Parting With Our Books – Inside Higher Ed (blog)

A few weeks ago, we moved into a new house—one much smaller than the home we lived in for 14 years before moving out of state. As part of our family’s move to our transitional housing after taking a new job out of state last year, we downsized considerably. We gave away furniture, mementos that meant less and less as more and more time had passed by. We discarded the kids’ first outfits from the hospital after their birth, their finger paintings, their first attempts at coloring within the lines, their first try at writing their own names, and a multitude of certificates of accomplishments. In fact, I managed to throw away a purse with my daughter’s life fortune, a few hundred dollars that she will never forgive me for accidentally discarding.


Disposing of these old and generally-considered sentimental items was nowhere near what it felt like giving away old my old books. The first time I went through the book purge, it was hard. I hate moving and wanted to be done with it! Getting rid of old textbooks on building democratic societies, the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Tiger economies, Mexican political history, economics and econometrics, and even most of my Dostoyevsky collection was somewhat painful, but practical. I knew then that, wherever we would end up living, most of the rooms would not have floor-to-ceiling bookcases as we had in most rooms of the home in which we had thought we would die. It was painful, but it had to be done.


Moving into a permanent home now, I went through the book purge again. This time, I gave away more recent books, including some that I had not yet read. When my one of my best friends was writing her dissertation on French and Caribbean literature, I bought so many of the books that she found interesting and I found interesting when she talked about them. They were fiction, which I generally find difficult to read. I bought a ton of them, but read few. This weekend, as I packed those books in French and English, I wondered if there would come a day when I would ever finish Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe or the Marie Vieux Chauvet, Jacques Roumain, Rene Depestre and so many other books that I bought a decade ago.


The truth is that the probability of me ever finishing or even starting some of those books was very slim—statistically insignificant from zero. So, I packed them feeling never more grateful for my undergraduate, liberal education that exposed me to so much more than statistical methods and measurement, where my reading interests were parked for a very long time. Had it not been for those general education courses, I would have likely stopped reading fiction and literature after high school. I would lack culture (though I can’t claim to have a ton of it now).


I realized as I packed these new sets of books to give away that, by the time I should ever want to read them, they will be available electronically or in some other form that I can’t even imagine now. In many ways, I am old-fashioned. I cannot read books on a Kindle and I never learned how to type, so I pick the letters one by one even as I write this post. This made parting with those books even more emotional.


The world is changing, but we don’t know what the change will look like exactly. Maybe letting go of the books is somewhat symbolic of letting go of an unrealized aspiration of the cultured person I had the potential of becoming. The universe of things I read about now seems both broader and narrower at the same time.


Perhaps, this post should have been titled “In Praise of Liberal Education,” but there are so many of those essays already. Parting with our books is hard, but the technology that exists today and will soon come will make it easier to go back to that person that I was becoming.



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