Although I’d intended to do it starting last fall, I didn’t manage to start selling the books I’d left here last summer until about six weeks ago. Partially due to inertia; partially because that they were stored in a way that made me have to make an extra effort to get at them; and, I suppose, a big part of it was emotional. I spent so much of last summer throwing and giving things away of my mother’s and that process — which involved taking every single piece of the stuff in my hand and engaging with it perceptually — can be exhausting. Was exhausting. Is exhausting. And then there’s the identity piece. The huge collection of books I’ve amassed is somehow still constitutive of my scholarly and intellectual identity, despite my efforts to the contrary.
I went through this before, of course, when I left Texas, and unsurprisingly, some of the themes are the same. For instance, the sale of books that have to do with historical theory. I sold a lot of them four years ago, the ones I read only because they were required, and I’m selling the remainder now, including most of those that made a big impact on me, just because I can’t imagine I will ever use them again, I don’t want to move them around anymore, and they are still worth something. Books in general are worth less now than they were four years and some things I’d have been able to sell then are now superfluous now, replaced by electronic books. I made about $2000.00 from the “great purge” last time and I might get to $1000.00 this time, if I really sell everything. Whatever won’t bring $5 in resale goes in a box outside my office for students who are interested to take away with them. But it’s astounding to me that The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and We Have Never Been Modern sell for almost the same price that I paid for them in 1991 and 2004. And so those books went on to people who live in large university communities in the Midwest, as I assume, grad students who will read them for the same reasons that I did. I sell low, even in comparison to prices for other books, merely in the interest of getting rid of things I don’t want, and it’s also comforting to think that the books will end up in the hands of impoverished graduate students who didn’t need to pay full price for once. Which reminds me that I feel a certain amount of nostalgia and sentiment just around the fact that I was always so well supplied with books. My parents always made sure that if I didn’t have book money for college or grad school from my summer jobs, that I could buy my books. Always.
When I look at what persisted in my collection after 2011 but which isn’t going to join the next phase of my life, I’m again struck by certain facets of what I kept, though less convinced that it reflects my identity quite as much.
Looking at some of the things I kept presents no problem for me now. I seem to have kept most of my college textbooks, for instance, but a lot of those are going now, even things I enjoyed reading at the time: Zamiatin’s We, read in a political literature class (I remember liking it but nothing about the plot); and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (same reaction, and I don’t need to reread it). I feel no twinges about these now, though I would have back then. Similarly, no bad feelings about books people sent me at some point that are no longer of use that I’m shedding — I think these books survived last time out of obligation, or perhaps out of the feeling that I would retain those connections, but I’m trying to shed those bonds now and I think that no longer seeing those books around me will do me good. I ran across the stack of books I bought when I was being interviewed for a position teaching German literature and tried to cram in years of Brecht, Mann, Kafka and Goethe. They’re all sold now except Mann, whom I enjoy reading. No regrets — either that I bought them then or that I am selling them now.
Still among the books that are leaving me unproblematically, in particular, are some very excellent, admirable monographs that made the cut last time but seem almost impenetrable to me now. I look at the stack of books and think, you said you were going to shed your professor identity but you didn’t. You kept all this stuff around. 400 pp. on Prussian peasant relationships with their lords; 200 pp. on Bibles in the Enlightenment; five or six books of trial records relating to witchcraft accusations; a really solid 350 pp. work on the development of religious toleration in the Netherlands. They seemed important then, but not now, and it’s really true that if you’re involved in the minutiae of a particular historical field, you lose perspective on what might be interesting to the average person. Those books are going. Some have been donated to the campus library again — if I know it might be the only copy of a book in the entire state of Florida, for instance. Among those I’ve sold, I’ve actually mailed two of them to people whose names I recognize and who might smile when they see my name still on the flyleaf of the books they’ve bought, and two more to new graduate students in the program I used to teach in. Cheers! Similarly, saying goodbye to the remains of the professor, multiple copies of teaching books that I kept around for TAs: gone. May you all enjoy your new homes and readers.
Some things still burn a little, though. I have more or less given away a very solid scholarly library of important English language research on the Italian Renaissance ca. 1998 — something that I studied multiple times in graduate and undergraduate but which, although my doctoral advisor insisted I would have to become an authority on it, I never researched and I never taught. The same with a stack of books on the French Revolution; my undergrad advisor was a specialist in that area and I studied it twice in graduate school, fully anticipating I would have to teach it, and never moving beyond the obligatory week of lectures in a survey course. What it ends up saying to me is that we often build our intellectual world out of the things that the people who are important to us say are important. But those things are not necessarily important just because others think they are. I really hope that as I’ve tried to pass on to my students what I think is important, I’ve left room for them to develop not just their own libraries, but their own notions of what they need to know. In any case, I’ve been lugging those other people’s worlds around with me for two decades, but now it’s enough. Still, when a colleague comes past and sees that I’m giving away a vintage copy of The Peasants of Languedoc, and asks if he can have it, I feel a twinge. Maybe I haven’t let it go quite so fully as I hope, just yet. On the whole I feel no sadness about the end of my academic career, but maybe there are little sore spots left.
Most of the stuff I am keeping involves an object that has a sentimental value — all of Marx and Hannah Arendt, because I read those books with a favorite professor; many things that relate to Martin Luther, perhaps precisely because they still sting. A book of documents on the French Revolution that my high school history teacher gave me in a wrathful moment. My ex-SO’s dissertation, because I typed and proofread big pieces of it, and because it has a dedication line to me in it. There are pieces I can’t let go of, whether painful or pleasurable or simply historical.
But as I make ready to let go as much of it as possible I find myself saying: if your reading of these books created your identity, well, then, you are these books already. I don’t need to surround myself with them to remind me of anything or to bolster my sense of self. I read all of them. Insofar as they continue to mean something, then not as objects — but rather because they are in me now. I can’t carry all this luggage anymore — what they gave me you to carry with me, it has to be enough now for whatever future might be coming.