Running Errands

The other day, I managed to pull some downright miracles out of thin air.

One of the problems with the Tufts campus is that it is built upon a hill.  Legend has it that

Tufts circa 1853

Tufts’ founder Hosea Ballou II had the campus built upon Walnut Hill (one of the highest hills in the Boston area) so that Tufts folk could (literally) look down upon Harvard.  The first building on campus was completed in 1854, entitled at the time “College Hall” (since renamed “Ballou Hall”).  Today, this building is the central nexus of all things Tufts.  The university has grown around the building and, as a result, around the hill.

But not just on one side of the hill, oh no, that would be far too easy.  It has spread and spawned on both hillsides, creating a situation such that to get anywhere on campus you literally do have to walk uphill both ways.  At one foot of the hill is the largest nexus of student parking.  At the hill’s peak various administration buildings.  On the opposite hillside is the library (amongst other things).  At the extreme opposite foot of the hill is Aidekman arts center, where my department is housed, and where all of my classes (and our personal Drama Graduate Lounge) are located.

Due to a series of applications, administrative red tape, and various things that I had to drop off/pick up in various places, I had to be in several locations in a short span of time.

Now.  There is a parking lot directly next to Aidekman.  This is extremely convenient on days when I just have to go to class and make no other stops.  However, when I have to do any amount of printing (in the general graduate lounge), go to the library (to drop off/pick up books), or really do anything else on campus, I opt to park in the WAYFARAWAY lot to ensure that my chores actually get done in the process of going to/coming from my car.

 

A map, for your reference

The other day I had to: stop at the administrative building to drop off a funding application, stop at the library to drop off some books, stop at the experimental college to drop off an application for a class that I’m proposing to teach next semester, go to class, stop at the library on the way back up the hill on the way to my car to pick up some books, then head to my car in time to head home.

To make matters worse, I was in a bit of a time crunch because my dance partner was due to show up at 6 PM.  My classes usually get out around 4:30, leaving me plenty of time to run a few tawdry errands and skid home just before 5.  It takes me about an hour to go from academic chic to ballroom dancer (including a dinner break).

Timing was going to be tight.

To complicate things further, I had to swing by the grocery store on my way home to pick up some bits and bobs for dinner.  And then my class let out twenty minutes late.  And then my dance partner texted that he’d be at my house about a half hour early because the combined forces of traffic and his job had treated him particularly well that day.

Keep calm and carry on?

Someone with a cosmic time-turner must have realized that this simply wasn’t going to work, because as I was trying to sprint up the hill with an armful of books, figure out what I was going to wear that night, and compile my grocery list simultaneously, apparently the streets of Arlington became a veritable parking lot.  I skidded to a halt at home with enough time to spare that I was able to chew my food, and my partner ran late enough that I was actually ready to go when he arrived.

We were on time to the dance (which was a trip in itself, by the by; a ballroomful of sixty and seventy year old couples who could quickstep and tango like pros all dressed in their cocktail best… I felt like I had stepped into some weird Gatsbeian time warp).  I got all my chores done.  Nobody collapsed due to blood sugar issues from not being fed vis a vis time crunch.  And my gluts are none-the-sadder.

Now to figure out how to fit in everything I have on my plate before I leave for the National Gothic Fiction Conference next Thursday…

Sometimes I am Wise… Sometimes

Ah the beginning of the semester.  New books, new pens, new notebooks… well… the idea of new notebooks and pens.  I gave up actual note-taking several years ago in lieu of its much more green digital cousin netbook note-taking and have only looked back on the first few days of the semester when I miss purchasing new spiral-bounds.

My favorite part of a new semester is the excuse to procure new books.  Lots of new books.  New books in spades.  New books in battalions.  New books in numbers that are certain to make me cry as I progress through the semester and actually have to read all these glorious shiny tomes.

Every semester, as I hunt for the textbooks which I legitimately need, I also manage to sneak in a little present to myself.  Often times, this present consists of more books.  Occasionally I will deviate from the tradition and treat myself to something other than books.  The only rule about the present is it must be procurable at the place where I purchase said books (school bookstore, amazon.com, half.com, or abebooks.com …this is not really a limiting factor as you can procure just about anything from amazon these days).  It’s a way to make myself feel loved and cared for as the semester continues.  It’s also a reminder to myself that, while school will always be the first priority, I should take some time out now and again to reconnect with the rest of the world.

This semester, spurred by my recent trip to Hogwarts (…I’ve been ruined for

pretty sure I drank ALL the butterbeer

all sugary drinks ever by the wonderful crack-laced butterbeer), I decided that it was time.  I invested in boxed sets of all the Harry Potter movies.

