Post Academic


Recycling books (and posts)

Posted in Ask an Academic,First Person by Arnold Pan on November 16, 2010
Tags: , ,

So I spent part of last weekend going through my grad school books again, probably my third go-round trying to cull my library.  Anyhow, I’m kinda shocked that some of the books that are/were still on the shelves made the cut the last time I decided to try and declutter my post academic life.  Part of the deal is inertia — the books aren’t hurting anyone on the shelves.  And  I’ve done a good job of getting rid of really useless books or placing the strays in new homes (thanks, Bruce!), so there’s nothing just lying around wasting space.  But a bigger part of things is mental: Even if I’m more or less post academic for good (for now?), I still think I’ll finally read For Marx some day or need some obscure Jameson collection on hand to cite in the near future.

"Kolkata Book Fair 2010" by Biswarup Ganguly (Creative Commons license)

No matter how many times I go through my library, the process still seems difficult, but at least I’m making headway against the clutter.  Hey, I think it counts as progress that I’ve probably shaved off at least a hundred or more titles since the first time I wrote about my academic hoarding problem, which is below…

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.  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).

More books below the fold…

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.  Or you can round up to 100%, which is probably closer to reality

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4 Responses to 'Recycling books (and posts)'

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  1. HalfProf said,

    The departmental grad student organization at my uni held an annual book sale–the books for which were mostly donated and purchased by grad students, so it was really more of an annual rerarrangement of book ownership that made some beer money for the Halloween party. Might this be a suitable fate for your further shelf weeding? You could eliminate in bulk and yet be pleased in knowing that your books have gone to an event that has the best possible chance of using them the way you did/intended to.

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Thanks, Half Prof! That’s a great idea, and young, impressionable grad students are definitely much more likely to get into such a project than anyone else–especially if my earlier self was any indication. Now if I can only find some young, impressionable grad students…

      Or maybe I can give away the books for Christmas, though some of ’em would be more like lumps of coal than gifts.


  2. One of the most liberating moments in leaving was my refusal to keep around books for ‘ought to’ reasons – meaning I decided to keep only the books that I had actual affection for. I sold a boatload to the local used bookstore. The cash haul? $175. Being free of my past? Priceless.

    Maybe you should just load up the car and drive to somewhere that does have the right kind of bookstore, one that takes them en masse and gets rid of the ones it won’t take so you don’t have to? I agree it’s not worth the hassle to sell individually and/or parcel out. And the ‘one fell swoop’ is part of the fun.

    • Arnold Pan said,

      I think I would probably feel the same way, about feeling liberated. But still having enough of the grad student/academic in me, there’s just a little, little bit of me that doesn’t want to be liberated, at least not yet…

      As for the practicalities of it, you’d be surprised how difficult it would be to sell used books–especially academic ones–in southern California. Pre-Amazon, we bemoaned the lack of a good used book store down here, and now there’s barely even good new bookstores to buy academic books. At this point, I’m almost willing to take a small loss by paying for a little shipping if I can get rid of most of my collection.


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