Literary Hub

Shedding Books to Survive the Uncertainty of Academic Life

Glasses on a stack of books

It was in the last year of my tenure-track chase that I finally accepted my identity as a professor without books. But a professor without books isn’t much of a professor. And I accepted this too. I had moved into my office at my new job at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. “Moved in” is a stretch though. There was none of the romantic chaos described by Walter Benjamin in “Unpacking My Library,” none of the anticipation, none of the intimacy, none of the memories that emerge from handling one’s carefully acquired tomes and gradually subjecting them to “the mild order of boredom.” I walked into the recently built, pristine space, put my bag on a chair and logged into my desktop for the first time. My bookshelves were gunmetal gray and cold to the touch. They were completely empty and I had nothing to put on them.

In the coming months I would add some items—extra flyers for courses I tried to fill (though pain and fatigue had me praying for their cancelation), student papers, photocopied articles, a few library books. When I would finish teaching a novel in my Russian literature class, I’d toss it onto the shelf, never to crack it open again. I cast off Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the fall, when I mostly taught men who hated women and Jews, and then Babel, Petrushevskaya and Ulitskaya in the spring, when I mostly taught women and Jews. But it was a small stack, the collection of someone on her way out, counting down her time in yet another one-year position. Like the previous, this one had the vague promise of turning into a tenure-track job. It’s a promise that hiring committees often make for naive reasons, knowing that they can’t keep it. I was aware of this and yet I fell for it every time. Gullibility is key to the tenure-track rat race. But stepping into the office without books in hand, I realized that this was the last leg of the trip. I felt it in the pit of my stomach where my undiagnosable, restlessly churning cramps lived. There was no point in telling myself that I was just traveling light.

In my previous job, at a public university in Wisconsin, I made a real effort to appear like a real professor, despite doubting my ability to keep up the act. I was young, female, and the first doctor, frankly, of anything in my family. I was not of the Soviet Jewish intelligentsia stock; my people were more comfortable on construction sites or behind typewriters, not writing but taking dictation. All the more reason for me to overcompensate with the right paraphernalia — an “office-appropriate” backpack with leather trim, an ultra-thin laptop that cost more than two months’ rent for my new apartment, and, of course, books I could use as props when students came to office hours.

In the Midwest, I taught different levels of Russian language so I already had grammar and exercise books to warm my shelves, also metal and gray. I had transported from California a small collection I needed to start working on an article on novels by contemporary American writers born in the USSR: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis, Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America and Irina Reyn’s Whatever Happened to Anna K. My portable library fit into one reusable shopping bag, which was modest even for me, someone who always had a hard time imagining herself carting dollies full of books into her first office. I entered graduate school just a couple of years before the academic market crashed so I knew that my chances of landing a tenure-track job would be slim to none. And then, in the year of the crash, I was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that ravaged my joints, making the dolly-carting of anything impossible.

I would’ve brought more books to Wisconsin but I didn’t have much room in my car, what with my foam mattress and all of my “professor drag.” To fill out my new shelves I went to the university library and checked out a big stack of books: secondary literature to give me ideas for my course on post-Soviet culture and research related to my article. I didn’t yet know how little time there would be for writing while searching for my next job, maintaining a long-distance relationship and living with an immune system that regularly attacked my body. Still, before classes began, I had books on shelves. It was my first job out of grad school and that was enough.

To academics, book collections are many things. They are “the work.” But they are also identity and status. There are the books signed by advisors and other “rock stars” in the field. You sometimes lend these out to students. There are the first editions, with their original dust jackets. You take them down from the shelf but never let them leave your sight. Then there are the books that not-so-subtly gesture toward a well-rounded self. You can curate your intellectual identity by placing Mandelstam alongside Baldwin or Morrison next to Ulitskaya. Or you can order your book spines by color, to show that you don’t take yourself too seriously. The important thing is to occupy, to turn the space of your office into place.

To academics, book collections are many things. They are “the work.” But they are also identity and status.

The processes of packing, unpacking and repacking one’s library are not mere chores but rituals through which academics perform their belonging. Benjamin, who didn’t have a secure academic appointment, helped romanticize that moment between chaos and order, when an intellectual contemplates a book collection before distributing it between the shelves.

Not long ago, I stepped into this moment, but it was someone else’s. I saw a new tenure-track professor in the middle of unpacking her library. Beer boxes were strewn about her office, “the disorder of crates wrenched open.” It was a good example of artisticheskii besporiadok (an artistic mess), a phrase my mother used to describe the messy room of my adolescence. And Benjamin was right, the mood in my new colleague’s office was not elegiac, but one of anticipation, or so I assumed. The process of reassembling the library went on for weeks, and I couldn’t help but peek into her office, subjecting myself to the cycle of envy and guilt. I wondered how much money she got for her moving costs and if it was enough to transport all of those boxes. Benjamin never talked about the price of packing and unpacking one’s library. To an academic working in the age of precarity, the question is a pressing one.