“Now self.”  I said, as I almost-guiltily hit the amazon checkout.  “You may be purchasing these films, but just because they are a wonderful part of your adolescence does not mean that you can use them as an excuse to not do your reading.  You are purchasing these films as a leisure activity to be enjoyed when all of your homework is done.”

“Yes, self, I understand.”

“Because if you’re just going to stick them in to watch before you do your real work, I’m going to have to put them back right now.  These can’t be distractions from the important things in life.”

“Of course not, self!  I will be good!  I will be the picture of discipline!  I will go to the gym and not eat carbs and my reading will always be done by a reasonable hour.  You know, I may even pile another bit of reading onto my weekly reading goal – comps is coming up, after all!”

“Good job, self.  If you can promise to do these things, then I will purchase you this golden piece of your childhood.”

“I love you, self.”

“I love you too, self.”

…flash forward to today.  A giant box has appeared on my doorstep chock full of amazony goodness.  Lo, thought I, it must be a great many of those textbooks I ordered!  Excellent!  I can get started on the reading for class on Thursday!  There is one play which I still require to be completely prepared for that first course and, as everyone knows, first impressions are so very important!

I opened the box, hands trembling with excitement.  This was it.  The thing that would complete my preparations for the second semester of my PhD.  I unfolded the lid, my breath bated in anticipation.

I tore aside the billing statement and glanced to the contents of the box.  To my delight, my Harry Potter movies were waiting cheerfully on top… along with one (count it) one of my textbooks.

One?  But I ordered everything on the same day!  Ah, but some of it was through half.com… and some of it was used through amazon sellers… and some of it through the school bookstore…. And… oh bother.  Of course luck would have it that the play I need to read for Thursday is not that one golden book entombed with the DVDs.  That would have just been too easy.

 

It really does look like that.

So now they’re sitting on my shelf… taunting me as I write this.  I do have a bunch of research to do, and some deadlines to meet, and other reading to do… but it’s been so long since I’ve seen my friends at Hogwarts.  Maybe just a quick fix?  If I write a paper on it, then it’s considered “research”, right?

…maybe I should just learn to listen to my better judgment.  At least sometimes.  She usually  has some valid points to make even if they’re couched in stupid grown-up logic.

Thoughts on the New Year

Good evening good friends!

I’m breaking the radio silence this evening to bring you greetings from sunny Orlando.  I have a great deal to say about what’s been going on down here, but frankly the much-needed break has been so good for my semester-addled brain that I’m having trouble convincing myself that breaking the sanctity of “vacation” is worth the amusing blogal anecdotes.  Don’t worry, I’ll get around to describing my antics at some point, but for now, I’m going to rest up, spend some time with my family, and forget that I’m an educated person.

I’ve read four books since the end of the semester, all of my own choosing, and I started on a fifth this morning.  None of them have anything to do with theatre, Shakespeare, or my comps list.  This, if anything, means “vacation” to me.

I wanted to take a moment at the dawning of a new year to reflect on how far the past 365 days have taken me.  Last year at this time I was just finishing up my PhD applications, struggling to steel myself for the final semester of my MA, teaching ballroom dance in New Jersey, karaoking several times a week for lack of anything else to do with my time, and in utter and complete life limbo as I couldn’t plan anything until I heard back from my programs.  Though I knew my life was about to change drastically, there was no way I could have any inkling as to how and where those changes might lead me.

This next year, I have a much better idea of the trajectory of the next twelve months.  That being said, the past year has been a reminder that even when one has plans, one still needs to allot for drastic change in them.  As much as has happened in the past year (and more!) could happen in the next year.  The illusion of consistency (the hobgoblin of little minds) is limiting at best and devastatingly crippling at worst.

I do have some plans for the next year.  I have at least one conference lined up, my first ever academic publication forthcoming, and another year of coursework ahead of me.  I will be learning another language over the summer to fulfill degree requirements.  I will be ramping up for Comps.  Next fall, I will be teaching at least one class.

I’ve never taken much stock in New Years’ resolutions.  To me, they mostly wind up being over-rated hype that more quickly turn into empty words than fulfilling promises.  Then, at the turning of 2006 into 2007, I realized my problem.

Start small.  That year, I resolved to finally finish reading Pride and Prejudice.  It worked.

