Did You Ever Wonder?

A short stay in a Kingston motel left me with many unanswered questions about a shelf of books.  Did you ever wonder where Andy Rooney is when I need him?


From 1978 until a month before his death on 04 November 2011, Andy Rooney did an end-of-show segment on the CBS program, 60 Minutes.  He certainly wasn’t the first to say, Did you ever wonder . . . ?, but he made the phrase peculiarly his own.

In the segment, Rooney typically offered satire on a trivial everyday issue, such as the cost of groceries, annoying relatives, or faulty Christmas presents. Wikipedia

‘Trivial’ is a matter of opinion: the ‘everyday’, after all, is where we spend, well, every day.  I know that as I go through my day and hit things that make me wonder, I often hear Andy’s voice in my head.

Usually, the wondering is just a passing puzzlement.   

Did you ever wonder why bananas can travel thousands of miles, blemish free, but can’t get from the store to your kitchen counter without bruising?

Did you ever wonder why you can take a photo with any phone, but can’t make a phone call from any camera?

Did you ever wonder why ‘ref’, ‘reg’, ‘rep’, and ‘veep’ and ‘dino’ are all legitimate words in Scrabble™, but ‘wifi’ isn’t?

Did you ever wonder why sci-fi became syfy, or why ‘junta’ changed from ‘hoonta’ to ‘djunta’ in CBC’s official pronunciation guide?

Did you ever wonder why the Boston Celtics are the Seltics, and not the Keltics?  Is ‘Keltic’ really so hard to say?

Did you ever wonder why those blankety-blank squirrels will eat absolutely everything from your garden except the ornamental crabapples?

But sometimes, the wondering is a mental rant worthy of Andy . . .

Did you ever wonder why hotels decorate with books?

On our trip to Kingston last week—to launch a history book, meet a princess, and reminisce with people I don’t know—these books graced the shelf above the desk in our hotel room:

The Spider King – A biographical novel of King Louis XI of France; Schoonover, 1954
Problems of an Urban SocietyVolume 2: the Social Content of Planning; Cullingworth, 1973
Report of the Fifty-Second Conference of the International Law Association, 1966
Living Embryos: An Introduction to the Study of Animal Development; Cohen, 1967
To the One I Love the Best; Bemelmans, 1955
Strategies for Elementary Social Science Education; Joyce, 1965
Reminiscences; Smith, 1910
The Us or Them War; Garner, 1969
Bulldog Drummond Returns; McNeile, 1931
The Justicer; Fall, 1959
Hegemony and Survival; Chomsky, 2003
The Unforgotten; Conway, 1967
The Best Forgotten; Gibson, 2013

No, I made up that last one.  But not the first dozen.

Judging by the pencilled-in prices inside their front covers, these books were bought in bulk at a used bookstore, whose owners must have thought they hit the lottery when this order came in.  If every one of the 74 hotel rooms has 12 books, then that would be (let me see, carry the 1), 888 books (and what could be luckier than that for any feng shui devotee)?  Even at $1.50 to $4.50 a book, that’s a nice day’s work.

Better yet, since these books are there only as decor, the bookstore owner could, entirely without guilt, offload some dogs acquired in their own bulk purchases.  Something like, oh, I don’t know,the 1966 report of the 52nd International Law Association meeting. 

While I’ve seen book assemblages like this in public spaces in hotels (‘collection’ being too intentional a word altogether), I’d never seen a set placed where one might be forgiven for thinking the books were for, you know, reading.

Now, I ask you, would you like to leaf through a teaching strategies book that, even assuming it was ever on point, is now out of date by forty years or more?  Would you like to dip into an opus by Noam Chomsky, not exactly renowned for his light, bite-sized writing style?  Have you been searching, hitherto fruitlessly, for the seventh novel in the Bulldog Drummond series which started in the 1920s?

No, no, and no?  I didn’t think so.

Maybe, in a hotel room in Kingston (as anywhere), you’d be interested in reading a short story by a local author, living or dead.  Or a nugget of local history.  Or a guide to local attractions.  Or anything that might persuade you to spend another day exploring the area, and another night in that very hotel.

