Posted by: Scott Hagele | October 18, 2010

Close Reading One’s Bookshelves

I have noticed a direct correlation between the amount of hours spent writing my Dissertation Prospectus at home and the cleanliness of said apartment. If you, gentle reader, were to pay me a surprise visit and there happened to be no dishes in the sink, no clothes piling up in the bedroom, recently-vacuumed carpets, sparkling floors, and an immaculately clean bathroom complete with a well-scrubbed tub, then you could safely conclude that I must be working hard on something at the moment. My latest productive procrastination break drew me to my dusty bookshelves. Perhaps the past two hours of typing had locked me into a literary-critical mindset; whatever the cause, I found myself analyzing the arrangement of my tomes with an unusual amount of rigor. A few observations:

1) My shelves reflected the opening of the Romantic-era canon, particularly the inclusion of women poets. On one shelf, the order of authors was Austen, Blake, L.E.L., Edgeworth, Burney, Inchbald, Scott, Clare, Hemans, Maturin, Byron, Keats, Robinson, Barbauld, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, P. and M. Shelley, D. and W. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, and Baillie. Broadview Press certainly deserves a plug for a) having made so many excellent editions of the many long-neglected writers available and b) being very generous with their distribution of desk and exam copies.

2) Time Period was the obvious organizing principle. There were shelves and parts of shelves dedicated to Greek, Latin, and Medieval Literature; Renaissance; Restoration; Eighteenth-Century; Romantic Era; Victorian; Modernism and Irish Modernism; Contemporary Literature. While these shelves seamlessly blended fictional prose, drama, poetry, essays, philosophers; American, French, Russian, English, German, Scottish writers and texts; canonical and non-canonical figures; men and women; I was struck by just how much “period” still dominates the work of literary studies. This is, after all, a posting on the NASSR graduate student caucus blog page; my prospectus focuses on Romantic-era writers; I primarily identify myself as a ‘Romanticist.’ I do not mean to suggest that specialization is not valuable–it is–but I suppose that given the recent slew of trans-atlantic studies, it may also be worth thinking about the potential for a more trans-historical approach to invigorate our work.

3) E-books are far too ephemeral for my taste. Sure, moving all of these books is a huge pain. In fact, I opted to stay at my over-priced apartment for another year primarily because I hate having to round up enough boxes to hold all of my books. But there’s something aesthetically and philosophically pleasing about having the physical books themselves there. As sleek and cool as a kindle and iPad are, they fail to yield the same pleasure that comes with a glance at shelves full of books. Some old books, some signed, some that I’ve kept from high school, some that were gifts, some that I’ve yet to read–but am looking forward to, many heavily annotated, and all cherished. Market forces typically win in the end; in the years ahead, books will increasingly become a curiosity like records or even cds (again, Apple!!). However, something is lost in the translation from tangible to digital.

The shelves are dusted, this blog has been written–sorry that it was so tardy, Kirstyn!!–and so it is time for me to get back to work…though my window screens are looking desperate for a good washing.



  1. Scott, your post made me think of the large number of academics who might recognize themselves in your prose. Why do we clean as we write, before writing, or during writing? Is it just procrastination?–To be more specific, my mind is oscillating between affiliating this trend with some perverse ritual of the puritanical variety or with an economy or poetics of isolation. I wonder how immaculate our place(s) would or would not be if we herded ourselves together to live communally in some less private type of living space.

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