By the Book: Weighty books & weighty matters

Books may be full of ideas, imagination, metaphors, fantasies and other such metaphysicalities, but they are also physical objects with a certain weight and heft to them. That becomes extremely clear when you are moving 25,000 of them from one place to another. Not me, all by myself, but a whole team of movers who came to Floyd Memorial Library. They took all the reference and nonfiction books off the shelves upstairs and moved them down to the shelves where the fiction used to live, meanwhile moving the fiction up.

It was a daunting proposition. We had made maps and plans and counted shelves and volumes. Then these enormous gentle men came and, while joking with each other, slowly, ponderously marched wooden shelving bins on wheels up and down the aisles, unshelving and then reshelving all those precious, beautiful, heavy books.

The trick is that each book needs to be in the place where it belongs so it can be found by readers. A misplaced book is as gone as a stolen book or an unreturned book or a book dropped in the bathtub. Libraries shelve their books by systems and if you understand the system and the book is shelved correctly, according to the rules of the system, then you should be able to find it.

It doesn’t really matter what the system is, as long as it works. Most academic libraries use the Library of Congress system and most public libraries use the Dewey Decimal system. There is a movement toward getting rid of Dewey and moving toward a word-based system, more like the one bookstores use. Dewey was invented and adopted because it was supposed to be simpler and more user-friendly than the alternatives at the time, but times have changed. It seems needlessly complicated to have to look up and remember a number like 641.5636 when you want a vegetarian cookbook, instead of walking down an aisle labeled cookbooks and finding a sign that says “vegetarian” next to related books that are shelved alphabetically by title.

That may be in our future; meanwhile the books all need to be housed according to their old addresses so they can be found. They need to be found so they can move and circulate, not only to local library patrons but all around Suffolk County and all around New York State and, theoretically, all around the United States at least, if not the world.

So, if the average book weighs 12 ounces and we just moved 25,000 of them, that was about nine-and-a-half tons of moving literature. No wonder I’m exhausted. All I want to do is curl up, maybe on a lounge chair out in the garden now that we have spring sunshine, tulips and budding lilacs. I would bring the book I’m reading now, which is not an average book weighing 12 ounces. Oh no. ‘A Storm of Swords’ by George R.R. Martin probably weighs about two or three pounds. Including the appendices, it has 973 pages. It is Book Three of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ which started with ‘A Game of Thrones’ and will end eventually with ‘A Dance of Dragons.’

I am totally addicted to this epic fantasy series after fending it off for a few years. I actually had breakfast with Mr. Martin at a conference of some sort — me and George and 50 or so other authors and librarians. I found him funny and charming and he’d had written a book in which one of the major characters was named Bran, the same unusual name I had given my son. So I accepted the free paperback copy of “A Game of Thrones” and gave it to my son, who loved it.

I like fantasy as a genre, when I am in the mood and when it is good. Martin is being called the American Tolkien (did you get the echo of the double Rs?) and though his work is different from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it is no less compelling. My favorite writer in the fantasy genre is Ursula Le Guin, who has written six novels about “Earthsea,” each much slenderer than the epics noted above, but just as weighty and important in exploring the real subject of fantasy epics: good and evil. Not a simple subject, and these are not simple books.

In earlier years, Martin worked as a television writer on the remake of “The Twilight Zone” and a “Beauty and the Beast” series, so it’s not surprising that “The Game of Thrones” is being made into a TV series by HBO, 10 hour-long shows, aired weekly. I’m sure I will end up watching it eventually, but I know it won’t be the same as the hours I’m spending happily immersed in these gigantic, complicated, heavy books. Heavy both metaphysically and physically.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

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