Dreaming of Books


A few days ago I happily received an order of seven recently published books on the topic of archives, privacy and transparency, and memory. Given my recent struggles with my vision, cataracts and related issues, this represents a daunting reading task. As I am between eye surgeries, I am reading far more slowly than ever before, although the process of reading more slowly may have increased my pleasure and value in the process. Given these relatively recent physical challenges, what accounts for the pleasure in receiving this box of print books? Would it not make sense for me to read on a laptop or a tablet where I can enlarge the words and reduce the eyestrain? Obviously, much of the joy comes in the physicality of the book, each representing a distinct, if closely related, topic, providing a text I can mark up with my comments and whose arguments I am just as likely to remember from the size, design, and color of the physical object. Yes, I am a traditionalist, if not a curmudgeon, providing a stark contrast to many of my colleagues in my school.

Like many others who like books, I find that I dream about them as well. They come to be time capsules for charting and remembering events in my life. I thought about this recently as I buried my father. Although he was not an avid reader, he kept me supplied in my early years with books, and he focused these gifts on historical themes, fostering my developing interest in the past. Each book brings memories with it, and reexaminations of them for teaching or research bring such memories back to life. When I sit back and scan the bookshelves at home or in my university office, it is nearly equivalent to reading a diary or personal letters. My acquiring, reading, and rereading such texts are the substance of my own personal documents or archives. I seek ideas, insights, and evidence about particular interests. More importantly, I do not manage these as if I am doing Google searches; rather, I read and explore volumes that connect with my interests and from this broad and deep reading emerge ideas for my own research and writing projects. Call me old-fashioned.

Reflecting on this also prompts me to think about some personal challenges stretching before me over the next year as I approach retirement and how these may also reflect the ongoing transformation of higher education. The first of these is whether I will be writing any more books. I have generally measured my academic career by the completion of books. But books seem not to be as valued as much as they once were in the university. Now, and admittedly this is just an impression, the emphasis is on the speedy accumulation of essays and conference papers and, better yet, grants. The idea of spending a lengthy period of time, sometimes years, researching for a major study advancing knowledge in one’s field seems to be likely to be discouraged in many parts of the university. Now entering into my final full year as a university professor has me shifting my attention to pulling together a variety of partly finished projects to determine if any of them form a core for a new book or books, efforts that will take me well into retirement. That I am doing this is also testimony to the fact that I too was distracted by short-term demands. One of the factors in my decision to retire was my interest in redefining my own scholarly writing projects back to my own timetable and away from an assembly-line kind of production targeted at publishing in the right journals with the highest impact factor. As I am a humanist focusing on historical and archival topics, it is not a game I can play very well.

Something else I am mulling over is how and what I read. Apart from reading essays, conference papers, and magazine articles, my focus has been on reading books. But the challenge is on how I read books. I acquire books, building my own personal library and making the books my own by marking them up. I constantly refer to them in preparation for teaching, my work with doctoral students, and my own research and writing projects. As I move toward retirement and think about downsizing with my wife, I realize that the amount of space taken up by my physical library (and hers too) will have to change. I will need to be more selective in what I choose to acquire in terms of printed books. The greater challenge is in determining what of the present array of thousands of books I will need to weed out. I started this process, but it is slow moving. I am presently thinking that I will identify critical texts in certain areas of my interests that I might find useful for finishing some of my future publication efforts.

What is enjoyable to think about, of course, is reading just because of my own personal interests, ones that have nothing to do with what I have taught or on what I consider my specialized areas of expertise. I intend to read more broadly and deeply into art history, supporting my own interests in painting. Over the past decade I have found some peace in pursuing these creative activities, connecting these creative impulses to my own scholarly and professional activities such as writing and teaching. I sometimes think that creativity is discouraged in the university, that we are pushed and prodded to do work that is measurable and repetitive. I know that not everyone feels this way, but I am concerned about how the next generation or two of academics will grapple with such issues. Will they push back, or settle for safer routes to tenure and promotion, job security above all else? Only time will tell about what happens, but I think we ought to be concerned about the future role and mission of the university.

I have always been a book-centric individual and for much of my time in the university this served me well. However, the university is changing and not always in ways that will foster such interests. While we have seen a resurgence of interest in public scholarship, much of the corporate-tinged university provides anything but a space for such scholarship. By retiring, I hope, I can return to such interests and pursuits. Only time will tell, but I look forward to the possibilities.


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