Seeing books used as props, anywhere other than on a theatre stage, baffles and annoys me simultaneously.  Books, dagnab it, are not meant to to complement the wallpaper, but to inform, teach, divert, or elevate.

Did you ever wonder?  Yes, Andy, frequently.

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8 Comments

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8 Responses to Did You Ever Wonder?

  1. Mike Saker

    I hope the hotel didn’t fork out any money for these books. We just held our third annual Mahone Bay Centre book sale which managed to redistribute a wealth of reading to hundreds of happy new readers. None of the books sold would have been been printed earlier than the 70s or 80s unless they were judged (by our highly critical vetting committee) to possess some intrinsic value and be in good condition (about 20-30 met the test). Of course we received 100s, if not 1000s of dated/decrepit books which, after proper sorting, were taken to the dump ( many of our local citizens view this service of equal, perhaps greater, service to the community than the sale itself). We hadn’t thought of taking them to the local hotels and motels. Thanks for the suggestion. We might even make a bob or two in the process.

    By the way, the most prolific recycled book by far was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Anyone want a copy? Hard cover, no less. Cheap (shipping and handling extra).

    • Isabel Gibson

      Mike – That’s hysterical! It never even occurs to me to try to get things for free – which is, perhaps, why I’m not running a business for someone. Given their apparent intrinsic value, though, it’s entirely possible that the books were donated by a bookseller grateful to free up space for inventory that would turn over. Maybe he even paid for them to be taken away? Anyway, by all means, dump those books at a local motel rather than at the dump…

  2. After a well-known book sale in Rockcliffe, the volunteers dump the unsold remains in a dumpster. One year they allowed an artist friend to climb in and get the ones she wanted for free — she sat there and stripped the covers off the old hard-bound books — their inside spines are unbelievably beautiful. She loaned me a whole box of these shredded flat rectangles (binder strings and all) to scan for my digital graphics. Isabel, you bought a long card of mine this summer (“Famous Skyline”) in which I used one of them as the foreground.

    Worse than unreadable old books in hotel rooms is decorators using them by the yard — glued together, like colourful bricks. But, hey, even that way they are still living testament to the quiet force that is A BOOK. If they weren’t so important, no fascist government would burn them or ban them. And aren’t they hard to throw out? — one always wants to give them to a book sale or a library, or …

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – They are hard to toss. In 2001, when I was helping my parents prepare their home for a still-in-an-undated-future move to a lodge, I went through a big box of university texts that my father had dragged around since 1945. By the time I had ripped off the covers and ripped the bound text into sections small enough to meet recycling standards, I saw no beauty in them at all! Glad to know there’s another perspective. Re the books being glued together (you’re right, that is a horror), a reader who sends his comments via email rather than this Comment function wondered whether I had thought about stealing all the books and starting my own hotel. I admit that specific angle didn’t occur, but I had realized that the theft of just one would not likely have been noted.

  3. M.McQuillan

    I always thought the books I saw in hotels were the ones left behind by guests, and they were still in the rooms as they did not interest the cleaning staff. In this new age of e-books, this will become a thing of the past.

    My old books they go to the ‘lending library’ set up at my favourite fish & chip place in Scarborough. They have a shelf to leave books and you can take away the titles that interest you. The local hospital also needs books for its book trolley to sell to raise $$ for the hospital. Paperbacks only.

    As for books as props, it fascinated me when I saw a wallpaper that when applied to the wall looked like books on an old book-store shelf. No need to take up actual space with real books any more; you can fake it.

    • Isabel Gibson

      M – I guess wallpaper books also save a foot of space (depth-wise) in affected rooms – maybe that’s the attraction. Also, no dusting. But it’s funny to think of those Kingston-hotel books having been left there, in dribs and dabs, over decades. (I’ve seen that in B&Bs, I think, and in places we rent in Arizona.) What an odd parade of hotel visitors that would be, to be sure, to have left such an assemblage. And what (per Barbara’s protocol) had already walked out with someone before we were there? All the good stuff, I guess…