Friday, June 29, 2007

A vacation from the vacation --- now with Books!

Evidently being back at school requires a post-vacation recovery period before beginning any useful work. Actually, no, it doesn't ---- this is supposed to be The Summer of Progress and Productivity, not the Summer of Sloth, you cog! I still haven't dumped crap off at school or even gotten the groceries yet, much less leaped back into my writing. Sigh. I did miss my cats though. You'll be glad to know they are as cute and as annoying as ever.

Instead of doing work or even doing preparatory work I have started a book (for pleasure reading! Oh my!) and watched a movie. But, isn't that the exact same thing you were doing at your parents' house, you ask? Why yes, it was. But for some reason it's more pleasant doing it here, where I am not constantly being interrupted. On the other hand, my day here has been devoid of human contact, which can get old pretty fast.

So I have started reading Chang-Rae Lee's novel Native Speaker, which so far is fabulous and wonderful and you should all go read it immediately if not sooner. You may wonder why I am reading this particular novel, and I suppose it is as good a time as any to tell you all about the Bookcase of Shame (not to be confused with the bookcase of theory which Timido is hiding behind in that picture). Several friends had raved and sang the praises of joy of Lee's "new" novel, Aloft, back in 05, and I read some intriguing reviews of it that made me want to get it. But when I looked on the aforementioned Bookcase of Shame, I noticed that I already owned his first novel and had never cracked it. So I promptly avoided having anything else to do with the topic for the next two years or so. You see, I buy books constantly and compulsively, like a crack addict or shoewhore (and if you think I can't drop that kind of money in a single bookstore outing, you sooo don't know me). I'm the reason your undergrad classes can't get their books ---- because I go in "just to look around at what other people are teaching" before the quarter starts and poach everything that looks good. And I mean everything, from theory to sociology textbooks and random history books to novels that have nothing to do with my time period or continent or language (as witness Lee) to anything feminist or racial-studies related. And I don't have the time to read these books ---- not surprisingly, when I do have the energy to read something in the evening, I pull a dissertation-related library book off the pile. And so, one of my bookcases gradually filled with unread books, those dense little packets of obligation and anxiety, until, with the exception of the bottom shelf which holds all my grad seminar readers for ballast, the Bookcase of Shame became full. (Jeez, you'd think I studied Dickens, or Henry James, with the way I herniate a sentence like that. But anyway.)

Finally I had to have an intervention with myself. This was not when I started moving unread books to the auxiliary bookcase in the bedroom, or even started packing them in moving boxes in the closet, but was the humiliating (and heretofore secret) moment when I realized I was preparing for a visit to my parents' by packing shopping bags of unread books to hide in their house. At this point I cut myself off cold turkey ---- no going inside a bookstore! Close all my online accounts! The only book buying I can do is for my dissertation! (You should be amazed that I spent so much of my Berkeley trip inside bookstores and did not buy anything, but an unfortunate side effect is that entire stores now feel like the experience of contemplating the Bookcase of Shame.)

All this means that I cannot buy new books without reading some of the backlog. Hence, my experience of "new fiction" is novels that are ten years old and that I bought at least five or six years ago. I feel incredibly out of it --- whole literary empires have taken root, grown, flourished, and built monuments in the desert only to have them crumble down to a shattered visage and be forgotten by the next generation of literary scholars in the time I have been on my self-imposed moratorium from books. Strangely, this corresponds with my sense of frozen stasis in grad school ---- I'm still 22, of course, and nothing has quite cured me of the notion that somewhere out there it's still the mid-90s and the Smashing Pumpkins is touring. Don't try to tell me otherwise; they claim that sleepers are dangerous to awake.


heu mihi said...

Oh, feh, you don't need those newfangled writers. I like me the old stuff.

Acually, I had a great summer reading jag last year when I worked through Tom Jones and The Mill on the Floss. I'm serious; I loved them. And then I read The God of Small Things, which is newish and which everyone adored and I'd felt that I should read for like YEARS, and just found it...I dunno...kinda irritating? So clearly I'm tragically unhip and can read the dusty old tomes that populate my bookshelves with impunity.

That kinda went in a different direction from where I meant it to go; I had some idea about how it can be fun! and wholesome! to read that stuff you've been collecting, but I lost it. Anyway it sounds like you're having some fun with the project already. So I'll stop typing now and say: Good for you!

Tenured Radical said...

OK, here are some techniques from someone who shares your pain. I am a book hoarder too, now recovering.

1. Find a bookstore that will give you decent prices for your books, pack up a bag of them that are so out of your field and old, and sell them. They will ask if you want cash or double the money in books, which means you have to practice saying "CASH!" before you go. Take the money and go buy something else -- a really nice lunch, clothes, cds -- something foofy and not about work. Experience how much fun that is so that you will want to do it again.

2. You are buying these books partly to insure that you will read them, which you don't. The good part is you are excited about knowledge; the bad part is you are fending off the fact that there are limits to what you can know. After you have completed exercise (1) a time or too, decide on a field, assemble all the books in that field, choose three to retain, and sell the rest. Use the money to pay down one of the credit cards that are probably shrieking in pain from your compulsive book buying. If you don't have credit cards, open a Roth IRA so you can put your book sale money in it as you can bear to part with your unread books.

3. I suspect that for those of us who do this, it is a phenomenon akin to people who run up financial debts because, although the debt causes them anxiety, it focuses their anxiety as well, so they don't have to be anxious about a lot of things that are less concrete and more nebulous and might demand action. Everytime you figure out a source of shame or fear that the bookshelf of shame represents for you, sell another bag of books and feel lighter as you walk home with the cash.

4. Try taking out new novels from the library. Sooner or later, the library will want them back (if it is a public library, it will be sooner.) Then you can easily differentiate "I want to read" from "I will read" without spending a nickel and without having to keep them forever.

5. Imagine that there are other people who actually will read those books. Give them away to those people, or view selling them as a form of recycling.

BTW, I tagged you on the 8 things meme.


gwoertendyke said...

as usual, TR has the most sage advice. the library is your friend. but more to the point: you're 22???? good grief you make a girl feel old.

my childhood town is chicago--in fact, i was not much older than you when i saw smashing pumpkins under an alias at a kind of newish, slightly undergroundish club in wicker park. i still love them....

Sisyphus said...

adjunct whore --- no, no, I still _feel_ 22; 22 is long gone and 32 fast approaching. But entering grad school feels like your life is put on hold or you're being cryogenically frozen, to be thawed at your defense date. I keep thinking "I should go see that movie" and then looking up to discover that they've made two sequels to it, which are now all on DVD. You know? Maybe the feeling out of it is just me and not grad school.

And TR: Noooooooo! (clings to the Bookcase of Shame) Not my books! Don't take them away from me! "There are limits to what I can know"? Ack! I reject that statement!

In my defense, my sister and her daughter are reading through my collection at my parents' house, along with a lot of my old favorites from undergrad. And it's been about a year since I bought books in a bookstore, so the credit cards aren't any worse than usual. For some reason, buying books seems less of an extravagance than treating myself to a nice dinner out or a massage.

gwoertendyke said...

yes, i understand the frozen in time, life on hold aspect....i think it is grad school.