The Books We Own And Will Never Read

Let’s get real, be honest, face the facts: There are some books on my shelves I will never read. The reasons for this are manifold: the contents of the shelves are not static, as I keep adding to them; my shelves are disorganized, which means that many books escape detection as I inspect the shelves looking for the next book to take on; my tastes in reading have changed, leading me to steadfastly ignore an older acquisition–it just does not catch my attention; some books have not rewarded my reading attempts in the past and have been put back, perhaps to be visited again someday–but we both suspect that encounter will not happen; and lastly, most grimly, most cosmically, time is running out–given rates of acquisition, my physical and intellectual capacities, my waking hours, my many other commitments, some tasks will remain incomplete in this life, as they do in all others. Among them the reading of books we thought we would read some day.

I may have presented this as a ‘problem’ in the opening lines above, but it really isn’t. Every owner of books knows this; you buy books not just to read them but because, quite simply, books are artifacts we like to keep close by, to offer reassurance of all kinds. They are talismans, security blankets, good-luck charms, mirrors of ourselves, souls in the bodies of our lives; call them what you will, they aren’t just objects to be opened and ‘consumed’ and ‘exhausted’; not every fruitful and significant relationship with an object requires us to integrate it fully or even partially into ourselves. When we go to a museum and look at a work of art, we do not bring it home with us, we do not seek to own it; it is enough for us that we were able to experience it in some way, no matter how attenuated. When we go into the outdoors, we do not bring home the proverbial bubbling brook or dale, except by way of photographic reproduction. Our lives brought us together with these; they will take us apart. We will have had some measure of that which we saw and felt and tasted and touched; some, perhaps not all.

Books are meant to be read, of course. And an archetypal mode of pretension in our world is a kind of shallow display, a pointing in a direction we will never go. Books can play that function for those who deploy them as such; you might be able to signal erudition of a socially valuable kind by your book ownership. We should tolerate such pretension; there are worse things to be inauthentic about, and if the outcome is a room full of books for us to look at, admire, and browse through, then so be it.

My ownership of books I will never read is made easier by being a parent; I reassure myself periodically that I’m putting together an inheritance for my daughter. In a life marked by tiny failures at every step, this is one to be proud of.

 

Brooklyn College’s Disrepair And The Attack On Public Education

Over the past two weeks, I’ve sent the following emails to my departmental faculty list, complaining about the state of classrooms at Brooklyn College. First on Thursday, September 7, I wrote:

Once again, this semester, I’m teaching in 4145 and 4219 Boylan. These classrooms are a disgrace. The air conditioner is so loud we cannot hear each other in class, and if you switch them off, you swelter. Yesterday, while teaching in 4145 Boylan, there was loud construction going on elsewhere in the building; no one knew what was going on. It took two phone calls to get someone to respond. That consumed 30 minutes of my class time. Meanwhile the airconditioner was not working at all, and my students and I were sweating profusely. This happens every semester in these classrooms. This is a ludicrous situation.

Then, yesterday, after further aggravation, I sent an angrier email:

In my initial email I had forgotten to make notice of 3150 Boylan. That classroom has destroyed my Social Philosophy class this semester; every class is hijacked by the noisy generators/cooling units outside; if you close the windows, you have to have the AC on; if you have the AC on, we can’t hear each other; if you open the doors and windows it’s too noisy. My students were walking out to get water, fanning themselves, talking to each other, complaining; and they were right.  Discussing Arendt’s critique of Marx seemed besides the point.

I refuse to teach in that classroom. Either Brooklyn College changes my classroom, or I’m not teaching. Or we can just meet there and hang out for 100 minutes if the college insists. But I won’t be teaching. If this college cannot provide working conditions that meet some minimum standards they should refund our students their tuition, and shut down this disgrace.

I’m so livid right now; every class of mine is an exercise in futility.

Meanwhile on September 12th, my colleague in the Sociology Department, Carolina Bank Munoz, wrote (on her Facebook page):

In 2016 Brooklyn College had a 5 million dollar budget cut, in 2017, 8 million, and now in fiscal 2018 we are facing a 10 million dollar cut. This is simply unsustainable. [New York state’s governor Andrew] Cuomo is literally killing CUNY. Yet undergrad enrollments are 25% higher than last year.

Brooklyn College’s state is quite typical of the institutions of public education in this city (public schools included)–that includes other colleges at the City University of New York, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse systems of college-level public education. Tuition continues to rise; administrator salaries continue to rise; the size and comfort of administrator offices grows; faculty share offices that are often equipped with printers that don’t have cartridges, but the place where the actual learning happens, where teachers and students meet continues to fall apart. The strategy being followed at CUNY is quite clear, has been for some time, and follows a pattern of declining public investment nationwide geared toward one goal: to make public education, like other public institutions, so broken, so unsustainable, that the only viable alternative will be their privatization, to be sold off to the highest bidding carpetbagger.

