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The Incredible Shrinking Library

My family is in the process of moving from a big, mid-1850s Victorian to a smaller, older house in the country. One big reason is that we have fewer people–just four of us left at home. But there’s still quite a bit of furniture. Especially bookcases. Bookcases full of books. Rooms full of bookcases.

There’s no way around it. We’ve got to thin this literary thicket. So how do you make the decision, if you can only keep half your books? Or even a third?

Getting rid of multiple copies is a start. We had a surprising number of duplicates–and this isn’t some collectible copy vs. reading copy thing, either; in our house they’re all reading copies.

The next thing I ask is ‘will I ever read this again?’ It’s a tough question to answer, with some books, but if the answer was ‘Maybe, years from now’ then I rounded that down to a ‘No.’ (If the answer was ‘Hey, I forgot I even had this,’ then that translated mostly to a No also…I’d been getting by, in effect, without having that book.)

Reference books often get the benefit of the doubt, though. Nobody reads Saxo Grammaticus for fun, but when you want to put your finger on that particular passage you need to quote in your seminal essay on Loki, you want him standing by somewhere on your shelves. Likewise books that are just plain hard to get, like The Long Lost Friend, a treatise on hexes that turns up in Manly Wade Wellman’s stories. Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, his expose of the fairy kingdom that came out just before he was reportedly abducted by those same fairies. Or my 1848 edition of The Maypole of Merrymount. (Looking at that one reminds me that time is kinder even to houses than it is to books.)

Fiction is tending to bear the brunt. I went through my ghost story collection and concluded I could spend the rest of my life, and even my afterlife, without most of them. M.R. James and Russell Kirk survived, but not much else. Science fiction was already scarce, and in the future it will be nonexistent (ironic, that). Even favorite authors are being sacrificed. Anything by John Dickson Carr that doesn’t feature his G.K. Chesterton-inspired detective, Dr. Fell, came off the shelves. Fritz Leiber shed a few books and Tim Powers is being reduced to just two (The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides).

The books that survive have a few things in common, whatever the genre. I need to like the characters. Or at least one. Why should you spend time with people you can’t stand? Also, there’s got to be some humor in there somewhere–it’s one of the biggest things that makes life bearable. I guess that proves I agree with Herman Hesse’s great insight in Steppenwolf.

Not that I’m probably going to read that one again.

If you take it the right way, this is a worthwhile exercise. Sort of like ‘what books would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?’

Because the truth is, we’re always stranded on a desert island. It’s just that some islands have more room than others.

Saving Daylight

It’s that time again, in the U.S. anyway–Daylight Savings Time ends tomorrow. It’s a nuisance, but at least this time, we get to turn the clock back and get an extra hour of sleep. The real killer is in the spring when the clock moves forward, and we celebrate by having lots of traffic accidents.
While pondering this problem recently, I came up with an ingenious plan to fix the system.
In November, nothing changes. But in March, the ‘spring forward’ will be eliminated. Instead, everyone will simply set the clock back twenty-three hours.
So, when we reach 2 a.m. on Sunday, the whatevereth of March, it instantly becomes 3 a.m. on the preceding Saturday. This accomplishes the ‘light savings’ just as well as the current system, and also gives you a do-over for that Saturday, making it a three-day holiday weekend. Or you can choose to stay in bed and sleep your way back to Sunday.
Difficult people might point out that this would create a problem over time, as we’d gain a day and every year would become, in effect, a leap year, pushing the calendar out of synch with actual solar alignments. Not to worry. We simply decree that February now will have only 27 days, and 28 in a leap year. What’s the downside of trading a day in February for an extra day in March? We’ll just have to tweak the famous rhyme a bit, which should be no problem:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November,
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone–
In leap years keeping twenty-eight,
Else twenty-seven–saves a date!

Any day now, I expect to receive the accolades of a grateful nation..

Writing Like a Viking

In Egil’s Saga, it’s told how Egil fell into the power of his enemy, King Erik Bloodaxe. Egil managed to save his life by composing a 20-stanza poem of praise for Erik, overnight, and reciting it from memory the next morning.

Those were the days when poets really had to work for their living!

You couldn’t just dash off something in free verse, either. There were demanding technical rules governing how a poem could be composed.

Technical Stuff You Can Skip If You Just Want to See a Sample:

Egil’s poem was a drápa, a poem of praise–usually a longer poem, consisting of 8-line stanzas, with a periodic refrain. Each line had to meet certain requirements also. The verse forms for drápas varied, but one possibility was Dróttkvætt or “courtly metre”. This is a trochaic metre (stresses fall on the first syllable of each syllable pair, or foot). Think Longfellow’s Hiawatha–“By the shining big sea water”. The dominant form in English, back when people worried about stuff like that, was iambic, with accents falling on the second syllable. Think just about anything Shakespeare ever wrote–like “This time of year you may in me behold”.

Each verse in Dróttkvætt has 3 feet. Further requirements vary by line–for odd lines, two of the stressed syllables must alliterate with each other, and two (not necessarily the same two) must share a partial rhyme (similar consonants, different vowel sound). For even lines, the first stressed syllable must alliterate with the two alliterated syllables from the previous odd line. Then, two of the stressed syllables within the even line must rhyme with each other.

My Personal Quest:
I have been tackling the task of writing a drápa in English, using the Dróttkvætt verse form. Mine is a relatively short drápa–just 100 lines, 13 stanzas counting the refrain. Still, it’s about the hardest piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the better stanzas, though, the lines play off each other to create a distinctive music that’s hard to describe.

The Sample:

This is my 4-line refrain.

Wish-lord watches high-throned,
Wanderer still fares onward,
Found One finds the rune-hoard,
Famed the names of Odin!

My poem is a poem of praise for Odin, particularly his feat of discovering the runes. Odin
is famed for having many names, and one of the extra tasks I set myself was to include a different name of Odin in each stanza. In this, the refrain, I include four, the first three translated into English.

Wish-lord watches high-throned,
This is an odd line, the alliteration supplied by ‘wish’ and ‘watch’. The partial rhyme is also supplied by these two words–I’m fudging just a little on the word endings. ‘High-throned’ refers to Odin’s high seat, from which he can see everything that occurs on Earth. Wish-lord is one  of his more intriguing titles; Valkyries are also sometimes known as ‘wish maidens’.

Wanderer still fares onward,
The Odin-name ‘Wanderer’ of course carries on the ‘w’ alliteration from the first odd line. The two rhyming syllables (it doesn’t need to be a full word) are ‘wan’ and ‘on’. ‘Wanderer’ has an extra unstressed syllable, it’s the only place in the poem I allowed myself that particular luxury.

Found One finds the rune-hoard,
Alliteration and partial rhyme are supplied by ‘found’ and ‘finds’. ‘Found One’ seems a particularly ominous name for Odin, especially from the point of view of those evildoers who would rather not find him!

Famed the names of Odin!
‘Famed’ and ‘names’ supply the rhyme, ‘Famed’ the carry-on alliteration.
There you have it! Not too difficult, right? Now, just keep on doing that for 96 more lines…and for extra credit, be ready to recite it tomorrow morning in front of a hostile audience!