This year, I’m resolving to memorize a better toast for next year.  Inevitably people look at me at midnight and expect something witty or wise or funny or some combination of the above… inevitably I come up short (either because I’ve had a few too many glasses of champagne or because I’m tired).  Somehow people are aghast and agog that the Shakespeare scholar can’t think of a single set of sage words to ring us into the next year.

Next year, I won’t be stuck fumbling around for such things.  For now, though, you’ll have to count yourself satisfied with this:

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Have a happy, safe, healthful, fulfilling new year folks!  I’m going to go bury my head in the sand for another week.  I’ll catch you back in Boston!

“It doth forget to do the thing it should”

This week’s been hot for my research.

The buzz of being onto something is really incomparable.  There’s a nervousness compounded with an anticipation and a rush of adrenaline when you realize that you’ve found some topic that other people don’t seem to be talking about.  Then there’s this fear that well, maybe they’re not talking about it because it’s SO OBVIOUSLY OBVIOUS and EVERYBODY knows that and you’re a complete idiot for even thinking that there may be some unanswered question as to what you’re working on.

I’m stuck right now in a valley of no return.  I can’t go back because, well, I’m walking an (as far as I can tell) unforged path, but at the same time I’m wondering how very far I’ll be able to leapfrog down this path and where it may take me.  I have some vague notions, some of them more exciting than others, but in my experience with research (as with life) you never really know until you get there.

This week I was trying to articulate said feeling to a colleague of mine.  We were having the

oh hello, Hogwarts, I didn't realize that you were in Boston! (courtyard at the BPL)

inevitable “where are you with your projects?” moot during a trip to the Boston Public Library (BEAUTIFUL and WONDERFUL by the by, and totally worth checking out if you like books or pretty architecture or reading books while surrounded by pretty architecture).  I mentioned that I had found something… something that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of.  Something that no one else seems to have worked on yet.  Something that I was getting somewhere with.

And he asked me the dreaded question which sent me into a Southward tailspin.  “Is it important?”

I blinked at him a few times, taken aback by the question.  It is important?  Oh the implications of this!  First off, I couldn’t understand how I had gotten so far stuck down the hole of research that I had lost track of the outside world.  How could I lose sight of some bigger picture?  How could I be so focused on such small details that I failed to see the whole?  Of course no one’s written about it, it just may not be all that important!

Then I found myself in this semantic existential crisis questioning everything I knew.  What

Is this the end of zombie Shakespeare?

was “important”?  How do you define “important”?  I mean, forchrisakes, we spend our days reading and writing about theatre.  Theatre never made dinner.  Theatre doesn’t even really make money.  And what’s worse, most of us spend more of our time talking about theatre rather than making theatre these days.  We’re intellectual hacks.  In the eventuality of zombie holocaust, we’re pretty much the top of the list of “zombie bait” because we have nothing to add to the post-apocalyptic human existence and we don’t even have any practical skills.  So really, “important”?  How can anything we do (or fail to do) really and truly be “important”?

Then I began to come up with excuses to justify my research.  It has to do with Shakespeare and Shakespeare is obviously important!  Everyone knows Shakespeare!  Everyone loves Shakespeare!  He’s the most-quoted creator of literature the world-over!  Just about every nation has appropriated him as their own!  Without Shakespeare, the English language wouldn’t exist as we know it today, so clearly what I’m doing as a small subset of this gigantic whole is obviously extremely important.

Then I wondered why it even mattered.  This is a seminar paper for a research methodologies course.  More important than what I find is how I managed to find it.  How did I solve my problems along the way?  What tactics did I use to solve these problems?  If I make a breakthrough and manage to produce something landmark, that’s frosting on the cake (what’s a cake without frosting?  Maybe I should be making a landmark breakthrough… everyone will be disappointed if there’s a cake with no frosting…. Wait, hang on, maybe it’s angel food cake which does not require frosting to be good… I can live with that).

though apparently my man Will can handle the zombies for me.

So I answered the only way I knew how.  “I don’t know.”  It was truth.  Pure and simple.  At this stage of the game, my research could be anything.  The important thing is that it’s interesting, it’s engaging, it keeps me busy, and I’m not chasing my tail as I grind grind grind away.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the archive to do some more digging.  Maybe in a few

weeks I’ll get back to this question of importance.  For now, I’m glad to have had the reality check and I’m super glad that there are no zombies at my window.

Skynet

One of the things about being a graduate student that they don’t really warn you about is a tendency to accumulate library books.  Seriously.  These things breed like rabbits.  I’m thinking of investing in little book-prophylactics to see if it doesn’t alleviate the problem.  Just the other day, my desk was clear and devoid of books.  Today?  Oh, today.

