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Happy Rabbits Farm*—Home Of Rapidly Multiplying Stacks And Shelves Of Books And The Endless Ideas They Inspire, Support, And Challenge

October 24, 2010

Note: I’m publishing this post on Zinnfull, but it can also be found as the first post at a new blog I’ve begun, “Shelf Analysis,” at http://www.autobibliography.wordpress.com/

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you will have a dozen.
• John Steinbeck

Without sufficient money for a meal I have spent the few pence I possessed to obtain from a library one of Scott’s novels, and, reading it, forgot hunger and cold, and felt myself rich and happy.
• Hans Christian Andersen

I am obsessed by books. They are my greatest indulgence. I seldom go on a trip without buying books. I almost never leave a thrift store without a book or two. Deliver me from the shelves of sell-‘em-for-a-dollar-each library discards. I will take some home. I am endlessly amused, inspired, comforted, educated, delighted, confounded, transported, and overwhelmed by books.

My first collectable was a book. Most of the trouble I got into as a child can be traced to books, whether I was challenging a teacher because of something I’d read, reading the wrong book when I should have been reading something else, reading inappropriate books, or just plain reading: “You always were a little shit,” my stepfather told me not too long ago, “always your nose in a book, and always wanting a ride to the library to get more books.”

I don’t doubt that I was a little shit. I was a smartypants and a smartmouth who hadn’t learned the kinds of discretionary skills that now moderate my smartiness, although I did learn to keep quiet and keep my ideas to myself. This is not necessarily a good skill for students—or children—to develop. Be warned. If you want students of any age to read, you should probably be prepared for them to think and wonder and question. Books are dangerous that way.

In Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg (1926) wrote, “The farm boys in their evenings at Jones’s store in Gentryville talked about how Abe Lincoln was always reading, digging into books, stretching out flat on his stomach in front of the fireplace, studying till midnight and past midnight. . .The next thing Abe would be reading books between the plow handles, it seemed to them.” I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, surrounded by Lincoln lore and learned from a National Park Service brochure that some of the books Lincoln read were Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights. I wish that Lincoln had been an autobibliographer.**

An autobibliographer tracks her or his reading and revisits these tracks, following the trails that lead to self-understanding. Through “shelf analysis”—the exploration of reading preferences and avoidances—passions and interests are revealed and deeper understanding of personal intellect is possible. Researching your reading choices is one way to begin to know your own mind. As tastes change and mature—or stay the same—these attractions and repulsions continue to be revelatory. I am the same person I was when I collected my first book, and I see in its pages the origins of some of my current reading obsessions.

That first book I collected, Dante’s Inferno, a folio edition with engravings by Gustave Dore depicting the nine circles of hell, began my fascination with the grotesque and gory. Coupled with regular revisitings in Springfield newspapers about the Donner Party and their cannibalistic scandals, as well as the radio spookiness I shared regularly with my grandpa, I grew up loving Cinderella, but loving all kinds of creepy stuff more. I understand why my latest acquisitions include the following from the stacks sitting in the living room waiting to be filed, all of them for Yuckology 101: Vile and Disgusting Literacy Activities for Children of All Ages:

Zombie Haiku by Ryan Mecum (2008). “There’s a lot of them./Enough for us to eat well,/and then keep eating.” (p. 114). Who can resist poetry celebrating the undead? Not me.

The Munsters and the Great Camera Caper by William Johnston (1965). This “Authorized Edition based on the well-known television series” is one of those dandy Whitman Publishing Company shiny-covered books celebrating schlocky TV. It’s chockfull of Munster wisdom like this from Herman, “Things are always darkest before the nightfall. I guess nothing seems as bad in the dark as it did in the daylight” (p. 205).

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology by Lawrence Weschler (1995). Weschler’s book celebrates the odd and wonder•full and visits David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett (2007). “I get edgy near sharp knives,” Little Mouse writes, while above him, the page informs readers that aichmophobia is the fear of knives and the facing page shows a triumphant farmer’s wife on the front page of the newspaper, holding three mice tails. This participatory children’s book invites readers to record their fears on its pages.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies! A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols by Michael P. Spradlin (2009). Fair warning, “Zombie Claus Is Coming to Town,” and “He eats you when you’re sleeping;/He bites when you’re awake./He chews if you’ve been bad or good,/So just hide for goodness’ sake!” The kids will love singing these.

• And finally, I love black and white artmaking and I get inspiration paging through books of copyright-free images. Mostly this stuff is only available on the internet now and that’s just not the same as looking through books where serendipitous discoveries await. Dover Publication’s (2010) Spiders, Insects and Crustaceans is the latest addition to my collection.

Of course, I bought some cotton candy books too, but since I read five or six of these a week, they don’t really count except to reassure you that it’s not all serious stuff around here.

Consider beginning your own autobibliographical studies. Record the books or magazines or newspaper articles you read or your web searches or other literacy activities. Be sure to date everything and keep track of bibliographical data. In time, revisiting these records is bound to be interesting!

Books are becoming everything to me. If I had at this moment my choice of life I would bury myself in one of those immense libraries that we saw together at the universities, and would never pass a waking hour without a book before me.
• Lord Macaulay

* Because ideas are always blossoming at The House of Stuff, my husband and I call our home Happy Rabbits Farm, home to The Amuseum of Un-Natural History, Keep Smilin’ Music, Dr. Z’s House of Fun, and more.

** For insights into Lincoln’s reading, see Robert Bray’s (Summer 2007), What Abraham Lincoln Read: An Evaluative and Annotated List (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 28, No. 2).

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