Old Books Contain Other Stories, Part 2
Reading between the lines for what's most important.
Last week I posted a marketing letter from a company that offered to “read” what remained of my great-grandfather’s library for a more complete story of his life, emotions, and habits.
In December their national collection service took the books for analysis. Below is their report, which arrived after the new year.
The Library of Colby C. Churm
Dear Mr. Churm,
The sample library you provided us is in extraordinarily good collection and allowed for the widest range of tests, including chromatography, cellular sampling, DNA comps, UV studies and 32 other methods (see Appendix A). You stated the library is unmixed with other books, and that it was removed only recently from the basement of a house in Flagstaff, AZ. Relatively small amounts of rot, mildew, and decrepitude for a sample of this age coincide with long-term storage in a state with low humidity, no insect or rodent infestations, and low light levels.
Sample includes 2,324 texts of varying length, of which 1,014 are fiction. Fiction texts are grouped by American authors (469), Western Europeans (422), and in translation, Russians (70), Latins (31), and the balance (22) of various origins such as China, Japan, and the Middle East. Poetry, as a distinct subset, is relatively small, numbering only 72 volumes, chapbooks and monographs. With the exception of four volumes of Eastern Zen poems, these are all works of European and American poets of 19th and early 20th centuries. In general we noticed a marked decline in Colby’s text acquisitions after the market crash of 1929, though the ones that exist have more dried excretions from the nasolacrimal ducts in them, by far, than any other segment of the sample.
Non-fiction texts (1,310) are grouped into six categories: history (548), science (250), philosophy (135, which includes religious texts), travel (53) and how-to texts such as home or automobile repair (18). “Other” non-fiction prose texts number 306.
The racial breakdown of authors in your ancestor’s collection amounts to 74.6% Caucasian (not including other Caucasoid races), 12.8% Hispanic, 6.9% Asian, and 2% Negroid. A full 88% of authors were male. Though by today’s standards he would be pitifully racist and sexist, we consider him positively enlightened for the era and place in which he was reading.
The sample was “read” in totality by digitizing the texts and having them analyzed by the very latest version of our No Computer Left Behind software. Included are books by 62 wo/men who today would be diagnosed as mentally ill for their fantasies or for their modes of portrayal of chosen topics. Another 148 authors have knowledge of, and describe graphically, symptoms obviously clinical in nature, though most seem unconscious of their diseases. Two hundred thirty-nine more are depressed to near-clinical levels.
Virtually the entire sample, but particularly the fiction subset, comprises a shocking encyclopedia of neurotics, alcohol and other drug abusers including smokers, spouse abusers and neglecters, petty and grand larcenists, sexual deviants, adulterers, fornicators, those who talk too much, those who avoid the public eye, people who rarely straighten or dust their homes, wo/men who actually prefer living under infrastructural elements, free-trade haters, animal enslavers, and two who seem to enjoy common dirt as a bedtime snack.
But please don’t lose heart at the proposition of Colby as a “slummer”—one thrilled by miscreantism and perversion. These were different times, and we must keep that in mind. In the first half of the 20th century, many like Colby were interested in the lives and welfare of their fellow wo/men, though not with the utmost regard for individual rights over the public good as we know it today.
Once indemnified by its chemical signature, your great-grandfather’s crystallized, accreted breath served as our best model for which books in his own collection he did or did not actually read. While the test is not simple, its theory is. You see, Colby had to hold his books closely in order to read them. We also know that he was breathing. Therefore, clouds of his breath were exhaled onto every opened spread. This test is virtually infallible in comparison with older cracked-binding measures.
Taking four ppm of Colby’s breath as the minimum accretion necessary to indicate readership, we determined that he read, “totally,” 82.44% of his collection. Another 10% had been “significantly” read, and the remainder was rated as “partially” to “insignificantly” read. Backup measures to the breath accretion test include fingerprints, cellular droppings (such as hair strands, skin flakes, and defunct spermatozoa), and annotations (see below) in the style of Colby C. Churm.
This all indicates to us that he desired books for reasons other than decoration. Lucky for us and for you! In many cases, ancestral libraries leave nothing to report; the unopened texts were used only to gentrify homes and left no spoor for us to follow.
Hormonal and other trace chemicals in fingertips found on the pages reveal that Colby was a man of great will. Even when stretched to emotional extremes in his life (see Charts 1-12 in Appendix B, which timeline world events to his reading life), Colby forced himself to read these confusing and often contradictory texts--surely a matter of character and discipline.
(Other genealogical analysts, who have not been in business as long as ABE, will tell their customers that chemical fingerprints indicate something entirely different. They claim the reader was undergoing change and experiencing emotions as occasioned by the texts literally at hand. But as you may have seen in the Times, ABE has determined that emotional preconditioning of “readers” exists first. The reader was sad or sentimental in life, and these emotions led s/he to particular texts, not the other way around.)
Colby Churm left 32 foreign objects in the pages of his collection (see Appendix C). The three most curious of these were 1) a lock of brown hair (not in your generic tree) tucked in a yellowed #10 envelope marked “Anna”; 2) the business card of a private detective in Oakland, California; and 3) a wooden match stick micro-engraved with the Lord’s Prayer. There are some mysteries of life that even ABE cannot decode.
Paper money was found—used perhaps as bookmarks—in six instances, twice in texts bought the year of his failed bond drive for a library in his hometown. Colby, as we now know, was not an economizer.