I woke up this morning and there they are, staring at me.  I don’t really know how they got

lurking on my desk right now...

there.  I don’t remember taking that many home.  Maybe they followed me?  I’d like to think that I don’t look like that much of a sucker… that I don’t look like the kind of girl who would open her home to strange drifters… but maybe I’m wrong about myself.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

Past experience has dictated to me that once they start, you simply can’t stop them.  They continue to pile up, continue to build, continue to wait for their moment.  And it’s nearly futile to resist.  You go to return one or two and realize no, you need those books, you require those books, those books are your new friends.

And that is how they infiltrate their way into your life, your home, your family.  That is the insidious workings of their minds.  That is how they ingratiate themselves into your research, indoctrinating themselves into your way of life.

And soon, you can’t do without them.  The more you try, the more you realize that you are utterly dependent upon them.  They have you in the palm of their hand and you just don’t know if there’s any way to escape.  They’re so dependable, so trustworthy.  Always waiting obediently by your desk, always willing to provide some tidbit of information vital to what you are doing.  And if you got rid of them, you would need that tid bit sure as an actor needs work.

So you wait.  And they wait.  And one day you find yourself stepping over towers of them on your way to your desk.  And one day you realize that you can’t work at your desk anymore because they’ve covered every available surface.  And one day you realize that you’ve just got to do something about this because you can’t find anything anyway and what’s the point in having books when you can’t get to the information you needed in the first place?

 

look at them so innocent on those shelves...

So you pack them in a rolling suitcase and you bring them to the library, the whole while feeling sick as you hear their helpless little cries erupt from your trunk.  “But we were so HELPFUL.  Don’t you want us anymore?  Don’t you need us anymore?”

And you drop them off, waving a bittersweet goodbye as you try not to look over your shoulder that last time.  Trying not to care.  Tying to harden yourself against the inevitable.

Because you know. It comes in cycles.  You’ll be back.  Oh yes, you’ll be back.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow.  Maybe not for those books, you’ll likely never see them again.  But you can’t escape it.  This is the nature of your job.  This is the nature of your life.

You, the books.  The books, you.  Clung together in a downward spiral.  Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

The Start of a New Adventure

Today I visited Tufts for the first time as a real student and was officially matriculated into my program.

…in other words, I attended my Graduate Orientation.

Graduate Orientation is a whole different species from its undergraduate cousin.  Certainly you have the same trappings; the same high-powered individuals from the university standing up to give welcome speeches, the same awkward sitting in the auditorium wondering how everyone else there seems to know someone already, the same hall full of tables peddling pamphlets and various school swag (TUFTS SILLY PUTTY!), but there’s a certain level of grown-up-ness to the Graduate version.  A definite amount of “well, you know the drill, we’re sure you’ll figure the rest out”.  And for that, I am vastly appreciative.  I didn’t want a campus tour, I didn’t want a lecture about how to manage my time well or deal with being away from home, I just wanted my ID and school swag and someone to point me the way to the bookstore and parking services.

The campus is somewhat idyllic; green fields and old brick buildings nestled into the

HELLOPHANT!!!

crevices of a bustling city.  That’s how I like things really; a place to go see trees while simultaneously have the option to order Thai food at ten PM if I wanted (not at all hours maybe, this isn’t New York, after all).  I went and said hi to the elephant (which, you may recall, is the Tufts mascot and one of my favorite animals).  I scoped the library and a couple prime sitting locations upon which to read.

Overall, things were going pretty smoothly.

I was feeling pretty good about the situation when I exited orientation and poked my nose around for the aforepromised table where IDs were to be picked up.  I had been responsible and everything, sending in my ID picture beforehand so that all I had to do today was grab it.  After this, I had to run to the parking office and acquire my permit for the year (I needed my ID to do so).  Last stop was the bookstore where I would grab my textbooks and maybe a token item of Tufts merchandise to prove that I’m a real graduate student. 

I should have known things were going too smoothly.

When two passes over the resource fair proved that the ID table was nowhere in sight, I asked the all-too-eager-to-help student standing by where I might find it.  “Oh.”  She said, eyes downcast, “Well, in theory you should be able to pick them up here…. But the company which delivers the plastic that the IDs are printed on didn’t come through so we have nothing to print them on until tomorrow.  They’re hopefully going to be arriving then at 9AM when we will print as many as possible and with any luck you should be able to get them after that.”

