Friday, January 4, 2013

Packing It In: Getting Rid of Books & Moving Out of Your Office

I think it was bookshelves that got me hooked on the idea of academia in the first place. I vividly recall visiting a Professor's home while an undergrad friend was house sitting. On a leafy street in a neighborhood near campus, the green clapboard house had wood floors, thick rugs, and bookshelves everywhere, even running up the staircase. As a starry-eyed junior, it seemed like the perfect life.

When we rented our first apartment in new grad school town, we found a place with built in bookshelves lining one wall of the living room and were sold instantly.

So maybe it's not a surprise to anyone that going through your books is a big moment in post-academic life. Similarly, packing up your campus office is a moment where your past life -- and its hopes and dreams -- crashes into your new life, with its uncertainty. What do you keep? What do you get rid of? What do books mean to you if you're not going to use them, or necessarily read them? What kind of life will you lead in which books aren't central to your work?

The Shakespeare & Company BookshopCreative Commons License Alexandre Duret-Lutz via Compfight

For some people, getting rid of books is a huge relief. You might be tempted to do a bonfire of the humanities and symbolically purge your life of these markers of academia. If that's the case, more power to ya (although you might only burn the truly trashed copies and consider donating the rest). For most of us, though, it seems like going through our books is a crucial aspect of the transition out of academia. It often takes multiple pass throughs. It can be a useful marker for your own transformation, as you might see books that made the cut last time and think "wha??"

WoPro developed a case of bibliophobia going through her books, and the process kept bringing up the painful reality of her uncertain life after academia:

I probably didn’t get rid of enough books. I fear that my dream library is something that will never happen anyway, and the more pressing issue is deciding which books will make it into my car, since I’ll be living out of it for a few months.

Arnold @ Postacademic went through his books multiple times and still struggled with deciding what to keep and what/where to get rid of the rest.

When I quit, I gave my students extra credit to return stacks of library books for me. I had no problem getting rid of books related to my academic pursuits, but teaching books proved harder to purge. I still have a lot of books about feminist science studies and developmental education on my shelves.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you go through your books:

  1. Do I like it?

  2. Will I read it for fun? (Really: will you read Foucault for fun?)

  3. Is this book important or significant in some way? (Sometimes thinking of the books as "artifacts" of a time in your life makes it easier to decide, e.g. I wrote my senior thesis on Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, so it stayed.)

  4. Is this a book I could easily replace if I later regret this decision? (So maybe you can justify keeping something out of print, but really, it's not that hard to pick up another copy of The Politic Unconscious if you wake up in the middle of the night really, really wishing you had it on your bedstand.)

  5. Can I make money from this? (If you have a recent textbook, or a nice version of a recent edition of a Norton Anthology, its dollar value might outweigh its sentimental value. And you're really going to need that $15 in your post-academic life. Really.)

  6. If I could trade this for an awesome comic book, would I? (If the answer is yes, then get rid of the book, and buy yourself an awesome comic book.)

I strongly encourage you to visit your public library. Not your university library, but the little building with a children's area and a meeting room that you may never have been to. Now walk around and look at all of the books that you could read, right now, for free, for the pure joy of it. Hello, check out that graphic novel section. Wait a minute, wait a minute: you haven't read the Hunger Games trilogy yet?!! Check out all 3 books right now. Reorient yourself to a life in which reading is something you do because you want to and like to, and you read books for the loveliness of language and narrative. It will make you look at your collection in a whole new way.

Once you're ready to get rid of some books, here are some of the ways post-acs get rid of and/or make money off of their book collections:

  • Post a list to facebook and offload them on to non-quitting academics (haha, suckers!).

  • Dump them in the department's mailroom. People will take them.

  • Take them to a used book store and see if you can make some money from them.

  • If money is a bigger concern for you, try running the ISBN numbers of your books through the Amazon Marketplace or a similar commercial site. JC got rid of a few books this way during a time in her life where she needed some extra cash, and actually netted several hundred dollars doing it.

  • Donate them to your local public library (check the library's guidelines for donation, first).

  • Donate them to a student organization that does a book sale (e.g. the English grad students did a book sale at my U, so I took a lot of my criticism books there).

  • Make something from them -- art, sculpture, collage.

  • Recycle them.

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