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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Flood, pestilence and the penalties of procrastination... Part One

Perhaps you are reading this because you are curious about the title. What follows is the story of my life for the past two weeks -- or at least the major preoccupations of my life for that period. It is such a long and depressing story that it will have to be written in several installments....

Let's begin with the fact that there was a long article by Kevin Kelly in the New York Times magazine a couple of weeks ago on the future of books (subscription required), and it was controversial enough to draw comments from John Updike and others at the national Book Expo held a few days later. For me it was the timing rather than the content of the piece that made it relevant to my life -- for on that very weekend I was busy attempting to salvage hundreds of soggy titles that were unfortunately on the bottom shelves of bookcases in my flooded basement.

By official accounts, it rained around 11-13 inches on the North Shore/Cape Ann area the weekend of May 13-14. The downpour started on Saturday, the 13th, and by evening it had started to raise the water table levels around my street to the point that water began to percolate up from the basement floor. This was not the first time such had happened, and we do sometimes get an inch or so. For that reason we knew enough to raise things off the floor -- but I had mistakenly counted on the sump pump kicking in and saving my books from damage. We went to sleep Saturday night thinking all would be well in the AM....

Well, it wasn't. For some reason the sump pump never kicked in, and the rainfall kept coming at a record pace. There was at least three inches of water in the basement by morning, and by then it had made it to the lower shelves. All my basement office walls have built-in book cases -- a lovely feature that helps support my obsessive book collecting habit (I have several thousand titles lining the walls). From ceiling to floor they stand vertically and horizontally, crowded into every available inch of shelving...

Do you know what happens when water hits books? The paper absorbs the water and the books expand -- and so not only did I have hundreds of soggy books, but it was almost impossible to free them from the shelves without significant effort -- and perhaps a crow bar....

But with the help of my family, free them we did -- hundreds of damp, expanded books, many stuck together, some curling, all showing water marks as we stacked them in stairwells and makeshift book cases located away from the rising waters.

By Sunday night I had three sump pumps going, but the water did not recede until Wednesday. Since then I have had two dehumidifiers and two high speed fans blowing 24/7, and believe it or not the basement floor (including a drenched indoor/outdoor carpet in my office that has suffered through this before) is now dry. The books? Well, they remain damp, perhaps damaged beyond any use -- but I keep hoping to salvage at least a few. Among the losses is one of my favorite recent reads (The Metaphysical Club) as well as a first edition of a famous 1950s textbook that was unfortunately located too close to the ground.

Which brings me back to the relevance of the Times Magazine piece which forecast the digitization of all books. I suspect in the future obsessive types like me will be collecting our titles on hard drives rather than on book shelves. That would not end my anxiety, however, for my computer is also located in that wet basement. The difference is that all my wiring is up on the ceiling, so there is less danger of losing my "data". That is, until I noticed that the moisture in the room was making the ceiling titles sag....

So much for the flood....


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