Really pretty spot on campus.... may become a prime reading location in good weather

“Uh… okay.”  I replied, blinking a few times, “You do realize that this provides a problem for those of us who need parking passes?” I failed to mention the fact that all of the Graduate Students were commuter students since Graduate Housing didn’t exist and, thereby, all of us would have a problem…

“Yeaaa… uhm… well the good news is that you can pick both up in the same building!”

Okay, so strike parking pass and ID off of my list.  Perhaps I could at least deal with the bookstore…

I arrived at the cutest university bookstore I’ve ever been to with a surprisingly small amount of people considering it was orientation week.  I managed to make my way down to the actual book section past the merchandising without spotting something I wanted yet (I have standards about my hoodies, darnit).  They require personal book shoppers to assist you during busy season, which seemed fine to me since it meant someone else had to locate and carry all of my books for me.  I handed my assistant my class list and his eyes went wide for a minute.  “Yea, you’ll need a basket.”  He said.

I smiled, “I’m a PhD student.  I’ll need a cart.”

He took me over to the shelf where my department should have had all of its classes.  He picked out four books for one class and, lo and behold, my second two classes weren’t there.  “Maybe there are no books for them.”  He suggested.

I looked dubious.  “Uh… right… maybe we’re just going to read plays off the internet all semester.”  I don’t think he thought it was as funny as I did.

Apparently, my other two professors have yet to turn in their book lists.  Class starts next week.  One of those professors is the chair of my program.

Book fail.

I paid for the books they did have for me (only four!?  For Intro to Grad Lit Studies!?  SCORE!) and returned to my car.  I had to return to campus the next day anyway for a talk with aforementioned chair, so I could check back in on sundries (like my ID and parking pass… sigh) then.

The way the visitor garage works is that it costs one token to remove your car at the end of

hi, Boston! (Also, look at the sky today!)

the day.  Tokens cost five dollars and may be purchased at machines on floor 3, 5, and 7 of the garage.  I parked on floor 3 so that I wouldn’t forget to purchase a token on my way out.

As I approached the machine, moderate load of books in hand, I realized that its out of order light was on.  I sighed and proceeded up the stairs to level five, deciding that I had eaten a lemon bar at the refreshments table during orientation and thereby hadn’t earned the right to be lazy today.  Level five was also broken.  I grumbled and marched myself up to level seven which, thankfully, was not broken.

ID, parking pass, textbooks, and even visitor parking fail.  Beautiful.

On my way home, I realized I should have known this would have occurred.  I have chosen life as an academic.  The only rainbows and butterflies in that life are made of red tape and migraines.

Despite my whinging, I am very happy with the new digs.  I can’t wait for school to start and I can’t wait to finally see my darned ID.

yep. He's holding "butt paste". It was a present!

Also, for something completely different, this is Ben.  Ben is a friend of mine who hates Christmas.  Ben has probably forgotten that I have this picture of him from last Christmas.  Ben has publicly denoted that my blog is much more interesting when he is mentioned.  Ben should probably be careful what he asks for next time.  

Not all Bookstores are Equal…

Last week, I realized that I hadn’t ventured out of a two-block radius of my well-trodden flight path in my new home for some time.  While the road to the grocery store and a few choice old friends’ houses were well trodden, pretty much every other road in the area was not.  So, I called up my favorite partner in crime and we went bookstore spelunking in Cambridge.

We started in Harvard Square where we hit Raven Used Books which was a small-ish basement store.  Their premises in Northampton is much more impressive both in terms of shelf space, as well as selection.

We then proceeded to the Harvard Book Store which I perhaps should have been more impressed with.  Mixed amongst your standard textbook sections are varying fiction sections as well as a large stationary area.  Downstairs are used and overstock books, which is wonderful for those of us who just like to browse the tomes.  Also, I was rather

One of these shelves is not like the others....

amused at their… er… extracurricular section.  Somehow I felt like anywhere associated with a major university, much less a major university as prestigious and snooty-by-reputation as Harvard, would have left said shelf out of their plans… or at least designated it to the back of the room where hopefully the casual observer would miss it entirely.  The fact that said shelf was there seemed like a coup against society and amused me thoroughly.

We then proceeded to Rodney’s in Central Square which was, by far, the best find of the day.  Two entire floors of used and rare books, some awesome hand-crafted shelving units for sale, nifty post cards and note cards, and way cool vintage theatre posters along the wall in the upstairs.  In terms of location, selection, and atmosphere I would say that Rodney’s took the cake for the day.

But then… adventure struck.

Sometimes you know when you are about to walk into an adventure.  More often than not though you just have to be open to the possibility and it will find you.  This was one of those second-case scenarios.

