Friday, January 27, 2012

A boxful of failure

55 books, or thereabouts
Moving to a new home creates many opportunities. Today, 10 years after I abandoned my attempt at getting a PhD, I finally got rid of most of my political science books.

I'm not sure why I kept them so long. Of course, as any book lover -- not just any reader, but a Book Lover -- will tell you, one doesn't just get rid of books. One keeps them and displays them as a sort of visual, decorative record of what one is or has been interested in -- of who one is, in a way.

But the thing about these books is, I never loved them. In fact, I never even truly read most of them. In grad school -- in the social sciences, anyway -- on the way to your comprehensive exams, you don't actually read books, you process them to extract information. And because you have so many books and articles to read, you need to process them as quickly as possible, no matter how well or badly written, how interesting or dull they may be. You must know what's in them.

So you develop shortcuts. Maybe you read the first and last chapter, and the first and last paragraphs of each of the other chapters, and glean the main ideas of the book, whatever it is the author is trying to argue, that way. (And you do the same with articles: you read the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion.) If the work will have direct bearing on your own research, of course, you delve in more deeply. And once in a blue moon, maybe, you find a book that you actually enjoy reading, and you read the whole thing. And then you feel guilty for having spent so much time on one book.

So these books weren't books that I loved in any sense. They had been tools for information gathering, not objects of intellectual or emotional desire.

Still, the 65 or so I owned out of the hundreds of books that I "read" during grad school once held great symbolic meaning for me (as did the hundreds of articles that I copied and filed away). Ten years ago, I would not have dreamed of getting rid of them. Five years ago, it would have been a struggle.

Finally, some empty space
But today, well, today what I felt was mainly a little bit surprised at how little it meant to me to box up those books and drop them off at the public library's donation bin. I titled this post "A boxful of failure," because that's what that box represents: my biggest career-type failure. But I'm over it. I'm not failing anymore; I'm having a little bit of success in my own way. So I feel glad to have gotten rid of the books, but not in some big "Finally I've put this behind me" way. I feel glad because now I have room for a lot more books in my bookcases. I switched to reading library books a few years ago because I literally had no more room for books in the tiny house we were renting.

Not that that's a concern anymore, actually. In our new place, I could easily triple my existing bookshelf space without any problem. And the advent of ebooks brings up the question of buying physical books at all. Still, it feels good to know that I can buy about 55 more books before I even have to think about new shelving.

I think I'll hit the used bookstore for some genre fiction. Revisiting Asimov's Foundation series sounds good right about now.

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  1. I have old text books as well that i have been resistant to getting rid of. However, they may have represented a failure to complete my degree at one point; but, they now represent merely a sabbatical from that path because I am working on the degree now. My point is, it is funny how our perspective shifts from where we are standing today and where we might be standing tomorrow. I think I'll box those books up and donate them as well.

  2. Yeah, the perspective shift was the most interesting thing for me. I kept a few books that I'm fond of for one reason or another, but by now the rest literally meant nothing to me.


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