness and The Birthday of the World (Ursula LeGuin), Nemesis (Agatha Christie), Death of a Doxy (Rex Stout), etc., etc., etc...

  4. BTW, Canticle has my favorite line in all of sci-fi: "Bless me father, I ate a lizard."

  5. Thanks for your concern, folks. NONE of our books were damaged, at least, none that I can recall. When the moving crew was taking our stuff out of the storage unit in our driveway the older man in charge was carefully supervising the young movers, making sure they didn't damage anything. So naturally he was the one who tipped over a box, breaking a bottle of wine on a ream of printer paper. He was mortified...

  6. I agree on Dandelion Wine, Renault, LeGuin, and of course Stout. I will have to read some more of these suggestions!

  7. Neuromancer. I gave Mr. Elizabeth a copy for Xmas & he read something like 30 pages & stopped. When my daughter turned 18 I gave her a box of books from Amazon that I had read & enjoyed.


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