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What I Do It With

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 | Posted by Bud Webster

doriangrayYou already know I’m a recalcitrant book-geek, right? Loads of books, scattered all over the house, piled up and in boxes, and covering almost every flat surface – including the bookshelves. Where in hell did they all come from, anyway?

That’s the $64,000 question. I’ve been accumulating books since I was in junior high school (“middle-school” to you kids), when I traded a stack of comics to a friend for his copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

It wasn’t a first edition, of course, but it was an early one and did have Wilde’s signature reproduced on the front board in gold. It was also in pretty rough shape; the front hinge almost completely gone and the cover hanging by only a few threads.

Didn’t matter. Doesn’t even matter that, looking back on it, I realize that the comics I turned loose in swap were worth a hell of a lot more – I’d heard a lot about that book (and the movies made from it) in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and I wanted it. I kept it for years until it got lost in some move or another, and I’ve missed it ever since.

It was inevitable, really. Anyone who collects anything – from Beanie Babies to boy-dolls (or “action figures” as a friend of mine insists) – eventually acquires enough of them to require books about their collections, just to keep them straight and as a guide to what they have so they’ll know what they still need. So it was with me and my books.

famousmonstersSince my interest in books is more specific than general, it was desirable that I accumulate more specific references; i.e., books about books. Ain’t that weird? Narrowing it down even further, I needed books about fantastic literature.

To that end, I have amassed a good ten or twelve feet of indices, histories, autobiographies, encyclopedias, bibliographies, checklists, criticisms, and catalogs that I can refer to when I write about books and writers, and not have to, y’know, make it all up. Heh.

Some are better than others; more complete, more in-depth, more meticulously researched, that sort of thing.

Some are a bit lacking, but can be used to confirm the others, an important thing if you pretend to journalism like I do.

Some are browsable; fun to just page through and read here and there, full of fascinating information that illuminates a subject (whatever or whomever it might be). Some are simply indexes of magazine stories, or authors’ bibliographies, data rather than anecdotal. Still useful, but not as much fun.

ency-of-sf2Most frequently seen lying open on my desk are Donald H. Tuck’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (three volumes, Advent Publishers 1974, 1978 and 1982), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (compiled by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, St. Martin’s Press 1993), and Walter Cole’s A Checklist of Science Fiction Anthologies (self, 1964).

Almost as often, I use Fred Pohl’s invaluable autobiographical The Way the Future Was (del Rey 1978), the first volume of The John W. Campbell Letters (compiled by Perry Chapdelaine, Tony Chapdelaine and George Hay, AC Projects 1985) and Damon Knight’s collection of critical essays, In Search of Wonder (Advent Publishers 1956).

These all are a wealth of quotable material, useful as jumping-off points for my own analytical mutterings.

Of course, I use online references as well. My UK pal, Phil Stephensen-Payne, hosts a number of sites, including William Contento’s Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections, Combined Edition at his Galactic Central web-page, including a number of my older columns. Look here for more of the good bibliographical stuff. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database contains a lot of worthy information. I use all these sites on a daily basis when I’m writing my bookish pieces.

future-pohlThis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, of course. I have large tomes devoted to pseudonyms, faanish history, magazine history, and lists of books by publishers. These don’t see use as often, but as with the others, when I need them I really need them.

“How did you get them all?” I hear you say. Well, what I really hear is “Boy, this guy needs a girlfriend or something,” but let’s go with the former, just for the sake of argument.

I’ve spent a lot of time poring over catalogs from specialty booksellers, in hucksters’ rooms at conventions, at library sales, and trading with other enthusiasts over the past few decades. I’ve even gotten copies of some expensive books and sets by writing articles in them, which (for me anyway) is the easier way, not to mention cheaper.

Then came eBay and online dealers, which had an enormous effect on the availability of many formerly hard-to-find titles. It’s been rewarding, not a little frustrating, and occasionally expensive as hell, but if I’m gonna be a pundit, I gotta have the ammo for it.

(For those of you who may be interested, NESFA sells the Advent line of stfnal non-fiction titles at their website, as well as their own very useful sets of magazine/original anthology indices. If you have the interest in assembling a reference library of your own – you poor bastards – this is a pretty good place to start.)

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