Sunday, December 23, 2012

I love books

During my third tour in Iraq, as a staff officer, I spent the preponderance of my non-working time reading. It was an ideal situation to read if only because there was not much else to do. In my first tour, where we invaded Iraq and moved around quite a bit, with a deplorable mail delivery system, I read whatever I could get my hands on. My second tour in 2005 was more stable, with regard to location stability, and I read quite a bit. But it was really in this last tour that spanned from early 2007 until mid-2008 that I really became a voracious reader based on opportunity and intellectual growth that yearned for more.

I had been a reader from my earliest days, but school seemed to take up much of my reading time until adulthood. My mother works for the public library in my hometown in eastern Pennsylvania, forcing me to spend much of my time among many and varied volumes. In this last tour of note, she was assigned the task of ensuring I had plenty to read (my father, bless him, was tasked with keeping my humidor stocked). I sent my mother lists before and during deployment and received in return large boxes of books, through our markedly improved post. Initially, my reading interests were varied. Already well steeped in the books of my profession - Clausewitz's On War, Jomini's The Art of War, works by Galula and Tranquier, and a seemingly infinite suite of Army doctrine - I took interest in the books of the war of which I was a participant. Michael Gordon's Cobra II and particularly Tom Ricks' Fiasco became influential in my thinking of the war and how I addressed my small part of it. Possibly because of this mono-topical study or possibly in spite of it, I felt I needed to widen my reading (and beyond my exhaustive collection of Hemingway that dominated my fiction shelves).

In my first major package of books of that deployment (thanks, Mum!), I received the last Harry Potter, Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Kateb, Dickens, Hobbes, Thucydides, Dante, de Tocqueville, Hiaasen, Adam Smith, Arendt, Huxley, Bryson, Isaacson's biography of Einstein, a few non-fiction adventure books (I recommend from these Rounding the Horn by Dallas Murphy and The Last Expedition by Daniel Liebowitz and Charles Pearson), and most prominently Joyce's Ulysses.  These were the books I felt necessary to begin a study of the human condition beyond war (except the adventure books, which were wisely the purview of my mother, and the Harry Potter, which I merely enjoyed). Except for the Joyce, which I read every day and still took the entire deployment to finish, this was 6 months of reading material.  When this package of knowledge was delivered to me during duty in my brigade's operations center south of Baghdad, another captain on the staff expressed to me, "I love books!" Meanly, I thought, "Of course you do; who doesn't?"  At the time, I thought it a stupid thing to say.

In retrospect, I disagree with my moderately younger self and declare that I, too, love books. It is not obvious. Not everyone does. And while I may love books in a different way than our maligned captain (my agape vice her philia, if you will excuse both the probably unnecessary distinction and probable blasphemy), her sentiment is one which I have come to embrace entirely and tirelessly. I do not just love reading, I love books. I love to hold a book in my hands, to feel the binding and the paper, to smell the ink. I love the plates and pictures. I love the font and the layout of the pages, even if they include irregularities (such as my nth-hand copy of Joyce's Dubliners, where the printing is partially smudged throughout the middle third). I suspect that many of you do as well, the military scholar being a peculiar subset of the bibliophile that tends towards bookishness and book collecting, even if said collecting extends beyond the typical cast of characters that have contributed to the art of war and warfare. My personal interactions indicate that you are a well-read and erudite community that reads compulsively on topics for which we are paid to read and topics for which we enjoy and topics we read because we believe that it makes us a better person.

Which is why I am writing this non-security specific post on books to recommend to you two book I have read this year on the topic of book collecting: Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night. What I love about these books and what I predict you will as well, is that Bonnet and Manguel provide a quasi-philosophy to the condition present in so many of our community that requires us to not just read, but to amass those books we read. To have them on hand. To organize them according to our whims. To thumb through them and scribble in their margins. To place markers in them for quick reference in the future. To display them proudly in the most intimate corners of our homes and offices like the trophies of big game hunters.