You may have determined by now that my partner-in-crime and I are absolutely and wonderfully obsessed with used bookstores.  So, naturally, we leap at the opportunity to investigate a new one.  On our way home from Rodney’s, I noticed a sign on the side of a building proclaiming “Revolution Books”.  My partner and I waffled slightly about whether another bookstore was called for on that particular day, but then I noticed that there was a parking spot DIRECTLY in front of the building.  I turned to my partner, the query in my eyes, and he nodded.  We both knew what we had to do.

I pulled the car into the spot and we got out, curiosity overcoming perhaps our better judgment.  We glanced back at the sign and realized that it was not a storefront or really over any recognizable entry into what looked like your run-of-the-mill retail-space-ground-floor-with-offices-above Boston building.  There was a barber shop and an assortment of other normal things occupying the space where our bookstore should have been.

Then we noticed a white sheet of paper with the words written in thick marker: “Revolution Books open: second floor”.  It hung over a door which we recognized led to the next level of the building.  I looked to my partner and he assured me that it would be fine.  Of course it would be fine.  We were in Cambridge, for crying out loud, not some third world country.

I opened the door to let him in and he took point, ensuring that we weren’t about to be jumped upon by bookstore boogies.  I reached to close the door after me, but realized the entry way was so small that we would have to climb several of the stairs before us before we could be out of the door’s way.

Perhaps the narrow hallway and tiny entry was simply to deter those who were not of stout enough heart to brave the shelves of what would surely be the greatest used bookstore ever.

We walked the stairs and crested the top into a small hallway that held several offices which advertised various private practice style services: a therapist, an accountant.  We looked to each other, our certainty wavering, but the candle of excitement still burning behind our eyes.

That is when we saw another hand-printed sign which pointed our way to “Revolution Books”.  We followed it to the second door, tucked into the back corner of the floor.  Judging by the size of the building, whatever was behind this door couldn’t be much larger than a one-room place…

The door was cracked open and we did see bookshelves behind it.  There was a giant portrait of Che Guevara plastered on the door.  Before I had a chance to back-peddle, wondering what kind of place this truly was, we were beckoned in by a man who sat directly across from the door.  “Come on, in we’re open.”

it was, you know, that famous poster

My companion, too polite to decline the advance, led the way in.

The room was probably the size of my bathroom.  There was a single double-sided bookshelf creating two rows of books, and a second bookshelf against the far wall.  A grizzled aging hippie sat at a table with a red tablecloth and piles of pamphlets.  “Small place you got here.”  My companion said.

“Small place, with a big message.”  The man replied with a smile.

I began to look around.  Suddenly something clicked.  The red tablecloth.  The Che portrait.  The titles of these books.  The name of the store.

I had somehow managed to stumble into the underground base of militant Communism in Boston.

And my Partner in Crime is a Republican.

I was standing in the underground base of militant Communism in Boston with the only Republican in Massachusetts.

Needless to say, we had to get out…. Fast.  My partner and I exchanged looks out of the sides of our eyes and tried to noncommittally sidle closer to the door.  This would have been easier if the man behind the table hadn’t been eagerly watching our every move.  As it was we were lucky to escape with our ideals intact and without any pamphlets to throw out on our way down the stairs.  I don’t quite know what would have happened if we had actually been forced to speak while in the bookstore.

Not that I don’t admire Che Guevara, just that I’m sure those who frequent said bookstore wouldn’t want anyone revealing the secret location of their underground base.  Rest assured, that secret is safe with me.

…Hopefully they won’t read this.  And if they do, they should know that I’m ready for them when they come for me.  My roommate has cats.  Large cats.  Large attack cats.  And I haven’t yet mounted my sword collection on the wall (hush, I’m a geek, it’s useful in case of zombie holocaust, rampant scary liberal hit men, or Mormon missionaries).

Adventures in Bookland

In the latest greatest episode of my literary adventures, the other day I took a road trip with my favorite book-hunting companion.  The journey was both arduous and epic (not the least because we first had to swing through New York State to deal with some post-move housekeeping).  However, our final destination proved itself more than worth the trek.

Picture a quaint stretch of land in the middle of nowhere Connecticut.  Add paths, flowers,

resident kitty posing for a shot in front of the Haunted Bookshop (and pirate ship!)

goats (yes, GOATS!), and free-roaming cats.  Now, add books.  Carts and buildings and shelves full of used books.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you have just pictured yourself The Book Barn in Niantic Connecticut.  The Book Barn has been on our radar for some time as a point of interest and, as avid used-bookstore-goers, we have been wanting to take a trip down for ages.  The opportunity finally presented itself and I have to say this place is truly impressive.

