Let’s Talk About Your “Problem”

Oh, I’m sorry, maybe I didn’t really mean you. I mean, well, if you DON’T actually have rooms full of books you haven’t touched in ages then no, obviously, I was not talking to you at all. I’m so sorry for my impertinence. Move along; nothing to see here.

If you’re still here, I’m going to forge ahead on the assumption that you do, indeed, have a book problem. While I’ll admit that this is marginally better than having a bookie problem, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that you’ve had friends, significant others, or the people from the moving company comment on the size of your . . . collection. And while your shelves of tomes may provide you with a security blanket of sorts (I might need that! What if I’m called upon to teach Early-Modern Ant Farming in North Umbria?), maybe you also realize that those shelves also weigh a lot and can, literally and figuratively, weigh you down.

I’ve been slowly separating from academia–in fits and starts–for five years. I’ve also moved house four times in six years–three of those moves within the same city in a span of about 16 months. I also live with a librarian who got over his attachment to physical books years ago. This means I’ve been constantly paring down my collection. Each move, each new gig or new house has been an opportunity to look at the bookshelves critically and see if everything there needed to be there. When I left the professoriat for good, I boxed up (and catalogued, natch) over 250 books. The German titles were donated (!!!) to a friend who runs a graduate program, in the hopes that her students or her department’s on-site library might find them useful. The English-language titles I’ve shopped around to used bookstores with minimal luck. To say that it’s depressing to know that a resource I spent decades and I-don’t-know-how-much money assembling appears to have no monetary value in the world is an understatement.

BUT, we’re here to talk about your problem! I can report from the other side that it really isn’t all that bad. Now, I’m not suggesting that you box up over half your professional library and give it away–unless you think that’s a good idea, in which case, go get ’em, Tiger. In the end, though, I ended up doing something like a Konmari clean up on my bookshelves. I physically went through my books to box them up, holding each in my hands and interrogating them as to wether they “sparked joy,” held further use, or for some other reason needed to be in my life. I was a bit surprised at how few of these books needed to be there, even if I was planning on teaching again.

I discovered that I was holding on to a collection of books, filling multiple book shelving units, because of the value they represented for me as a collection: the money and time I had spent amassing and reading them; the times I had consulted them for teaching or writing; the purchases I had made of “medicinal” books–volumes I should read because doing so would be good for me. Many of the individual volumes held little or no value for me–then or now. But they represented my education and I was obviously eager to hold onto that and have it manifest in a certain way.

We know that experiences tend to be more meaningful than things. Part of the experience of having been an academic is that I know how to find many of those books again, should I need to do so. For me, it was necessary to physically off-load some of the “baggage” of my professorial job in order to take on the challenge of building a new career. For you, looking at your library might offer you the opportunity to reflect on where you are with teaching and research today vs. 5 or 10 years ago. What is weighing you down in your career progression that can be donated or sold?

And, I’ll confess, culling your library and removing the titles that no longer spark joy sure opens up shelf space for new books!

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