Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dividing My Books

cross-posted from Dagblog

This summer I've moved house three times. My job and my partner are in two different states, a common problem for my generation of college professors. I count myself lucky that our jobs are only a few hundred miles apart, which means the highway and not the airport. But keeping a one-person apartment in each place has stopped making sense, so we've bought a house in one city and rented a professional's bachelor pad, a short walk from my office, in the other. Voila! Three moves: from my partner's old place to the new house, from my old apartment to my new one, and from my old apartment to the house. If anyone needs some spare boxes, I'll leave them in the comments section.

And yes, I have the carbon footprint of a brontosaurus. Any time someone wants to put some money into high-speed rail, or simply stop beating up on Amtrak, that would help me turn the guilt into something practical.

Although it's definitely a first-world, luxury-box problem, packing for more than one destination turns out to be slow and complicated. The two great questions of moving, "Should I keep this?" and "How do I fit it in the box?" have picked up a dilatory and nagging third, "Which place should this go?" Should this pot or pan go to the kitchen I share with my partner, or become part of the bachelor-pad cooking set? Which umbrella goes where? You can't simply stow it all in boxes and load it into a truck; every individual object needs to be considered. Again, this complication, like so many other wastes of energy and time, grows from luxury. Could there be a more privileged question than "How do I divide my overly numerous possessions between my multiple homes?" (Except of course, "How do I get this done before my trip to Europe?")

The big problem for me, as always, is my books. I have far too many and, of course, not nearly enough. Even after I part with some, there are hundreds and hundreds to sort. Faced with so many books, and so many different places to keep them, I'm forced to consider why, specifically, I keep each book, what I'm likely to do with it, and why I find myself in the various places I keep them. At the very least the problems of privilege should make you think about your privilege. Why have I amassed all of these objects?

Some I need for work, which usually passes as a bullet-proof excuse in our culture. I couldn't do my teaching, my research, or my professional writing without a whole lot of books. In fact, my job requires more books than I could ever personally own. No one can teach college literature without a college library, and no one can write a scholarly book without a serious library AND inter-library loan. But there are plenty of books that I either use all the time or am likely to need unexpectedly. I want to be able to check them when I need them, and I don't want to hog the library's copies for months or years. A few are old and relatively valuable, things I've tracked down on the used-book market over the years, and I've often been grateful for those purchases. Those books have helped me out of more two-in-the-morning research puzzles than I should be having at this age, and saved the day when I needed to fact-check something right before a deadline.

Some books I have for personal and sentimental reasons. Some are beloved favorites, which I've read and reread over the years and expect to read again. Some are by friends or members of my family. A few are autographed by someone famous, or soon to be famous. A few others are collectible for one reason or another, and a bunch of old science-fiction paperbacks are collectible in the sense that I collected them because those particular books have gotten hard to find. Some I have because, frankly, I feel like should have them. (Yes, Moby Dick is surely available in the public library and no, I won't reread it over the next two years, but I have it in the house for the same reason I have a copy of The Federalist: I'm an American.) And of course, there's a pile of books that I have because I'd like to read them.

Some of the division is easy. The personal keepsakes and collectibles, the books by friends, and the inscribed gifts almost all go to the house. Who knows what my autographed copy of Blowing Smoke will be worth some day?

Other books obviously go to my campus office: textbooks and student anthologies, books I often consult while planning lessons, works about teaching methods and about academia itself. The "advice for new faculty" books are no longer for me to read but to lend out to new colleagues, and belong close at hand in my office.

But things get complicated fast. I occasionally use those expensive old reference works to plan lessons, but mostly use them for research and writing, so they stay at the house in my study. I almost never get much writing done in my campus office, where I'm generally busy with teaching tasks or committee work. And I expect to do more of my writing at the house than I get done in the new apartment, where I will probably only manage to get one solid block of writing time a week. So every book in my academic field has to be examined. Is this a teaching book, or a writing book? If it's both, how often do I use it for one and how often for the other? In the meantime, dividing the books involves planning my weeks, plotting out which of my tools will be in this or that place at this day or that hour. This collection of essays will be in my office, which means using it while I am on campus. This invaluable research tool is shelved in my house, which means using it for research early on weekend mornings, or on Sunday afternoons. This is what I hope or expect to get done in my apartment near campus, and these are the books I need to leave there in order to accomplish that.

The new working week apartment is the part I don't quite have in focus yet, the place where I can't quite imagine myself. I have very few work-related books there, since I will almost always be just coming from or about to go to one of the other two places. It holds several books that I can read one section at a time (essay collections, back issues of McSweeney's, superbly organized works of non-fiction). It has enough fuller-bodied works to keep me from being bored when I eventually, inevitably, get snowed in for an extra night or over a weekend. (In some ways, the bookshelf there is like the bookshelves in summer homes, except that it's the winter non-vacation home.) And since almost all the bookshelves there are in the living room, where visitors can see them, those books need to look minimally respectable. Although I hate to admit it, one of the reasons I own books is to display them, and thereby to display certain things about myself: education level, personal tastes and interests, things like generation and background. So the books in my living room don't necessarily need to be impressive (because the most impressive ones are in another living room), but they can't make me look like a mess either. It's a truth that I don't like, but books are partly about the face I show to others, and the face I show myself.

My books feel to me, on some deep and irrational level, like my most important possession, my patrimony. "Books constitute capital," as Jefferson said. Some people own land, and I own a library. They are the visible embodiment of the educational and cultural privileges I've been given, which can otherwise seem evanescent. Degrees are abstractions; books are solid. Slowly mastering the particular intellectual training demanded by my field is a much less tangible achievement than amassing hundreds of well-chosen volumes. It's not so much that I have the books to show other people what a scholar I am. It's that I have them to remind myself. Years ago, when I drove across the country to start Ph.D. work, I left behind all of my books except the ones I would actually need for my specific academic work (just a milk crate or two loaded into the car). And that was a reasonable decision, but a depressing one in the long run. After a while I slightly felt cut off from the world of reading and writing that my work was allegedly about. Why study English lit if it means not having your favorite novels with you, and not owning any poetry that you wouldn't write an essay about? I don't have that problem today, with a dozen boxes still left to unpack. But the sorry truth is that I only feel at home when I've put books on the shelves. They are a physical connection to my chosen work, and to all the reasons that I chose it.

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