Testing of the pages revealed 14,377 microscopic “hits” on food, drink, soil, carpet, paint, and other molecules (see Appendix D). It appears Colby especially enjoyed a glass of dry sherry or lager-style beer as he read, as well as various snack foods. Crumbs, stains, mold and dust mites in this sample were a veritable gold mine for our labbies and permitted them to cross-check soiling and food traces with places your great-grandfather is known to have lived or visited, including Chicago, IL; Miami, FL; Long Beach, CA; and Rheims, France (see Appendix E). This gave us an idea of Colby’s reading patterns by location and date. (See the series of map overlays starting on page 18). Dislocation appears to have triggered reading.
Traces of shredded tobacco, ash, and sulfur coincide with the facts of Colby’s medical history and Itemized Certificate of Causes of Death. As you come to know your great-grandfather, who is a part of you, you may feel anger and sadness. We all like to believe that our forefathers had good judgment. We’re sorry for your loss.
DNA samples taken from your sister were matched to samples found in the texts, and we were able to establish by matriarchal code tagging that your female ancestors were healthy enough to share only occasionally in Colby’s obsession. Colby’s wife, Alma, never touched a single text, as far as we can tell. Your grandmother read almost a quarter of the sample by age 30, and your mother looked into at least half the library. (See the sidebar on p. 60 for a list of the top 10 readers, male or female.)
Curiously, while many passages are underlined or otherwise marked, we found in the entire collection only three marginalia by Colby. These are virtually indecipherable and reproductions of the actual writing and their possible interpretations can be found in Appendix F. The text passages to which the marginalia seem to refer are: 1) “Such a heartless immensity, my God! Who can tell it?”; 2) I just had to look, having read the book”; and 3) “He sees his entanglements and wants to believe in systems but distrusts their impermanence. If it is left to him, how can he fashion from the elements a steam locomotive, a light bulb, even ice? He is helpless merely in the presence of all things he cannot save.”
In addition to the few notes inside the volumes, the covers of 792 texts bear the imprint of your great-grandfather’s handwriting. Apparently he used his collection somewhat thoughtlessly as writing surfaces for paper checks, notes, letters, and legal documents. UV light reveals a tangle of messages ranging from phrases to paragraphs, as well as telephone numbers, dates and dollar figures. These signifiers can be unspooled and interpreted for a reasonable fee.
Strange as it may seem, Colby did not think of his collection’s monetary value. He mixed 82 first editions (56 signed by the authors) with other worthless editions. He unabashedly dog-eared pages when he finished reading for the day, or pages he thought important, destroying their worth as antiques. This habit of folding down the corners of the pages, in combination with misplaced or discarded dust-covers, torn, foxed, and underlined pages, and foreign objects left in the texts that discolored pages or sprung the bindings, have severely diminished the library’s value.
The sum total of Colby’s texts when published was $1,200—in today’s economy, close to four million dollars. However, many texts were bought second hand or were received as gifts, so that figure is not totally accurate. We estimate Colby spent about 0.3% of his life’s earnings on books, 40 times more than the average wo/man of his generation. Of course we cannot value those texts he bought as gifts, or some that were loaned from his own collection and never returned. We find that bibliophiles are quite generous with gifts and loans of the objects of their obsession.
We regret to inform you that the estimated actual worth of the collection now is perhaps only $1.98, due to condition, selection, and print platform. One might find an outlet for its sale with certain nostalgics; it might be donated to a Friends of the Museum benefit; or we can shred and recycle it if you prefer not to have it shipped home, where it’ll take up space. (Our reports are printed on paper like this!)
This concludes our report on the library of Colby C. Churm. We hope, Mr. Churm, you are satisfied with the results. Critics of our processes have stated that reading your great-grandfather’s library would be more enlightening than reading this report. We don’t recommend it. A lifetime of work is what it took poor Colby to read the sample, as he also worked to support himself and his family; no doubt you would require the same time investment.
A point can also be made that you would become your great-grandfather in certain key ways and thereafter would be ironically unable to view your ancestry objectively—after all that! Before we start, do we have an idea of who we might become if we undertook so large a project? Best not to tempt fate; we salute your choice of using ABE instead.
To word the matter a bit more strongly (in compliance with Federal Code CS2210), we must advise you of possible side effects of genealogical research. When we generate these reports, an outsized emotional reaction occurs in 37.9% of customers. Some embark on costly pilgrimages to burial sites, workplaces, and ancestral homelands of the long-deceased, places that rarely resemble what they were decades earlier, leading to frustration and depression in the face of mute history. Other wo/men have begun to play the roles of their ancestors in reenactment communes, in effect living their kins’ lives over (and over and over) again, and neglecting their own out of misdirected nostalgia.
With this, just a word of caution, and the offer of help. Should you become inconsolable over the loss of the long dead relative to whom you’ve just been introduced, our staff of dedicated social workers is here to comfort you at low, low rates. (We also have a team specializing in addictive disorders.) If at any time you feel your hobby has gained the upper hand in your life—you lose time from work, lose or gain weight quickly, can’t eat, eat compulsively, your bowels become stopped, you lose your ability to achieve coitus, or you notice extraordinary hair or nail growth—we are here to help at a small percentage of your original package price.
Have a wonderful life, Mr. Churm. Now that you know so much about 1/8th of yourself, you probably feel warm and optimistic about your future, and we’re happy we could do that to you. The very best and warmest of good new luck.
Investigator A321 ABE
PS—Now that you’ve whetted your appetite for knowledge, call or go online today for info on our latest package specials. February is Exhumation Month! And because our research shows Colby C. Churm was buried, not cremated, give us the word and we can really go to work on him! Just a peek: By studying the micro-ripples in microscopic remains of dessicated corneas, we can tell you how many life events Colby C. Churm considered “significant”! (Special pricing offers and availability depend on local soil conditions.) Thank you as always for your business!
Published in different form in the journal Mediphors in 1998.
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