The Identity Politics of a Full Bookcase

Happy New Year! Hard to believe it is 2018!

Over the holiday break we started doing a pretty serious decluttering project at home. We have some major renovations coming up later this year, and in preparation for that we have to get organized. This feels like a daunting task, but a colleague recommended we read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Of course, I had heard of it (references to it pop up everywhere and parodies abound!), but I had dismissed it without even looking at it. “Nah, not for me!” I thought. But the colleague who recommended we take a look at this book is someone who I really respect and, not coincidentally, someone who has a beautiful home, the kind you feel instantly peaceful in. So, we gave it a go. I’m not going to say that I’m 100% sold on every single point in the book, but she does make some really good, thought-provoking points. The end result is that I’m looking at the things in my home with a very different set of lenses now — “Do I really need this?” “Why am I keeping this?” “Why do we even have this?” As we gear up for our renovation project this is a good thing.

Today was the first day back to work after the holiday break and I guess I brought those lenses with me to the office today. I opened my door and instantly thought – “oh my gosh. This place needs a good decluttering!” I have a lot of work to do — the start of term is always busy! — but I just couldn’t even focus because of all the piles and piles of stuff everywhere!  I was itching to get to the decluttering. So, I have spent the day alternating between my “to do” list and getting my office cleaned up. I feel like it is helping me think clearer and to get my mind around the upcoming semester.

For me, the biggest barrier to a clutter-free office are the piles and piles of books I have accumulated over the years. Like most academics, I love books. I love reading them, touching them, looking at them, flipping through them, sharing them, talking about them, etc. Books are so much a part of my identity that I feel weird if I’m not surrounded by them.

I had a relative come visit me not long after I had moved to this city, and on that trip he asked to see my new office. I took him there, but I warned him it was messy as I hadn’t really unpacked yet. When he walked in he saw my almost bare bookshelves (remember, I hadn’t finished unpacking!) and said “you need more books! You can’t be a professor with bare bookshelves!” I know it was meant in jest, but I have to tell you – it hurt! I was an unsure new graduate already wondering if I could make it in academia and here was a relative was telling me I didn’t fit the mould! While my current collection of books is not exactly a direct response to that comment, I can’t help thinking of it time and time again when I pile yet another stack of books on the floor of my office because I’ve run out of bookcase space.

Today as I sort through my books I have found many that I simply don’t have a use for. In some cases they are the free textbook samples that publishers keep sending me. In other cases, however, they are books that I felt I “should” have when I was a grad student and junior scholar — key texts that everyone kept telling me I should read, but that just didn’t hold my interest. Of course on my shelves there are also several key texts in my fields (and sub-fields) that are completely dog-eared, marked up, etc., but I’m not going to lie — some of the “must have” books just don’t do it for me. Years ago I would beat myself up over this — “I need to read these,” I would think, so they would stay on my shelves taking up space. Now, however, as I purge and weed my shelves to make room for the piles of books that I genuinely want to be reading I’ve decided “enough is enough.” I have enough confidence in my scholarship and research now to know which books I actually should read and which can be sent over to the used bookstore. I hope their new owners find joy in them!