Tuesday, June 18, 2013
About a month ago, Stanley Fish, one of this country's most prolific and thoughtful and entertaining literary critics and English profs, announced to the world (via NY Times) that because he's retiring, he'd sold his books. English profs amass huge libraries, of course, not only because books are (or have been) their stock-in-trade, but because they get free ones. Besides, we can write 'em off.
It would be interesting to know how much I've spent on books throughout the years, an amount I could sleuth out, I suppose, by going through our tax records, although I think I'd rather not know. What I do know is that a year ago now I stood tons of books on the for-sale shelf in the English department, charging a quarter a piece or so, more or less, mostly less. When that marketing ploy failed to clean me out, I dumped the remaindered in the book bins the library annually distributes around campus to catch the myriad rejects of students and profs alike, thousands of them.
Stanley Fish claims to have been amazed how easy it was for him to divest. "In the hours and days following the exodus of the books I monitored myself for a post-mortem (please excuse the hyperbole) reaction," he wrote. "Would I feel regret? Nostalgia? Panic? Relief? I felt nothing."
Not until I read that line did I think about my own divestiture. That which had been my life simply cleared out of Dodge. Don't misunderstand--there are a dozen boxes upstairs waiting anxiously to be re-shelved when we move. But compared with what I had--and what we had--the new Schaap library is anorexic.
Now there's a moral waiting to be mined from the sea change. Let me try that again with more some more to-the-point (and less mixed) metaphor--there's a moral inferred between the covers of the Fish observations. That moral is here too when Fish quotes a colleague of his as saying that leaving the office was no more traumatic than checking out of a motel.
So it was with me too, strangely. That friend of Fish isn't wrong.
Let me pitch it this way. Among my people, I think I'm thought to be something of a liberal. But the fact is, I'm an unabashed conservative. I've been in the same denomination for all of my 65 years. What's more, I stayed with an educational institution for ALL my entire career. How many people do you know in any job who are that stodgy, that I-shall-not-be-moved? These days, researchers claim that most people will change professions--not just jobs--five or six times in a lifetime. I never was anything but an English prof. Talk about traditional, conventional, conformist!
But no more. It's now a year since I (sort of) retired. Am I traumatized? I don't think so. Do I miss the place I haunted for all those years? Not really. I don't even feel much loyalty. I remember an older retired prof telling me gingerly, "Schaap, there's life after Dordt." Not that I didn't believe it. Still, I'm happy to report he wasn't wrong.
At some secret place in the recesses of the mind or soul or spirit, there's likely a switch or two that controls the homage we give to our immediacy, probably a switch like those that light a room simply when you walk inside. Walk in and and everything is lit; leave and who really cares?
Fish says that he's been bountifully rewarded for that NY Times column because of the generous responses of his readers. Whereas he's quite regularly dissed, this column generated far more light than heat. "The responses this time," he writes in this morning's paper, "rather than being combative or angry, are reflective, generous, kind, eloquent, and, more than occasionally, wise."
I like that.
That generosity, I think, is understandable. My books are someone carpenter's tools, some farmer's machinery, some cop's badge, some mother's kids' clothes. They are what is to each of us, or what was, and I'm now in the bountiful land of what is.
We're building a new house. Maybe it's nuts, but it's a joy. I would never have imagined I would like it as much as I do, but then there was time I could never have imagined life without my books either. We move on.
"Nobody's home," one of his responders told him. "We're all in exile."
That's as fresh and thoughtful a way this old conservative has heard someone talk about heaven in a long, long time.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:20 AM