The mountains of used books, of course, make it a find in and of itself.  They have three premises; the Original Book Barn, Midtown, and Downtown.  Midtown and Downtown are traditional bookshops (worth a visit in their own rights as long as you’re in the neighborhood), but the Original location is the real reason to drive out.

Path with gargoyle and bridge

Used bookstores are places with organic character.  As books are fetish objects in their own right, lop a bunch of them together in any one place and you’re bound to create something.  There’s something mysterious and wonderful about a pre-owned book.  One always wonders where it’s been previously, why that scrap of paper was important, whose initials are scribed into its inside.  The older the book, the longer the story.  Yellowed pages with torn binding deserve as much respect as octogenarians and have almost as many stories to tell.  I can’t help but imagine piles and piles of books as whispering bastions of archaic wisdom, simply waiting for someone to listen to them.

Every used bookstore is unique.  Each finds its own way to display its treasures, but most share a few common elements: over-stuffed shelves, that unique smell that only old books have, a fair amount of dust (even if the place is clean), and (believe it or not) cats.  It is the way these elements are combined which give a true feeling for the place.  I’ve been in dank corners brimming with so many books that you have trouble getting to any of them, cavernous warehouses with multiple floors, and one-room hole-in-the-walls which still manage to pack in so many objects of interest that it’s difficult to find your way around.  However, until this week, I had never been to a used bookstore that manages to create and instill the sense of magic which I feel is pivotal to the experience of purchasing a book.

Every corner of the Book Barn has something you wouldn’t expect to find; and not just the books.  The buildings and carts carry uncanny names (like “The Haunted Bookstore” and “The Outhouse”).  Flowering garden paths beckon you to stay a little while and explore, while shaded benches with free-for-use games invite you to sit down with a book and read for a bit.  The local cats add their own spontaneous character (pointedly referenced to the casual observer by the complete-with-pictures “Book Barn Cat Hunting Guide” provided at the Book Barn’s entrance).  Refreshments are offered free (with suggested donation, of course) in the main book barn building (they only serve regular coffee and laugh at those requiring decaf).

Perhaps most importantly, the place doesn’t take itself seriously.  Signs and quotes are

...there wasn't actually a dinosaur section. Somehow it didn't detract from anything.

plastered on unexpected spaces, usually with amusing additions which make them worth reading.  The sections are noted with a certain degree of loving irreverence.  Themed props remind you if you stand in “Purgatory”, “Hell”, or “The Haunted Bookshop”.  And GOATS!?  …. did I mention the goats?

In any case, this place is a hike from just about every corner of the civilized world.  It is, however, well worth the travel time.  We are most certainly planning a return trip (though perhaps this time will find other sources of amusement around the book shop so that our time spent at the destination will at least equal our travel time).

Have a happy weekend, folks!

Next week, by the by, I will be vacationing.  I may or may not get around to posting about pertinent anecdotes, but I will most definitely return the week after.  Stay cool!

GOAT!

 

That Dirty Water

In an effort to become acclimated to my new home, earlier this week I took a nice, long, historic walk around Boston.

You might have heard about it.  It’s called the freedom trail.

The current Statehouse

For those not in the Boston know, the freedom trail is a walking tour around central Boston’s most famous historical sites.  You can pay money to follow a costumed historian around town, or (what we did) you can simply start at the beginning and walk yourself.  Perhaps the part that most appealed to my dramatic sensibilities was the fact that you, literally, follow the yellow brick road.  A red brick line (sometimes painted) leads you from one stop to another, so for people who are new to the city (or tourists) it becomes an easy way to spend your afternoon while learning your way around, not spending a great deal of cash, and getting an edumacation.

I have always been drawn to cities with a deep sense of history.  Yes, New York is historical, but you have to delve pretty far past the modern skyscrapers and stick-straight streets to find its place in the history books.  Without entering a museum, it’s difficult to remember that Old New York (or was it New Amsterdam?) was, in fact, Old New York.

Boston is nothing like that.  On a certain level, this town may be obligated to flaunt the

inside Park Street Church

value of its monuments.  It’s difficult to page through American History and avoid Boston, much less New England as a whole.  This place is like Mecca for history buffs.  You can’t turn a corner without finding yourself face to face with Franklin or Adams in some capacity.  Most importantly (and perhaps appealingly), the old is blended with the new here.  Much like in Rome where the Coliseum sits at the end of a long row of modern shops and office buildings (yea, I know, I kind of pictured it on top of a lonely hill too before I went there), Boston has chosen to incorporate its monuments into the creation of its modernity.  In perhaps the most amusing show of this, the State Street T stop is actually located inside the Old State House.  The semiotic critic in me is going NUTS with this realization.

