Reverence and Engagement

My office is filled with books. It’s not an especially capacious room, but there are five large bookcases in it, university issue, as well as two smaller ones I bought myself. Each shelf is fully stocked from end to end, and rows of books line the top of each shelf near the ceiling, as well as the back of my table. The space between the upright rank of books that lines each shelf and the bottom of the shelf above is crammed with more books, and precarious piles have migrated from my desk to colonize whatever narrow ledges remain. Once or twice a term, in earlier years, a student might ask if I had read all of these books; now that their swelling mass makes this an obvious impossibility, a visitor is more likely to ask how I keep track of them, and whether I am giving any away.

One measure of both my immense privilege and my good luck as an academic is that this office resembles, more than anything else about my job, more or less what I had envisioned at the outset of graduate school. Relatively few aspiring historians begin graduate school with much notion of teaching; that came as a revelation. But I’d be willing to bet that many have visions of “academia” that involve generous shelf space, with all that that implies: the resources of a vast collection, the mastery of its contents, and the leisurely work of its use. The offices I sat in while pitching or reworking my dissertation took their character above all from the disposition of the books they held: tight formations ranged in orderly, glass-fronted cases, in some; irregular stacks stretching like Giant’s Causeway around chair legs and across the floors of others. All alike were objects of reverence.

I was raised to hold books in awe. They were, of course, to be read. Books were not mysterious in the sense of being withheld; in the series of apartments we moved through they could hardly be avoided. But they were to be handled with care, kept from harm, shelved properly, and, at least as I divined, not to be written in, defaced, bent, or torn. They were a privileged sort of object, whose preservation was a moral concern in a way that the fate of costlier items like the toaster or the television or even the computer (when that became a familiar presence) simply was not. This status was more marked in some books than in others; tearing a page of a John Irving novel would not be quite the same thing as scribbling in the giant, hardcover dictionary that sat forever open on its three-legged stool. But a similar reverence attached in some way to all books, as a class.

An irony of my subsequent education was that this reverence was at the same time an obvious help and, in ways that took a long time to become clear, a significant hindrance. One of the few times I was singled out by a teacher for criticism in the classroom — painfully shy, I strove to keep a low profile — was in an English class in high school. We were working our way through Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, a thick and cheap paperback that I had contrived to read to the halfway point without opening wide enough to crease the spine. As discussion lagged, our frustrated teacher scanned the room. Her eyes landed on my carefully preserved, good-as-new copy of the book. Clearly, she snidely remarked, some of you haven’t even cracked it open.

At the time, I burned with the bitterness of the unjustly accused. But although my English teacher had drawn the wrong conclusion, I might have done well to reflect on the inference behind her comment. Not only had I not creased the spine of the book; in fact, I hadn’t written a word in the margins, either, or so much as underlined a single passage of the text. My reading left no trace. I would go though high school and college without writing much more than my own name in any of the dozens and then hundreds of books that filled my shelves and followed me from room to room and city to city. I took notes; I copied passages out; but books remained unmarked objects, pure, available for consultation or perusal but categorically exempt from rough handling.

In the end, only graduate school forced a permanent change. In part this was a matter of volume, of “information management”: the fevered, compressed, and instrumental nature of reading for seminar discussions, historiography papers, and comprehensive exams made the pencil an essential tool of self-preservation. But it was also only in graduate school that I became fully and actively aware that I was not reading merely to take in and report on information, but rather to contribute, to engage productively with what had been written on a question, and to formulate answers (or new questions) of my own. I do not mean to suggest that up until then I had merely parroted whatever I read; I was capable of disagreeing with it, and of writing critically about it. But only when it dawned on me that I was writing my own book did it seem not only natural but necessary to insert myself into the pages of the books on my shelves. From then on, reading left a mark.

When I try to convey to students what it means not merely to “criticize” but to engage critically with material, this is the shift that comes to mind: not to treat books as dead relics, but as living interlocutors; to treat history not as something that has been written, but as something that people make. It comes to mind, too, in the midst of the current culture war around the humanities. When critics of academe decry scholars’ departure from the models of Gibbon or Macaulay or Lecky; when they denounce the influence of “theory”, the demise of heroic narratives of the nation, or the proliferation of new studies and unfamiliar kinds of scholar; they are of course often pushing, consciously or not, a political agenda born of discomfort with change, with new members of the academy and new questions. But they are also often pushing a sort of reverence for a sacred canon of Great Books whose appeal is not wholly reducible to a position on the left-right spectrum. (I know, because I have felt it.) It is one thing to debate the admission of candidates to the pantheon, another to assert that the gods are mortal — or, what amounts to the same thing, that we all walk, and write, and think with them.


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