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Sidelong - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
The computer in my office suffers from what I now take to be a mild form of epilepsy. No matter how many times I erase the hard drive and reinstall everything, it still ends up staring into space every now and then for no apparent reason. When that happens, I get frustrated. Sometimes I simply get up and leave the room. Most of the time, though, I stick it out with the help of the bookcase to my left. After it becomes apparent that I'm in for a wait, however short, I instinctively swivel and reach back to grab a volume.

The books I like to have ready to hand are ones that I can derive benefit from by only reading a paragraph or two. And most of the books that fall into that category are the sort that speak to long-term preoccupations. Still, like a cliff that faces a raging sea, the façade presented by the spines I can reach without bending over or standing up has manifested both incremental and sudden change over the years. For a long time, the two easiest-to-reach shelves were devoted primarily to books by, about, or in dialogue with the work of Walter Benjamin.

Then, in the summer of 2005, I decided that the bookshelf needed a makeover. I put most of the Benjamin-related titles back in their former location -- across the room, in a location where I have to move obstructions in order to remove most volumes -- and replaced them with books devoted to the history of language and theories of history, which I added to a few works on allegory that I had retained from the previous arrangement. A little later, I made another important modification when I found a way to squeeze in a few books by Paul De Man, Roland Barthes and Giorgio Agamben and also created a subsection for right-wing political philosophy pertaining to the legacy of Carl Schmitt.

Today the bookshelf looks very close to the way it would have at this time of year in 2005. And I find myself drawn to the same few titles that would catch my eye back then. My favorites are Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, Fernand Braudel's The Structures of Everyday Life: Volume I, Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer and Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political. Lately, though, I've been inclining in the direction of Agamben's Theory of Prose and Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History. The former has many short chapters, conducive to reading in very short spurts, and the latter invariably helps me think my way past the distractions of the present.

As I write this, though, I'm feeling guilty about the books I don't reach for. I know I'd be enthralled by Kristin Ross's May '68 and Its Afterlives, but for some reason have never removed it from the shelf. The same goes for George Steiner's After Babel, of which I once read a good deal, but now inexplicably avoid. And then there are the texts which I get the urge to leaf through, but usually leave on the shelf because they are literally hard to handle, like Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method. That book is simply too big to grab unless my attention is focused squarely on the task. Nevertheless, I feel that I should be reaching for it a lot more often.

This ends your trip inside my mind, which is only slightly more interesting than a furniture showroom.

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18 comments or Leave a comment
masoo From: masoo Date: November 19th, 2007 08:04 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I thought at first to respond to this by imagining I was in your situation (computer balky, needing something to do), and started to look around to see what was in reach. Then I realized that if my computer really did decide not to work, I'd go in the other room and watch TV. When I'm doing something that takes processing time, I have stuff to read, but the reachable things are magazines. I do have a couple of baseball books for quick perusal, I guess. But if the problem is just a slow-running program, I open another window and keep using the computer. Between that and leaving the room if the computer crashes entirely, I don't have much room for books. Sad, I know.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 03:23 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
If I were importing video or burning a DVD, I'd definitely leave the room. But my computer -- a 2002 model -- has enough downtime of the thirty seconds variety that my knees would scream if I got up each time. I also try the using-another-program strategy, but that doesn't always work.

I don't know why mundane details like the ones in my entry interest me, but they do.
From: e4q Date: November 19th, 2007 08:39 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

books and the end of books

since getting ill my relationship with books got a little vexed. books i oved, and books i had hoped to get around to all went the way of all things - second hand book store. along with disbanding my library i also threw out my teaching materials. it was like dying.
now instead of a full wall of books i have one shelf - and the two volume etymological dictionaries are on their side. so now i have a capsule library mainly including stuff about buddhism and healing. i have three books about bird watching though, just for me.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 03:25 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

That's really interesting. I think getting rid of a particular set of books is like dying. My friends who left graduate school early or who didn't go into academia have done that sort of purging. It distresses me, though I can understand the impulse.

I think it's great that you've found a new set of books to take the place of the ones you purged. That seems hopeful to me.
From: e4q Date: November 19th, 2007 04:15 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

well i always liked words, so the etymological dictionaries are not quite the full OED which i would love, but they do give you the inside track on the words and not just the meaning.

i started feeding birds on my window sill when i moved here, so my knowledge is a bit limited but i do love the birdies.

and i have to do something with my mind and since it can't be thinking any more then meditation is not a bad substitute.

my problem was that i DID go into academia, so when i got ill my lovely books mocked me.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

I've had that feeling of being mocked myself, on days, like today, when I've spent the night coughing and don't have the energy to read with any sustained attention.

