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Hoarders, Academic Edition–Part 1: The Books

Posted in First Person,Surviving Grad School by Arnold Pan on April 6, 2010
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I was watching “Hoarding: Buried Alive” the other night (Why?  Don’t ask.) and, probably like most viewers, I started to feel smugly superior about having my sh*t together, at least when it comes taking care of the stuff I own.  That is, until I remembered what a mess my home office is, packed to the gills with various stacks of papers (some of which are years old), unalphabetized CDs, uncategorized books, not to mention a crazy amount of cat supplies.  And that’s not to mention all the stuff that has been transferred to the family garage, which includes a lot more books, even more files, and random knick-knacks that I’ve probably packed up with me from college to now.

The thing is, being an academic can turn you into an amateur hoarder before you know it, since you assume everything you have will become useful at some time and in the right situation–neither of which ever comes.  What makes it worse is that you’re also likely to be itinerant as an academic, which means you end up packing a bunch of useless stuff rather than just getting rid of things.

We’ll be covering some of the detritus that academics accrue over the years, which piles up a lot quicker and in greater volume than you would believe.  We’ll also talk about ways of how to de-clutter your hoard, although I’m not sure I’m one to talk!

We’ll start with books, after the jump…

BOOKS

Any academic will build a big library of books, which, in many ways, comes to identify her/him, according to both the kinds of texts s/he owns and how many s/he owns.  Here’s how I would categorize the kinds of books that are hoarded in my collection:

1. Books I think I will use that I never have: I bought tons of critical theory books back in the late 1990s academic publishing boom–think lots of Routledge, Verso, Duke UP–many of which I don’t think I ever ended up reading.  But they look really great on my book shelf and represent the kind of academic I imagined being, at least at one early formative period.  I hung onto most of the books, in part because I thought I would eventually get to them (still haven’t) and in part because I wasn’t sure what else I could do with them (still don’t).

2. Books I used so much that I don’t know what else to do with them: More useful and used books also present a problem for me, since many of them are so marked up that I’m not sure if anyone can do anything with them, whether it’s me or someone I would donate them to.  Case in point: I own many, many copies of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, all of which are amply underlined and include a bunch of illegible marginal notes I scratched while nodding off.  As any “Hoarders” viewer knows, the hoarder comes up with some kind of rationalization for stockpiling stuff that seems reasonable in theory, but absolutely irrational in practice.  (Or past trauma is a reason, which the grad school experience could account for.)  My rationalizations work this way:

* The book is so thoroughly marked up that no one else could possible have use for it.

* One day, I might need to look at the marginal notes or underlinings, in order for me to reconstruct the (very facile and naive) argument that I came up with at the time.

* This book might have sentimental value, though I don’t remember any longer just what it is.

* I need a completely clean copy, either to re-read for enjoyment or so I’m not distracted by my earlier readings.

3. Duplicates: As a result of using up and marking up the books, I end up having to get more and more copies of the same texts, usually justified by rationalization #2.  To return to my example of Quicksand

* I bought the first copy in my first year of graduate school for a class.

* I bought a second copy because I wanted a clean slate to work with when I decided to write my Master’s paper on the book.

* I bought a third copy when I started working on a dissertation chapter focusing on the book, for the same reason I bought the second copy.

* I received copies 4 through n (I actually don’t know how many I have now) as desk copies, since I have taught Quicksand a number of times.  After a while, I just started giving the desk copies to my students.

Repeat this process of stockpiling for a number of other novels, like The Scarlet Letter,  Huckleberry Finn, and China Men, each of which I also own multiple editions of.  So basically, I have a few bookshelves in the garage that are basically extra copies of the same few books–and that’s after I donated some of the cleaner copies.

I’ve thought about liquidating a big chunk of my collection, but I think of more reasons not to:

* Selling them on eBay and Amazon Marketplace seems like a pain, since I’d have to figure out my inventory and how not to dither and be cheap in mailing the books out.

* There aren’t any good used bookstores in my corner of the world, though even good used bookstores wouldn’t take the books either.

* I’m too lazy to actually divvy them up among my friends, which raises the same problems as selling on eBay and Amazon, plus I’d be taking a hit in the pocketbook.

So basically, that’s where I’m at with my book collection, at least 90% of which has not been used or useful in many a year.  Caroline has some suggestions as to what to do about these books in a follow-up post.  Then, I’ll come back tomorrow with a second hoarding problem: all the stray papers you generate, acquire, and keep as a grad student.

” ‘Modern Book Printing,’ fourth sculpture (from six) of the Berliner Walk of Ideas,” by Lienhard Schulz from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

“SZ Bibliotek Bande 1-20” by Tobias Wolter from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

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