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Sabbatical Reading

I like books. I like their heft, their dry papery smell, the slow decrepitude evident in their fading bindings and yellowing pages. As an author I like the idea that my own books will wait between dusty peers to be pulled down and checked out, even read. So, it seems a little awkward to write about how I spent much of my time on a sabbatical spring quarter.

I’m working on another book, this one about factory-produced houses in the United States, their marketing, mass appeal, and prospects. As with all research projects it involves lots of reading, thousands of pages. From March to June I read many books. My desk is piled with them, notes sticking out from their bindings. The most relevant of these books on dwelling, factory built-houses, pre-fab, mobile homes – 46 of them – occupy about 5 feet of shelf space and weigh no less than a hundred pounds. Getting them to this shelf required some searching on-line, filling out request forms, waiting a couple of days for scattered books to arrive in Gould Hall, and then launching very quick strikes to the library so I could check them out and bring them home. For this I used a couple of black duffle bags, which I stuffed and hauled to the car at the loading dock. I then read these books one by one outside on the deck under the flowering cherry, accompanied by the constant, miniscule aggression of the Anna’s hummingbirds that have claimed our back yard. Because our spring was exceptionally damp and cold, reading required unfurling a large umbrella and donning a down jacket. Now, all of this brings me to assert that, while I like books, I don’t care much for the dim and cramped spaces they usually inhabit, nor, to be honest, for hushed and lofty reading rooms. I like to read outside.

Fortunately books are transportable; all but the rare and delicate ones can be checked out and quickly whisked away from the gloom of florescent lights. Magazines and newspapers present a different problem, though, because they stay in the library. Planning my sabbatical I anticipated with no joy the time to be spent in study carrels searching out very occasional articles and advertisements for Lustron, American Steel, or other factory-built homes. But as I planned, I discovered that Google Books has scanned and cataloged many of the magazines I had expected to slog through: Life, Time, Popular Science, Kiplingers, Dwell – popular magazines with national circulation. With an iPad and a wireless connection I quickly assembled useful resources, and in reading them significantly prolonged my intrusion into hummingbird territory. I also amassed industry and government documents from on-line sources, and using Good Reader dispatched them in the drizzle.

So, while I am an enthusiastic reader and producer of books, one significant outcome of my sabbatical is that I found ways to escape the low, gray spaces they inhabit. And I came to appreciate even more the technologies that are gradually replacing the warm heft of books and paper documents with the freedom to read even immoderate stacks of information in the cool northwest air and under the wary gaze of its wild inhabitants.

Written by Alex Anderson

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