Friday, June 14, 2013

A super sad true book lover’s story

A famous professor of law and humanities once had a large – and cherished – personal library. When he finally retired, he decided to move from his house to a much smaller apartment. To do this, it seemed he needed to get rid of most of his books. So he sold off almost his entire collection, holding onto only a few items he knew for sure he would need in the immediate future. All this is quite understandable, and part of the road many retiring academics have taken. But here is the spooky part.

What did Dr. Fish feel when he saw his once precious books being carted away? Did his heart sink as he separated from the love of his life? Did it miss a beat? No, not at all. He felt – nothing. “Moving on” (the title of his piece) felt like the right thing to do at this point in his life. To get this notion across, Dr. Fish recounts how he once asked a colleague what he had felt as he was leaving a university after 23 years of teaching there. His colleague’s reply? “It was like checking out of a motel.” For dramatic emphasis, Dr. Fish says his own emotional reaction was even less pronounced: “Actually, I’ve had stronger emotional responses to checking out of some motels than I had to the departure of the record of my professional life, a record that includes voluminous marginal notes in many of the volumes.

Of course, Dr. Fish has a way of rationalizing his somewhat surprising lack of emotional response. He reasons he is unlikely to open all these books again, and they should better “take up residence in someone else’s library where they will be put to better uses than to serve as items in a museum, which is what they were when they furnished my rooms.” But whom is he kidding, really? Who still reads – physically – the kind of books that were in his possession? I guess the only valuable purpose they could still serve is probably as a bulk decorator item providing ambience and a slight sense of transcendence to otherwise stale interiors. I am reminded of this secondary aura of books each time I see the kind of elation, literally a high, our teenage daughter gets each time she enters a bookstore or a library.

I am wondering if there might be something about academic work that fosters this kind of blasé attitude over the years – an existential shift which, by the way, could partly explain the popularity of all sorts of post-modernist and constructivist tropes in the humanities. For comparison purposes, here is something David Pogue says as he reviews one of Sony’s apparently remarkable interchangeable-lens cameras: “Over time, you develop a trust of a camera like this, an emotional bond.” Did Dr. Fishman once have this kind of bond to his annotated books?

Anyway, I guess I shouldn’t be too judgmental toward people – particularly a widely respected public intellectual – who, for one reason or another, cannot quite generate a similar emotional response to the things that make me or our daughter excited; or who have freed themselves from the kind of hoarding instincts which still hold us both back.