My options are limited: I’m reluctant to ask for an official room change for fear I will get a room that is worse–that might sound hard to believe but trust me, it’s possible; my class sizes–ranging from 25-30 students–is too large to allow the use of my office or the department lounge; and noise and commotion prevents the using of the school quad. I intend to escalate this confrontation by approaching the administration. I expect to be met with a shrugged shoulder and some muttering about ‘budgets.’

This is not the first time I’ve complained about CUNY classrooms. I did so last year following a New York Times article on the sad state of CUNY. Read my post–which also contains a rant about classrooms–and the New York Times article and weep if you care about public education and public institutions. My conclusion then is the same one I’ll draw today:

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.

 

Rooms Full Of Books: Soulful Abodes

In Books: A Memoir Larry McMurtry writes:

[I]t puzzles me how bookless our ranch house was. There must have been a Bible, but I don’t remember ever seeing it. My father did read the range cattle books of J. Frank Dobie, but the only one I remember seeing in our house, which, by this time, was a small house in the village of Archer City was The Longhorns, which I borrowed for my father Mr. Will Taylor, a wealthy and elderly oilman who lived in a great mansion just south of our hay field.

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

That’s quite a mic drop right there. (The jacket inscription notes that McMurtry “lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books.” It also makes note of the fact that McMurtry “is the author of twenty-eight books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.”) I remember being awed by the size of Susan Sontag‘s personal library–which ran to some fifteen thousand books; McMurtry’s library runs to almost twice that. This wonderful video shows Umberto Eco walking around his personal library; it is mind boggling. Of course, the number of books means little in terms of erudition if a significant percentage of them remains unread, but these worthies clearly seem to have read a great many of the books they collected. Their collections generate envy and respect in those of us who love books and like having a lot of them around.

My living room and my office are where my books live; they’ve traveled with me to Australia and back; I will take them with me wherever I go, to wherever we next decide to set up home. I did not bring any books with me when I moved to the US some thirty years ago, and I couldn’t have; my collection then, thanks to my budget, was very small, and I relied largely on libraries to keep my reading habit going. At home, they take up eight shelves; in my office, another three. Over the years, many have fallen apart, been lost, or been borrowed never to be returned. (I loathe loaning my books out and hope to never have anyone again ask me to borrow one.) But those that have survived contribute, in no insignificant measure, to making our living-room the ‘soul’ of the house. (As one recent visitor to our humble abode described it–and he was right.) When I sit at my work-desk in one corner, to write, to read, to browse and waste time, and look around on occasion on the books that surround me, at their dimly visible titles which speak to diverse intellectual domains and inclinations and interests, their colorful jackets, their histories of procurement jostling for attention in my memories, I feel a curious, calming, pleasure; I am reminded of the fact that as a child I had often told my mother that I “dream of living in a room full of books”–and that that dream has been realized.

CUNY And The Public University That Couldn’t

In the fall of 2015 I taught my philosophy of law class in a hostile environment: my classroom.  With windows and doors open, it was too noisy to be heard; with windows and doors closed and the air conditioner turned on, it was too noisy. With the air conditioner turned off, it was too hot. We–my students and I–struggled with this state of affairs into November, till the time it finally became cool enough to allow us to conduct the class with the door and windows closed. Till then, sometimes we shouted, sometimes we sweated; mostly we fretted and fumed, irate and vexed by this latest evidence of the City University of New York’s inability to provide a working infrastructure to facilitate its educational mission.

Over the weekend, the New York Times finally brought to this city’s attention a state of affairs at CUNY that for its students and staff has been a grim reality for too long: a severely underfunded educational institution that has gone from being an ‘engine of mobility’ to the little public university that couldn’t. A crumbling physical foundation; no contracts for its staff and faculty; overpaid administration; reliance on underpaid contingent labor; all the pieces for eventual failure are here.  A strike might yet happen in the fall.

It is common, among progressives, to bewail the continued under funding of public education as an act of class warfare, one animated by racist prejudice. It is worth making that claim explicit: public education is a threat to established social, economic, and political orders; it threatens to bring education–not just textual knowledge, but critical thinking, reading, and writing–to the disenfranchised and politically dispossessed; that fact, on its own, paints a bulls eye on public education’s back, inviting pointed assaults by a surrounding neo-liberal order. Make no mistake about it: public education is under attack because it seen as serving the wrong communities for the wrong reasons.