Phantoms and The Library provide intellectual rigor to these habits, nay, necessities. Bonnet and Manguel elegantly provide reason to our need to have books and have them just so. Both men are men of letters and consumers of primarily fiction books, but they both show their desire for philosophy and sciences to help them contemplate and understand the world that underpins their fiction. They explore why we collect books, why read: mainly to understand our world. A world in which our existence is so limited and so short that we cannot possibly experience it all. We therefore attempt to experience it through the experiences of others. Books provide this surrogate experience in a very personal and intimate way. Both books explore how our intimate curiosities drive the nature of our own libraries and how the books we collect in our libraries drive the nature of our curiosities. That our libraries are ourselves by other means.

We have written a number of times on these pages on the topic of books, mainly in the vein of reading lists and reviews. Some of these posts have been our most popular posts, indicative of your interest in reading.  Even for a profession that values reading (of course, by Huntington's constructs all professions inherently value reading), this post is a bit off the beaten path. But I suspect that many of you who do read these books, or have, will be as touched by them as I was. If only to help you grasp how and why you habitually buy and love these rectangular cuboids of pulped wood waste upon which the human condition itself is imprinted.

As we move into a new year, Ink Spots may move in a more focused direction. I believe that my interactions here will be dominated by book reviews more so than discussions of the day. This is partially due to time available (these books aren't going to read themselves) and partially to what it is that I wish to gain out of this experience. My next post, in 2013, will most likely be a review of Neville Bolt's The Violent Image, a book that is so far excellent, topical for this audience, and timely. Until and beyond then, I hope that you have wonderful things to read.  I also hope that you have a very Merry Christmas (if that's your thing) and a very Happy New Year. We here at Ink Spots look forward to talking with you in 2013.

4 comments:

  1. "In retrospect, I disagree with my moderately younger self and declare that I, too, love books. It is not obvious. Not everyone does. And while I may love books in a different way than our maligned captain (my agape vice her philia, if you will excuse both the probably unnecessary distinction and probable blasphemy), her sentiment is one which I have come to embrace entirely and tirelessly. I do not just love reading, I love books. I love to hold a book in my hands, to feel the binding and the paper, to smell the ink. I love the plates and pictures. I love the font and the layout of the pages, even if they include irregularities (such as my nth-hand copy of Joyce's Dubliners, where the printing is partially smudged throughout the middle third). I suspect that many of you do as well, the military scholar being a peculiar subset of the bibliophile that tends towards bookishness and book collecting, even if said collecting extends beyond the typical cast of characters that have contributed to the art of war and warfare. My personal interactions indicate that you are a well-read and erudite community that reads compulsively on topics for which we are paid to read and topics for which we enjoy and topics we read because we believe that it makes us a better person."

    This is one of my favorite blog posts, ever.

    It's a curious thing. During the 90s, Big Box Bookstores were supposed to slay the independents, but it turned out that the hardy few that survived the internet onslaught are actually thriving because some bibliophiles want the actual hard copy of a book.

    Just like some of the vinyl record places I check out from time to time. Those that survived, now thrive. Young and old alike, serious music types, not just casual downloaders of pop music....

    Well, there is nothing wrong with casual downloading of pop music, it's just that you meet a lot of interesting people in the record stores.

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    1. I think you're right on this Madhu. While I sometimes order from Amazon, I prefer to hit up my local independent store more often than not. It costs me more, but I like being able to peruse other titles, not just the ones I went to buy. And also interacting with the staff or other customers. Interesting people and often great book recommendations (better, at least, than "Customers who bought this product also bought these products").

      I've also found myself going to our local second-hand book store for anything that isn't a new release. I prefer hard covers and they're easier to find and cheaper if they're used. These places provide such great opportunity for discovering something really neat. And these stores are usually full of bibliophiles who are True Believers. I always enjoy those visits.

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  2. Wonderful post!

    Know exactly what you mean about the look and feel of books---about those bookmarks, too. I use those 3M stickie tabs in many of my books. I also write in my books---usually in pencil; these comments are fun to read after many years, as our contexts tend to change w/the years.

    I concur w/Madhu, one of the best post I've read!

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    1. Thank you, sir. This is probably the result of being the son of a librarian from a public library, but I never, ever write in my books (except my yellowed copy of On War). I usually make notes on scrap paper and tuck it in the appropriate page. My most used books are bristling with them. Although I guess I should avoid dropping these books, lest all the notes fall out. Maybe I should switch to Post-Its...

      Thanks again!

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