When you are an adjunct, turning space into place can be impractical and emotionally risky. And yet, it is often expected. In his first one-year position, my partner made a conscious decision to bring books into his office when one of his colleagues questioned his commitment to the job. He saw that his office mate filled his shelves with books and followed suit. Miraculously, my partner became a tenure-track professor but his was not the typical story. Today he has his own office. It’s crammed with books, gifts from his students and toys that signify his nerd-dom. His library says, I am a real professor but I am approachable, beloved. I am at home here.

For me precariousness didn’t end with Pennsylvania. All that ended were the misguided hopes of escape. After coming home, I started adjuncting at my partner’s university in Silicon Valley, uncertain of my place in academia. Apparently, it was in the office of a longtime faculty member who was on leave. I was grateful to have an office I didn’t have to share with another person, but painfully aware of sharing it with her possessions. I let myself try to puzzle her out by comparing her book collection to mine, or what remained of it. Her interests were in Persian and Arabic literatures, but we overlapped on Bakhtin, Said and other theorists I can no longer remember. We had both taught Satrapi. She had an eclectic palate, countless books.

A student visiting my office hours was awe-struck by the collection, naturally assuming that it was mine. “Did you really read all of those books?” she asked me. When confronted with the same question, Anatole France, according to Benjamin, replied, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” I wasn’t nearly so self-assured. “These aren’t my books,” I fessed up, only to regret it immediately. Maybe it was better to pretend to be a real professor, one surrounded by her books.

In the middle of the year, my colleague’s leave turned into a retirement; she disappeared, leaving all of her books behind in what became my office. Her departure from the university was officially and unexpectedly announced over email, no explanation given. My immediate assumption was that she had become seriously ill. This was projection on my part but it was also true that many of my female academic acquaintances also struggled with a chronic disease. Why else would she do it? “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals,” Benjamin wrote, “These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness.” Ableist language notwithstanding, I’ve never heard of people who became “invalids” or “criminals” because of losing their books. But I’ve known many academics who maintained the balancing act of order in the face of extreme precariousness, of career and body. I’m also a product of multiple cultures that say that to voluntarily give up one’s library is a sin. In the late Soviet period, building up a library was no easy feat. One had to exchange a heap of recyclable paper, know as makulatura, for coupons to buy books, which were themselves expensive. Personal libraries became investments and I knew of many families that helped pay for their emigration voyages by selling off their entire collections.

I didn’t give up my books all at once. I gradually shed them along the way to the tenure-track job I would never have. The first time that I reduced my library was when I moved with my partner from Southern California to Silicon Valley, where he accepted his first job. It was a difficult move. I could finish my dissertation anywhere but I cringed at the idea of following my male partner, especially to suburban Bay Area, a place I, a near-native San Franciscan, swore I’d never end up. We were offered a dark, small apartment just off campus. Even though neither of us had seen the place before parking in front of it with our moving truck, I knew that there wouldn’t be enough room for all of my books. I was a maximalist whereas he kept a limited collection of special editions, every text a historically notable object. If one of us is the collector described in Benjamin’s essay, it’s him. With some exceptions, my books were relatively cheap, almost always bought used and well worn.

I’ve known many academics who maintained the balancing act of order in the face of extreme precariousness, of career and body.

It felt liberating to extricate myself from the “giants” of my graduate seminars: Kant,  Eagleton, Jameson and Michael Ryan. I was more conflicted about abandoning David Harvey, Vladimir Markov and Lukacs. Worse was leaving behind Assia Djebar, Mina Loy, Bhanu Kapil and Sawako Nakayasu, for whom I once TA’d, simply because I thought they would be no help in getting me a job as a Russian professor. I gave the books to friends and then deposited several tall stacks into the graduate lounge. At the last minute, I threw an armful into the recycling bin outside my apartment building, queasy with guilt and sacrifice.

In the Silicon Valley apartment, I had for myself one particleboard bookcase that would never know “the mild order of boredom.” It was hopelessly chaotic, stuffed with books that were lined up vertically and then horizontally, atop the vertical stacks. The balancing act of precariousness. That balance would be lost when I’d reach for one book and it would bring down several others: Jakobson with Shklovsky, Dovlatov with Svetlana Boym. Diasporic identity in the Russian-Jewish context was my research topic and I brought with me novelists and critics who were wrapped up with the alienation and intimacy of finding home in exile. My homecoming to the Bay was the beginning of displacement and precariousness. I was completely without income and running out of health coverage while unknowingly slipping into a lupus flare. It was in Silicon Valley that I gave up what Benjamin called “the thrill of acquisition.” I stopped buying new books because I didn’t have money. But something else happened too. Reading became unappealing, even painful.

After defending my dissertation and getting the job in Wisconsin, I “downsized” once again, not wanting to leave my partner with my messy bookcase. Starting my first position as a faculty member, albeit a contingent one, simultaneously reminded me that I still wanted a future in academia, a future I probably wouldn’t attain. Contingency implies possibility and I hung on to that. And yet, by definition, that possibility is dependent on something one has no power over. So it was in my first role as a literature professor that I stopped reading for pleasure. Yes, I was busy. But something else happened, a rupture in my longterm obsession with books. When describing his mother, a professor and avid reader, Kiese Laymon writes, “no one I knew, other than you, wanted to swim in, or eat, books.” That desire to be surrounded by books while devouring them was one that characterized most of my life.

