On selling the next chunk of my professional library

[eta: proofreading]

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.

~ by Servetus on September 2, 2015.

17 Responses to “On selling the next chunk of my professional library”

  1. Hope you don’t really mean a final farewell forever to teaching. My husband — not an academic but a retired international development worker — is enjoying teaching a graduate seminar at a state college. Our flagship state university sponsors adult education classes on every type of esoteric subject — and the students are motivated and interested. You have too much hard-won knowledge to share to give it up forever. Somebody out there wants to learn about the personal proclivities of Polish peasants!


    • Thanks. We’ll see. I’d like not to teach again, but I’m guessing I will have no choice.

      I do have a freaky amount of knowledge. It makes me feel obligated, but then I wonder, who cares about these things?


  2. I only managed to give away a lot of the books I bought for my study of architecture this year. So ten years after my de-registration.
    I still kept some for similar reasons than you do. Emotional values and also because some theoretical ones are really timeless and I still like looking things up there. Like Leon Krier’s “Architecture Choice or Fate” which was the first book on architecture I bought, long before I decided to study it, or Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” which was a recommendation from a great professor.
    Other than you, I quit my studies just before finishing my master, and I’ve never worked in this field. So I know that parting from your books must be quite a task. I liked that “they are in you now” comment. This is the way to see it. Moving on.


    • There were reasons we were studying these things, after all. Sentimental. Geistlich, sozusagen.

      I carry enough stuff with me. I don’t have to carry everything.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The last paragraph of your post was very moving. The books are like “luggage” and their heaviness is weighing you down. They have shaped who you are, and you don’t need to keep them physically anymore. We all develop these emotional attachments to things associated with our past and how we see ourselves, and sometimes forget that the important stuff is all on the inside and is not definable.


    • I wonder, sometimes as well, if I let go of things that primarily remind of guilty memories, if I’d stop remembering those things. Worth a try. Being ruthless.


  4. It’s a total truism, but I suppose letting go of the books may also feel liberating in the long run. It is like you said – whether you still own those books or not, the knowledge is in you, and at some point the books shaped you. I prefer to look at it from a practical POV: Giving them away reduces your luggage and gives you more space. And they also may make you a bit of money which you can invest in something that delights or interests you.
    Having said all that – I admire your resolve. I find it particularly hard to give away my books and I still have my “academic history library” from 20 years ago when I was a student, although I never look at them. Silly.


    • Beer, if nothing else! It’s hard to give them away. But what surprised me in the last round, four years ago, was that I NEVER, not even once, thought, I wish I had hung onto that one. Even though I wonder as I sell them whether I might not need to buy them back again.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Cette expérience fut la mienne , lorsque cet été , nous avons redistribué la destination de certaines pièces de notre maison .
    Vider les placards pour déplacer les meubles engendre nécessairement la mise à l’écart , voire au rebut de choses auxquelles nous tenons , de livres oubliés , de documents inutiles , de vieilles robes ethniques immettables aujourd’hui… L’écueil est de passer trop de temps au tri , en relisant , en (re)découvrant et donc , à travers ces reliques , de se replonger dans le passé . Mais aussi le risque est de trop faire disparaître dans un mouvement libératoire , jubilatoire , où nous reprenons possession de l’espace , de ce qui encombre .
    Un sentiment bizarre de jouissance vient petit à petit dans cet exercice , comme si en reprenant la main sur l’extérieur , nous nous libérions à l’intérieur de nous- même , nous reprenions possession de ce que nous sommes . L’espace libéré dans notre environnement familier , crée un vide . Une reconquête de nos actions et de nos pensées est à nouveau possible . C’est une renaissance libératrice : le printemps de Vivaldi ( aucunement une métamorphose , une transformation en red dragon ) .
    D’autre part arriver au bout d’une telle tâche , gravir une telle montagne procure fierté , soulagement et satisfaction égoiste de l’oeuvre durement accomplie , longtemps remise à plus tard , faute de motivations suffisantes.
    Le plaisir du temps passé dans ce travail manuel procure des satisfactions hautement plus satisfaisantes , que celui passé sur internet à suivre les dernières frasques de notre vedette préférée .
    Je me suis reconnue dans vos écrits et vous souhaite de vous engager dans un chemin nouveau dégagé …


    • This necessity always to reprocess everything you want to keep is why I usually hire someone to sort for me when I am moving … because otherwise I would never get it done. But it’s so liberating, and I’ve never missed anything I’ve let go of.


  6. Au fait dans ce tri je n’ai trouvé aucune bouteille de vin blanc de BouRgogne Côte de Beaune Montrachet . Selon le Figaro certaines bouteilles sont à 3700 voire 4200 euros !!! Un tel vide grenier aurait été bien plus lucratif .


  7. Thanks for writing this, so lovely to read your reflections. I can relate so much!


    • I sympathize with your issue of keeping things you had in grad school. I am just now getting rid of some of that stuff.


  8. Ouch, I applaud you for letting go of so much. I really do.
    I’m not ready. I cling on to all my books, all my accumulated knowledge, and also some that I’m still working on understanding.
    I have, however, let go of a few books that were outdated – a book on finance (How to understand the financial pages) I bought in the 90’s when our western economy was influenced by Greenspan, and affluence was seemingly abundant. What a wake-up call, huh?
    Also books I have on criminal litigation which I know will never come to use, because that’s just not my field of interest anymore.
    My favourite fictional book is ‘The Scarlet Letter’. I cherish it; it has notes in the margin from my high-school days. This was the first book that gave me the sense of understanding the protagonist, Hester, I could relate to her, and the analysis of it just came so easy to me. From that first analysis came many more, but this was the story that started it all. It carries a lot of personal history that I can never part with.
    At some point, though, I’ll have to revisit the ‘library’, because I’m sure ten year old compendiums are out of date as are the accompanying text books. I hold on to them because of “Just in case”. Glad to see you’re passed that.


    • I am not giving away everything, so books that have a huge level of personal meaning are staying with me — tattered copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem, for instance, most of the Greek tragedies although I don’t think I will ever teach those again. But even historians have things that go out of date. Surveys of historiography on a topic, for instance … it feels lightening to give them away.

      You also don’t know who will get them. I listed a book this week that I had always had mixed feelings about — it was an important work of the French Enlightenment, translated into English, with notes. I’ve owned it since 1990 and taught it three times as an instructor but only out of obligation. It turned out that it is still worth quite a bit in the used book market — $20 — so I listed it. This week I mailed it to the campus where my most important undergraduate mentor is now teaching. I don’t know that it will find its way into its classroom — but if it does, the book definitely has another chance at being loved.


  9. […] will there now be an annual dysphoria in the last days of summer like the one around my birthday?). I’ve been selling books. This morning I cleaned up some minor lingering messes that seemed too much to deal with a month […]


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