Turning the page

Turning the page

This summer I started a new job. My former position, in museums and special collections, was grant funded. We worked that contract until the money was gone. And though I like to think they wished they could keep me, budgets at non-profits are extraordinarily tight. I was back on the job market. Out of ten job apps sent to a wide variety of different institutions I got one interview at a public library, that blossomed into an offer and the opportunity to change the trajectory of my career yet again. I would be taking another step away from higher education towards a profession that lies somewhere on the spectrum between K12 education and public administration. More on that in another post.

In the meantime, my professional metamorphosis accompanied a personal metamorphosis. I started to feel a certain discontent at home. Periodically, I get to feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I accumulate as a middle-class American. I sense that my home and possessions do not truly reflect who I am, my interests and the way I want to live, but rather who I was and the ways in which I used to live. Its been almost five years since I last moved, five years since my last major purging of stuff. And this time it was all those dusty old anthropology books on the shelf that lay in my cross hairs.

The physical presence of scholarly books on my shelf came to embody two emotional conflicts that I felt compelled to overcome.

The first, which doubtless you all share, is bibliophilia and the love of collecting. Books are wonderful things! Anthropology, with its esoteric leanings, produces some truly startling and doors-of-perception-opening works.  And this is to say nothing of the memories bound up in marginalia. The books that were gifts. The books I bought but never read. The books from that class with the professor I loved. The books from that class with the professor I hated. The book that made me say, “I want to write a book like this.” On and on and on.

All these things gather dust.

The second, which some will know but not all will acknowledge, is the book collection as totem. A symbol that represents professionalization. To a professional anthropologist a personal library is an indispensable tool for research, teaching, and socialization among peers. I am not a professional anthropologist, I am a professional librarian. These books are tools for a job I no longer perform. Yet, while my rational mind quickly comes to these logical conclusions, there is still a voice in the back of my head that says, “Maybe you will come back.” A voice that quickly changes to, “You ought to come back.” It’s hard to tune out self-doubt, you know? Especially after all the energy and resources poured into earning the credentials to be a professional anthropologist.

Sometimes I still drunk text anthropology, but let’s be honest. We’re not getting back together.

In the two weeks between the end of one job and the start of the next, I cleaned out my home office. Two laundry baskets of marked-up books DUMPED into the recycling bin. Two laundry baskets overflowing with photocopied articles and chapters outta here. I sold and gifted another thirty or so books to friends, colleagues, and former students. It broke my heart. Not quite as hard as cleaning my mother’s house after she died, but kinda like that. It bothered me on a psychic level. The whole process made me very grumpy, and for several weeks I couldn’t stop bickering with my wife. Finally, after the trash was gone and the cream was handed down to my fellow scholars, I loaded half a dozen banker boxes and hauled the clean copies to multiple used bookstores were I swapped what I could for vinyl records.

There’s still a lot to do. I still have yet to bury the remains of my dissertation field work. But, then, I still have a bin under my bed full of my mother’s mementos and she’s been gone almost seven years. Well, those are worries for another day and at least some progress was made. And look at these tidy shelves! It’s hard letting go, but I’m glad I did it.

3 Replies to “Turning the page”

  1. Stuff. George Carlin’s performance may not offer solace, but it is good for a laugh.
    Also, regarding all those anthropology books and, especially, journals, check out Tom Wolfe on “subscription guilt.” Then think of all those faculty offices across the land boasting crammed bookshelves of row after row of learned journals in absolutely mint condition, many still in their plastic covers. Journals chock full of soporific, unreadable prose. No loss.

  2. Matt,

    Best wishes in your new profession. I do hope that one day you come to realize, as I did, that the way we make a living and our interest in anthropology need not be the same. We are human. The people we work with are human. An anthropology that encompasses humanity includes us, too.

  3. The Persistence of (Anthropological) Memory

    A tale from a bygone era, when anthropology was something wholly other from what it is today. Still, it may have some bearing on the particular circumstances described in Matt Thompson’s post.
    In the late 1960s the Chicago anthropology department was not a warm and fuzzy place for graduate students. It was, in fact, a shark tank. Swimming among those predators, however, was a small coterie of especially fearsome critters: Clifford Geertz’s dissertation students. These were future luminaries in their own right, including Jim Boon, Paul Rabinow, Dale Eickelman, Larry Rosen. Tough to catch the ear or eye of the master in that bunch. Happily, I avoided advisee-hood (though I did take several unforgettable courses from Geertz) and focused on parts of the world where Geertz had not done field work. A good friend of mine, however – Tom – wanted to do field work in Morocco and so signed on with the master. His field work didn’t go well, and he left Morocco well before the obligatory year or two. By then I was safely insulated from the drama, tucked away in the tropical forests of South America. When I resurfaced, I found that Tom had left the program. We next met at an AAA annual meeting; Tom had decided to attend with thoughts of getting back into the game. That didn’t come to pass; by then the job market had tightened up mercilessly.
    But during our talk he told me a story I remember to this day. All through his college and graduate student days, Tom had pursued a passion for fine woodwork. Even at a young age, he was a craftsman. When he bailed from graduate school he did what many dream of: making a vocation of something he loved doing. He went to work for a specialty furniture business, and with his skill became an established member of the firm. Then something curious began to happen, something that brought him to that disappointing AAA meeting. When he went home after work, he found himself keeping a notebook of what had gone on that day, tracking the activities and then trying to write them up in a coherent account. He was, yes, producing an ethnography of his workplace.
    Whatever you wind up doing, it’s likely that anthropology gets in your blood. It’s an itch that can’t be scratched.