Birdies are good. And snakes. . . :-)
From: e4q Date: November 19th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

aaargh! coughing!

audiobooks are good. it's not the same, but nice anyway, specially when poorly.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

If they're well read, they're almost better. Certainly easier to immerse oneself in, since the body need be less active.
From: e4q Date: November 19th, 2007 09:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

god, yeah. i have listened to a lot of novels but really loved the bill bryson science book, that was triptastic.
masoo From: masoo Date: November 19th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

I didn't leave grad school, although I'm never quite sure if I did or didn't go into academia. But the only reason I have overflowing bookshelves in the room where I am typing this is because I am a slob (hence, the overflowing part) and pathologically lazy/phobic (hence I haven't gotten rid of them because it would entail action and human interaction). The truth is, the only shelf that gets more than a rare look is the one that houses the complete works of Pauline Kael.

Does it seem hopeful if I've found something to take the place of the books I haven't bothered to purge, even if they aren't themselves books?
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

I regard you as an inspiration, so the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" People who keep thinking about what they were thinking about when in school, only the way that they want to, are the sort of people I like to have in my life.
masoo From: masoo Date: November 19th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

Well, I'm honored! I worry, though, that a person can get stuck in a rut, especially the older they get, if they're still thinking about the same things they always did. It's the lure of "the way that we want to."

Sometimes, being a college student seems more like a time out for me than anything else. Before and after college, I was/am the proverbial autodidact, thinking about what I want in the ways that I want. In college, I resisted being told what to think and how to think it, but I was exposed to lots of things I never would have engaged with if I'd just farted around on my own. The two concrete things I can point to that I got from college are 1) Spanish, and 2) practice writing. I knew a smattering of Spanish before college ... half-a-dozen courses later, I was passably fluent. And I've always known how to write, but I didn't know that I knew until I had to crank stuff out on a regular basis.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 08:47 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

Well, and you met some cool people who admire you!
masoo From: masoo Date: November 19th, 2007 09:04 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: books and the end of books

Y'all are cool, but your admiration is misplaced :-).

Funny, we had brunch yesterday with batdina and ... aw heck, I always forget their LJ names, you know who I mean. We talked a bit about who we still know from grad school. There's cbertsch, we said, and ... well, you never really quit knowing people once you know them the first time, but we ran out of people pretty quickly after you. I have our mutual friend at State, but batdina or whichever one we went to grad school with (I really am flummoxed by LJ names, but I know people want and need anonymity) doesn't really know her. And after that? I'm sure I'm forgetting a dozen of my bestest friends, but that's about all I can come up with right now. There are plenty of people I could contact this minute, so it's not quite as bleak as it sounds, but you know what I mean. Hey, flummoxed would be a good word in Scrabble.
jstgerma From: jstgerma Date: November 19th, 2007 10:07 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I can no longer read the name Roland Barthes without hearing you saying it in an exaggerated French accent in class. I will never again be able to take seriously anyone who says Roland Barthes' name, and it's all your fault.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 19th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, goodness. I forget, sometimes, the damage I can wreak on the young and impressionable!
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: November 19th, 2007 10:26 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
You say you don't understand the pull of minutia, but I find this entry really interest. I have an intense phobia of book-purgation, which means I lug far more than is explicitly necessary from apartment to apartment. My books underwent a pretty massive reorganization with the move to the present apartment however. No bookshelves live in my bedroom and only the occasional book makes it over the threshold and into the now much more sparsely populated category of "books read in/on the bed." I guess that was two categories. Work books were read on the bed when my office was also my bedroom. I tried to be very faithful to the practice of only letting "pleasure" reading *into* the bed while I was under the covers--usually only poetry, sometimes contemporary prose, I suppose once or twice even philosophical books I had redubbed books for pleasure (Barthes incidentally can occupy that category).

Now very little makes it into the bedroom. And for space reasons mainly, but also for the sake of faking my way through the diss, I finally did more segregation by fields and regions. Basically, only philosophy/theory, lit crit, and Brit lit from 17th-19thC made it into the office--and everything from the UCLA library, and J's math books. All his fiction got merged into mine in the living room, and everything 20thC that's not philosophy/theory/crit lives out there as "friendly to the general population." And my poetry lives out there. That was actually the most heartbreaking move for me. I like it, because it's accessible when I'm relaxing, and visible to the world. And it's productive because I can't reach the shelves while I'm at my desk just by turning around. But they're not near me and not near my bed and that makes me sad in a small but profound way.

Wow this is a long comment. Anyway...
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: November 19th, 2007 10:28 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Ha! That's what I get for not re-reading. "I find this entry really interest"?? That would be me, having written "interesting" and then, though I thought I just thought about fearing the aftermath, apparently I deleted my -ing anyway and didn't fix the syntax. Or something. Ha! With luck you'll find all this more than merely "interesting." Or something?
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