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Elementary My Dear Reader

I read yesterday. I know, big deal – right? But I am not talking about texts on my phone, email on my laptop, or road signs in my car; and not even the closed captioning on the TV (reflection of my hearing loss sadly). I read a book, a real book! And I fulfilled a self-promise at the same time.

Books are underrated; they are, in my opinion, victims of progress; they are slowly disappearing. They are far from gone, but the printed literary glacier is definitely receding. Humans have this great generational need to enhance and improve anything and everything they can. It is in our nature to refine and reform things; it subtly demonstrates that we are brighter and better than our previous generations. Think about the Industrial Revolution; almost daily new inventions sprang forth from the fertile minds of scientists and inventors, all designed to make life better, tasks easier, and work quicker. Their days were long and arduous back then; there was much work to be done but it was all performed with centuries-old methods and tools. As the age of discovery blossomed, so did the quality of life for millions as new methods, devices, and tools made work easier and faster. And these people developing all these new means and methods that made life easier and better were generally regaled as heroes; even to this day the names Edison, Tesla, Watt, Whitney, Morse, Westinghouse, Bell, Carver, and Franklin evoke feelings of awe in light of their contributions. And of course, staying on subject, Guttenberg.

Given the archaic state of technology back then, there were huge improvements to be made and every new invention opened up a dozen more avenues for improvements. And since that spark, the fires of inventing and improving have burned brightly in our culture, with every generation taking aim at whatever their particular skills enabled them to pursue. This could either be a refinement of an existing product (such the radio) or a development of something completely new (such as the TV). The engineers and developers whose skills were best suited to new development typically worked for large companies with deep pockets of cash for research and development such as Boeing, Westinghouse, and General Electric, along with dozens of others.

But there is another pool of people; people who did not fit the mold of the typical industrial R&D model. These folks would see a product used in daily life and would have the vision to modify it or repurpose it without the huge effort and cost associated with designing and making it from scratch.

The point is, there is a huge contingent of people always looking to make things better. The general population benefits but of course, the developer also benefits. And the goal is generally to develop that one great thing that makes them independently wealthy.  And perhaps, to record their name in history. But…after some period of time it becomes somewhat difficult to find ways to either improve on something or to find a new use for it. The prevalence of fruit hangs on the new invention tree; you need to come up with something new that will excite the public.

And these days, that fruit is heavily electronic. Phones, cameras, watches, and similar items are all being repurposed and renovated. Look at smartphones; they now perform dozens of tasks none of which have anything to do with a telephone. And this path is open to both sides of the creative minds: developers are at work making new phones with new features while app developers are sitting in their home office developing quick little programs to amuse us or help us with almost any electronic task conceivable.  

Of course, after a period of time the tree begins to grow bare. There are just so many ways to alter or redesign things. And for new ideas….we have so many different things now, that tree is rather barren as well. So the pressure is really on for every new generation of inventors and developers; coming up with the next great thing is increasingly difficult. And so they turn to things that don’t really need improvement; books being a fine example of that. Amazon started the fad of taking printed matter off of paper and digitizing it, at last I think it was them with the Kindle. And initially, I get it; you can take a dozen books with you all on the same thin device.

But it isn’t the same. Maybe it’s my age, my old school boomer stubbornness. But I need to read more than a couple of sentences at a time; show me the page – two in fact – all in my field of vision. I like to be able to scan ahead, or go back a few sentences, without moving anything but my eyes. And I like to read more slowly in the parts that arouse me, that stimulate me, in order to savor each word and to simmer in the juices of the seasoning and flavors brought forth by each word, each ingredient, that the author chose to incorporate. And I tend to read more quickly as I work through the fundamental or rudimentary sections. All done with merely my eyes…no screen to swipe or tilt or tap or whatever.

And the smell! Old paper and ink have an intoxicating aroma. There is little else like the smell of an old book. For that matter, there is not much more enjoyable than the smell of a new book; I can still instantly and immediately go back to my 4th or 5th grade classroom as the boxes with our new Scholastic Reader books were opened for distribution. If you were lucky, as I recall being several times, you were able to order enough books that you got your own box! You just don’t get any of that with a digital download.

When I was young, I read voraciously. Part of it may have been because there were only three TV stations and not a whole lot of exciting programming for a kid. And the other part was simply that I loved to read. I great summer day for me at one point in my life was to climb a tree with an AM radio, some snacks, and a book. I’d find a comfortable fork and settle in for a delightful afternoon of reading. And I still not only remember many of the books that really stoked my literary fire, I still have some of them. In some cases, I retained them (rarely) and in other cases, I went out and found a used copy and bought it. I recently bought two Scholastic Reader books that were probably my first two favorite books. I bought them for my grandson in the hope that he might enjoy them as I did, but truthfully, I also bought them to have them and hold them once again.