As a bespectacled immigrant nerd, I felt most comfortable worming my way between the leaning stacks of books at Green Apple in San Francisco. I loved used, cheap books with dog-eared corners. I hunted for good deals because I wanted to gorge on as many books as possible. The thrill of acquisition was not just about possessing the object but about consuming the world. And then, with some books, Baldwin’s Another Country and Winterson’s Art & Lies, for instance, it was consumption and abandonment, eating and swimming at the same time. I didn’t know in Wisconsin that losing my desire for that kind of engrossment was just one manifestation of what Erin Bartram would name “the sublimated grief of the left behind.”

The grief surfaced in that spartan Pennsylvania office. Precariousness of body and career intertwined. I was making my highest salary yet, but I was also developing new chronic symptoms and feeling professionally left behind. I ultimately decided to leave that job. When they offered to renew my contract for one more year, I declined. The chase was over. I had no idea what I would do but I would go home. Instead of freedom, I felt a failure that expanded in my life like heated gas. It poisoned my thoughts and interactions. There were the conversations I couldn’t have with my partner or my friends, about article submissions, thesis advisees, drinks paid for by their departments. All of it made me wince. But the worst was reading books, marking them up, even touching them. Every book brought up a sense of loss. Will this be the last Russian novel I’ll get to teach? The last play? The last poem? I wanted nothing to do with books and yet I couldn’t do my work without them.

I bought one book that year that I didn’t absolutely need for teaching. It was Lydia Chukovskaya’s 1972 novel, Going Under. One of the students in my 20th-century Russian literature class went beyond the assignment and included the novel in his essay on women’s writings about Stalinism. Even though I didn’t need to read the text to evaluate his essay, I forced myself to do it. The book is about a writer who, while staying at a sanatorium, gets close to a man who knew her husband in a labor camp. Their connection ruptures when it becomes clear that he yearns for forgetting and she for the truth about Stalinist-era persecution. I could identify with his sublimation but it was her hunger to shed delusions that I admired. At the end of the semester, I offered to gift my copy of the out-of-print book to the student who wrote about it, but he already had one of his own. Rather than taking Chukovskaya back to California, I gave her to my colleague, a Russian historian. My grief for my career made me unready to resume collecting books.

In my borrowed office at the Silicon Valley university, I regularly wondered about the woman who abandoned her books. And then in my second year of the job, she came to visit. She poked her head in, calling me by my name with polite informality. We had an easy, pleasant chat about the state of the university and the effort to unionize adjunct faculty, of which I was a part. One never knows how someone is doing based on how they look, but she looked well. And then she rummaged around in the closet that, by this point, contained all of her books, in boxes. Thanks to asbestos removal, all the offices had to be packed up the previous summer. This meant more empty shelves for me. She popped out of the closet with a handful of books but left the rest behind. She made a promise that she would come back for them, but this hasn’t happened yet.

The following year, my department hired new tenure-track professors and, to make room for them, a group of us non-tenure track instructors moved offices. Now I am sharing with one other colleague. We are both contingent, which means that, as far as our employer is concerned, we are incidental. We have possibilities but they are dependent on something we have no power over. We have one bookcase—three shelves each. Hers contain a few books, a bottle of hot sauce and a yoga mat because she does sun salutations between classes. Now that I am no longer chasing tenure-track, I am letting myself feel the thrill of acquisition. I am slowly filling up my shelves with new books, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, RO Kwon’s The Incendiaries. They are different books, ones that have nothing to do with “the work.” They’re books that I read in bed and keep close to me until I am ready to let go. There will be no ritual of unpacking my library. I only carry one book at a time because the arthritis in my shoulders makes it difficult to transport more. I also don’t know how long I’ll get to stay in this place. Such is the nature of precariousness.

Related Interests

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub8 min read
Real Or Fake? Stuck In The Glitching Reality Of Contemporary America
While I was in my early thirties, my parents died in impolite succession. My mother first, in 2010, then my father in 2012. He was in his early eighties, but she was 16 years younger and had no business going anywhere. They passed the illness baton f
Literary Hub8 min read
As a Teacher of Gothic Lit, I Should Have Known Better Than to Move into a Haunted House
It started with wasps. At the end of our first year in the house, they ate through the walls. I would find, first, the dusty piles of plaster by the baseboards, the strange detritus materializing like unlikely anthills on the ugly green carpet. Only
Literary Hub3 min readTech
Trying To Convince Jeff Jarvis The Internet Is Bad For Democracy
Over the last ten years, I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate with the prominent blogger and social media personality Jeff Jarvis about the impact of the internet on democracy. Jarvis is the author of the bestselling book What Would Google Do as w