As we wound our way through Boston, I felt a certain gravity sink in.  I watched the tourists pass us in droves and my New Yorker spidey senses tweaked at their presence.  I was annoyed that they moved slowly, I was frustrated that it was difficult to take pictures, and I resolved to re-walk the trail in the fall after school had started when, undoubtedly, it would both be cooler and less crowded.  The realization that I could very easily accomplish this in turn led to the next realization: I was no longer a tourist in this city.  I am a resident.  I live here.  I can come back whenever I want.

Commonwealth Books -- the inside

To cement the jubilation, we promptly discovered one of the best used bookstores I have ever entered.  First of all: it looks JUST LIKE my grandmother’s basement; books stacked precariously on mismatched shelves, the smell of aging paper, the books themselves unable to be bound to any single category of age or size.  The place is absolutely crammed with old tomes.  It’s a little on the pricey side, but they have some GORGEOUS original-print fancy-shmancy leather-bound books.  They also have comfy chairs and a space heater designed to look like a fireplace which, while not much use in the summer swelter, will prove unendingly comfortable (and comforting!) during the long chilly months.  Also, they have a resident kitty.

The trail nears its completion down at the USS Constitution.  If there’s one thing that I love as much as used bookstores, it’s old ships.  They make me imagine being a pirate.  Shut up.

Mostly, the afternoon went a long ways towards backing my assertion that Boston is, in

Resident Kitty! (taking a nap)

fact, a great little town.  It still ain’t New York, but what is? (Besides London, of course, that’s a whole ‘nother love affair…).

….p.s. I went back to taking my own photos, don’t steal them!

An Endangered Species in its Natural Habitat

Yesterday, I organized my new library.

As academics go, I am a burgeoning book collector (but that’s okay since I’m also a burgeoning academic), but for a normal person I certainly have acquired a great many books.

As I was ripping everything off the shelves and stacking into neat piles sorted by subject, I couldn’t help but wonder if I truly am living on the edge of an era.  With e-publishing and e-readers gaining so much popularity (and I’ll be the first to admit: they are damned convenient), are my proverbial children doomed to live book-free existences?

Some time ago, I was made aware of the following video:

This is most definitely a situation in which I am uncertain whether to laugh or to cry.  Slightly too true to be comfortable, this statement echoes my 1984 vision of a futuristic totalitarian universe in which books are disbanded from the common practice and no longer things that people are familiar with.

The true tragedy is this: books are more than just their contents.  Anyone who has become enraptured with a series or author, anyone who has studied literature, anyone who has depended upon a book for companionship (hush, I was a lonely child) will tell you that books are actually fetish objects.  Yes, a book is a collection of words, but more than that it’s something sturdy to hold onto.  It’s something you can (and do) take with you anywhere to provide solace, comfort, or camaraderie.   As I organized my books, I wasn’t just putting objects on shelves.  There was also a part of me that was re-living the sundry times of my life which these icons represented.  I was remembering the vacation when Harry Potter IV was released and I spent the last two days holed up racing to finish the book before returning to school and my friends (who, obviously, would have done the same).  I was reminiscing about the corner bookstore in Dublin which sold only books in Irish where I acquired my Gaeilga/Béarle dictionary because you can’t really get them in the United States.  I was thinking about the day when I rescued my great-uncle’s complete matched set of Dickens from a slow painful death by mold in my Grandmother’s basement library.

I have mixed feelings about the epub revolution.  While I certainly am going to be grateful that my leap to the iPad will mean far fewer boxes for my next move (I go through trade paperbacks like you wouldn’t believe), the fact that personal (and even public) libraries may have numbered days saddens me. I think my feelings on the matter can best be summed up by Mister Charles Lamb:

“What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labors to these Bodleians were reposing here, as in some dormitory or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odor of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.”

Borders’ closing really cements the true beginning of the end for people who, like me, get a thrill out of browsing the shelves.  Of course, the bookstore and the library are two very different places, but somehow the permanent destruction of any bastion of oak shelving seems like a coup to the literary world at large.

In any case, I take small comfort in the fact that my library is safe and organized.  It may not have matched oak shelving yet, but it’s not going anywhere.