There was one book in particular that traveled the years and miles with me and was, I think, my most treasured book. I wrote of it not too long ago in What’s That in the Road Up Ahead last August. The book is “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Its 1,122 pages feature all four novels and all fifty-six of Sherlock’s adventures – supposedly the entire collection of his works. I read it as a teen, twice I think, and have held it for all these years as a treasured keepsake. As much as I loved reading, it fell by the wayside mostly due to time, or the lack thereof. As you have no doubt read from this blog dear reader, I worked a lot of hours for a lot of years – like most all of them. And that, coupled with family and everything else in life, left precious little time. And for most of that precious little time, I was flat out exhausted; honestly too tired to read. At least, too tired to read for pleasure.

Recall please that I held positions of great authority and responsibility, especially in the last twenty years of work, and most especially in my time in Facilities. In that job I was responsible for a lot of huge manufacturing building (many of them over 50 years old), massive electrical distribution systems, air compressors and air systems, boilers and steam systems, plumbing, storm drainage, and a host of other industrial systems. Much of what I needed to know came from my constant and incessant reading technical manuals and books or articles. I felt that in order to properly be responsible for these systems, to care for them correctly, that I needed to learn all I could on the theory and functional aspects of each of them. I had a great number of talented and fully capable and qualified technicians to care for all the equipment – professionals and specialists each. They did the work, but to be the one ultimately responsible, I felt I needed to know as much as possible myself. So any reading I could find time to do, was industrial in nature; all work related. No time was left remaining for pleasure reading.

As such, reading was always on my retirement “to-do” list. And “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” was first on the list, going back for as long as I dared begin to dream of retirement. As I approached the magic moment, I began to seriously make my plans and finalize my “to-do” list. Reading, and the complete Holmes, remained on the list but ended up being shuffled down the list a bit. Physical activity, getting back into shape, was (is) a big deal to me, and given that the advent of retirement and of Springtime nicer weather were conjoined, staying inside and reading didn’t make sense to me. I decided to wait for winter to read, and once winter got here, I still found myself well occupied most every day and hadn’t begun yet when the new year arrived.

But another part of that delay was the book itself; it was not to be found – anywhere. Even though I had no plans to read it immediately, I think it was still summer when I began to look for it, just to lay eyes upon it. And each time I would think of it, and go look for it, and fail, I’d think it must be somewhere else and it’ll turn up the next time I look. But that didn’t happen, time after time it failed to appear. My wife thought she had likely stuck it in a box somewhere, and remained certain we’d find it. But we didn’t. So I recently went to the Amazon website and found a used copy being sold by a small book dealer through Amazon. It was the first edition (1930), 15th printing. It is same one I had as a youngster, although that one was certainly a much later printing, likely contemporaneous with my schooling.

The read began at the beginning, as it should. While this book is really just a container, a vessel, for the four novels and fifty-six short stories, all of which had been previously printed, and certainly one could begin on page 984 with “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”, it is a book after all and as such, deserves to be read from beginning to end. First up is “A Study in Scarlet”, the first of the novels. I have personally always preferred the shorter adventure stories to the novels, but the reader’s obligation mandated to begin at page one. Before I knew it, I had devoured all the words and paragraphs and was done. And it was a delightful and fulfilling read; far better than I had recalled. And though I had no memory of the order or chronology of his tales, this was deservedly first as this is the tale in which Holmes meets Watson.

The art and craftmanship of Doyle leaps out immediately in this first novel; his ability to paint a scene with words is extraordinary. But beyond that, his vision for who (and what) Holmes is, and the depth of his vision for the character is nothing short of amazing. And the concepts for the various adventures, and especially how Holmes solves them, leaves me in awe. Such an amazing author! His writings were for profit, of course, he wrote to be published. But as with any author, his primary motivation was to please his reader; to satiate their hunger for good writing, a good story. And when you think about writing, it is the great equalizer. Every author has the exact same tools; pen and paper and the words of the native language being used. The rest, the separator, is the vision and imagination of the one writing.

This is a gift, of course, the ability to paint and enthrall with words. As is painting, creating music, and all the other arts. But this singular gift of writing mesmerizes me more than all the others; perhaps because I have dipped my toe into the waters of literary creation since I was in my teens. I am not an author but would love to be one. I hold those with the ability to write in high esteem and admire them to no end. All their work is crafted with nothing more than the words in their mind, in their vocabulary. They take those words and arrange them in such a manner so as to create something pleasing to the reader. And that is something we all need to think about, to ponder. It has nothing to do with a high-powered computer, fancy paints and brushes, expensive musical devices, or anything tangible at all. Writing is merely taking the words you already know and placing them into a pleasing series so that people will enjoy reading them. It is something we can all do. Of course, there are few, if any, capable of arranging them such as a Doyle or a Hemingway. But try your hand dear reader, write a story for a child or a friend. The gift of creation is never closer to us than it is with writing. Just another of the gifts that are hidden within us that you never know is there until you try. And if you just don’t enjoy writing, please pick up a book and read a little bit. The words, and their specific order, are important, but the vessel is also an integral part of reading. (So says the guy who has a digital blog – yes I get the irony.) As for me, I am off to settle into my overstuffed chair and read my next tale: “The Sign of Four”.

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