On retiring books

Stanley Fish:

I have sold my books. Not all of them, but most of them. I held on to the books I might need while putting the finishing touches on a manuscript that is now with my publisher. I also kept the books I will likely need when I begin my next project in the fall. But the books that sustained my professional life for 50 years — books by and about Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Skelton, Sidney, Herbert, Marvell, Herrick, Donne, Jonson, Burton, Browne, Bacon, Dryden, Hobbes — are gone (I watched them being literally wheeled out the door), and now I look around and see acres of empty white bookshelves.

The ostensible reason for this de-acquisition is a move from a fair-sized house to a much smaller apartment. It is true, as Anthony Powell said in a title, that books do furnish a room, but in this case, too many books, too little room. But the deeper reason is that it was time. What I saw on the shelves was work to which I would never return, the writings of fellow critics whom I will no longer engage, interpretive dilemmas someone else will have to address. The conversations I had participated in for decades have now gone in another direction (indeed, in several other directions), and I have neither the time nor, if truth be told, the intellectual energy required to catch up. Farewell to all that. So long, it’s been good to know you. I’m sure you’ll do fine without me.

In the hours and days following the exodus of the books I monitored myself for a post-mortem (please excuse the hyperbole) reaction. Would I feel regret? Nostalgia? Panic? Relief? I felt nothing. What should have been a momentous event barely registered as I moved on to what seemed the more important task of choosing a new carpet. I was reminded of what a colleague who had left a university after 23 years replied when I asked him if it was difficult to do. He said, “It was like checking out of a motel.”

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. I had always thought that I could return to my annotated copies of familiar texts and pick up where I left off. That fantasy, I now see, was part and parcel of the core fantasy that I would just go on forever, defending old positions, formulating new ones, attending annual conferences, contributing to essay collections, speaking at various universities, teaching the same old courses, confidently answering the same old questions.

I’m not going to go on forever. I avoid this realization, even as I voice it. I say, “I’m not going to go on forever,” and at the same time I’m busily signing new contracts, accepting new speaking invitations, thinking up new courses, hungering after new accolades. My books are clearer-eyed than I am. They exited the stage without fuss and will, one hopes, 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.

Moving On and Moving On: Part Two (New York Times)

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