New York City’s financial health is considerably better than it was during those periods of time when the university was fully funded by the city and the state, when it was able to educate the children of immigrants and send them out to work the engines of the nation’s economy and move themselves and their families up the rungs of American life. But priorities have changed over the years. Now city and state budgets must attend to: university administrators and their desires for bigger salaries and plusher offices; management consultants and their latest pie-charted dreams for ‘process’ and ‘best practices’ and ‘unique selling propositions’; capital projects that do not advance core educational missions; and a host of other diversions that have nothing to do with learning. Run education like a business: shortsightedly, with an eye to the next quarter’s profits; learning be damned.

A nation that denies the value of public education, that makes it into the privileged property of a few, to be paid for under severely usurious terms, is not a republic any more; it has dynamited the wellsprings of its social and political orders.

 

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

On Meeting An ‘Illiterate’

As my daughter approaches that miraculous stage in her cognitive and intellectual development when reading independently will start to become a possibility, opening up a portal to a world whose outlines she has, with some astonishment and delight, started  to sense, I am reminded of a childhood encounter which first made clear to me the singular importance of literacy.

During my childhood, an annual visit to my grandfather’s home was a much-anticipated event. One of the indulgences that awaited us there was the opportunity to eat food cooked by my grandfather’s faithful cook, Gopal, a long-serving and dedicated worker who had, over the years, perfected his craft to a point where it surpassed my grandmother’s cooking. Now, she supervised the kitchen from a distance, and left its daily operations to him. He awoke early in his quarters adjoining the main residence, fired up the coal braziers used for food preparation, laid out his cooking implements and got to work. Tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea, dinner–these issued from his domain effortlessly, each consumed gratefully and appreciatively by our family. An almost literal icing on the cake were his dessert treats, made for us youngsters on special request. He was supremely indulgent in this regard, ever willing to rustle up some concoction or the other which would artfully deploy sugar or jaggery in manners previously unimagined. We–my cousins and I–saw him as an avuncular figure; there was a great deal of affection and respect in our interactions.

One aspect of this affectionate interaction was a desire on the part of my brother and I to share with him–as best as we could–our lives elsewhere: on air force bases, in New Delhi. To this end, one fine morning, I excitedly called Gopal over to look at a book–borrowed for a four-week loan–from a library in New Delhi. I pointed at an illustration and the caption, which I think, had amused me to no end. Gopal laughed along with me and then, abruptly, he said, “What does it say?” I replied, “Here, take a closer look.” Back came the answer, “No, you tell me; I can’t read it.” I said, “Right, sorry, you don’t know English.” He clarified, “No, I can’t read.”

I stared at him, stunned. Gopal was, at the time, over  fifty years of age. He had just informed me that in all that time, he had never learned to read; he had never read a book, a newspaper, or  even a recipe. He had never sat down to immerse himself in a printed page; he had never traversed those spaces made accessible by reading a book. I considered myself to be possessed of an active imagination but at that moment it failed me; I could not comprehend what such a life could be like. I say this–and thought it–without any condescension; I just did not know what it was like to not read, to be possessed of so much seeming incomprehension.

At that moment, something and someone I considered familiar had become utterly strange; I realized the extent of the gulf that separated my life from Gopal’s; and the extent of my fortunes all over again.   

Adam Phillips On “The Leavisite Position” On Reading

In the course of his Paris Review interview on the Art of Non-Fiction (No. 7, conducted  by Paul Holdengräber) Adam Phillips says:

If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible….The Leavisite position…is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about. [link added]

As I noted in these pages a while ago, we often do not remember what we read. An acknowledgment of this fact can provoke considerable anxiety as one ages: time is speeding by; I must savor each moment; and yet, I am spending them in a pursuit which leaves no tangible trace. Then, as I noted, we should pay attention to the fact that:

The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are…transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once….While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. If we are to be continually instructed to stay in the proverbial here-and-now, then how should we best do so? Reading a book sounds like a very good answer.

The ‘unconscious evocative effects’ Phillips speaks of are crucial. We–or at least the conscious components of ourselves–might not remember the details of the books we read, but the experience changes us nonetheless. We spent our days differently; there were distractions we ignored or only partially paid attention to; we altered somehow–to use an overworked phrase–our neural pathways.  We have, even without our knowing it, changed our orientation to the world’s offerings. That melancholia we feel, that sudden upswing in our mood, that unaccountable response to a movie, poem, a child’s pranks, an adult’s intransigence; an archaeology on them might yet reveal to a more omniscient species the bookish well-springs of their provenance.

There are no free lunches in this universe; but nothing goes to waste either. Read on.