The Madness of Professors When Final Grades Are In

What do you do when all the papers are graded and the final results are in? You go on a coffee-fueled binge of obsessive-compulsive self-indulgence, of course.

I finally had a free day (apart from various looming service commitments, book review and manuscript deadlines, et cetera, et cetera), and I used it do something I’d dreamed of for years: reorganizing our book collection.  I remember long ago when my dissertation adviser came over to our apartment, and she asked how our books were organized.  I said, alphabetically, by author.  She screwed up her face in puzzlement and disdain: this was clearly no way to organize books.

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Urban history, Episode 1: A New Hope

Since then, our ever-billowing pile of books has gotten increasingly unruly and promiscuous, Gaston Bachelard sitting cheek-by-jowly-jowl with Garrison Keillor (I know, I’m sorry).  I had long wanted to bring order to disorder and have a perfectly organized library where one could find books about post-industrial capitalism or post-Soviet nostalgia or school desegregation with ease, but it seemed like an insurmountable task.

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Urban history, Episode 2: Attack of the Clones

However, yesterday I had the zeal to undertake it, and pretty much everything got reorganized and reclassified in the space of about six or seven hours.  This is truly the academic version of a methed-out spree of spring cleaning.

Revisiting old books turned out to be like remembering old friends you had somehow forgotten about.  You recall when you bought the books, when you read them, where you were and at what stage of life.  Sometimes there are bookmarks or receipts inside that specifically ground them in a particular time. It reminds you of the vast scope of things you had read and thought about over decades (not to mention the many books you technically have but haven’t read).

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The best fiction no money can buy

The first task was creating categories–a sort of metadata.  What were the basic gestalts of a book collection?  The initial guideposts I came up with were “Urban History,” “Media Studies,” “Islam,” “General History,” “Fiction,” “Capitalism,” and “RTP” (the latter two because of my current book project).

book category labels

But as I mined the collection, it became clear that these weren’t sufficient.  We had a surprising number of autobiographies: Loren Eiseley, Joan Didion, Sonia Sotomayor, John Reed.  There needed to be a memoir section.

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The life and times of heroes and weirdos

Islam certainly wasn’t sufficient, though we had many different translations of the Quran and books on Islamic teaching. There were many books on Pakistan and its gender relations and politics specifically, as well as India–in addition to religious works from other traditions.

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The “Mapping Subaltern Studies, Dislocating Cultures, Recasting Women as Subjects” section

“General History” seemed too general, once I started stacking and sorting and shelving the books. We had a lot of stuff on Latin America, as well as a fair amount of books on East Asia, based mainly on classes we had taken as undergrads. Once I started shelving the books, I started with the few we had on European history (I know, I’m sorry), followed by East Asia and then Latin America. (South Asia had its own separate shelf to itself.) I realized that in a collective 18 years of graduate education, we had no books on African history, except for Ryan Skinner’s Bamako Sounds and Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise — both wonderful books that ended up in the Media Studies category.

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Media Studies, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and sodomy

In the end, organizing your own books is a lot like the challenge any scholar faces in organizing a harvest of 10,000 document snapshots or an archivist deals with trying to sort and box a busy and multitudinous collection of papers. We have a really robust collection of books that accreted over undergrad, grad school, and post-grad years. More novels than I would have thought–lots of Murakami and Vonnegut–and less history, though many are in my office. In the end, the books we have form a composite of ourselves, like a Chuck Close painting made of book spines that adds up to your face.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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