A Book is a Unit of Time: Library Deselection and the Work of Mourning

Thursday, March 5, 2020


Like many college and university libraries that are embracing the resources of the digital age, the library at my home institution, Villanova University, has been undergoing a massive process of “deselection.”[1]  This term is a euphemism for getting rid of books—over a hundred thousand books—to make room for new books, for more student study space, and for an aesthetically pleasing glass atrium free of unsightly book clutter.  Where will the books go? faculty ask.  They will be donated, the library website assures us—that is, unless nobody wants them.  The statement on the fate of the unwanted inauspiciously ends there.

The process of culling library books in one’s field—of “deselecting” the old and unpopular, the redundant, the unfashionable, the also-ran—raises complex issues about what priorities should shape the collection that will remain on the shelves for the next generation of students and scholars.  It asks us to think about what past we want to impart to the future.  As my colleagues and I have worked on this project and the list of nearly 23,000 PR books on the chopping block, including a few thousand on early modern drama, I have considered the many possible ideologically-driven shapes that the future of our British literature collection might take—shapes suggested by schools of thought, kinds of reading, or various political investments.  I have also stumbled upon the junctures in a project like this one where the personal and the ideological overlap.  Should I save books that have been read often according to their check-out stats but that I don’t think should ever have been written?  What would the field of early modern studies look like to a future student if I saved everything, however obscure, by women and scholars of color and let the rest of the algorithmically-generated list of deselection candidates go?  Could I rewrite the past?  What should I do with the books by the senior scholars who have sexually harassed me and my female colleagues in grad school, on the job market, at conferences, and by email?  What about the scholars who sexually harassed my mentors, the women a generation before mine without whose work and courage my career would not have been possible?  Would it be an act of justice to consign their books to obsolescence—to say to these books, with the chorus of Bill Cosby’s victims, “Time’s up”?  What do we do with the books of Harold Bloom?

The vast spreadsheets that organize our library deselection process have given me space to express whatever conclusions I have reached about the future of our early modern studies collection.  In the far left column, I can type my name in a box next to any title I choose, and that book is saved from the scrapheap.  I don’t have to give a reason; my name, like the signature on a last-minute pardon from the governor, is sufficient to reverse the book’s fate, at least for now.  What the spreadsheets do not provide is a space for expressing the profound sense of loss that comes with purging the work of scholars in our field, most of whom I have never known.  It is not the loss of the books themselves that necessarily affects me; I concede that there may be such a thing as too many editions of The Knight of the Burning Pestle.  What troubles me is the loss of time—of human life, of labor, of days and years passing—that each book represents.  There is no box in which to mourn the end of this time—no box on our spreadsheets or in our teaching, no box in our critical praxis.

A book is a unit of time—an artifact of overlapping and contiguous durations.  It is the time spent in the book’s making: its writing, editing, proofreading, typesetting, printing, binding, shipping, selling, buying, carrying home.  It is the time of all the people who have done this work, some of whom are still alive and many of whom are long gone, which is to say that their time here came to an end.  A book is the time of tree growth—one ring for every year, one ring every four seasons.  It is the time of woodcutter, of wood into pulp into paper.  A book is time reading, annotating, thinking, teaching—time sitting on a shelf of the library or in a pile in my office or yours.  Year of publication, year of reprint.  Date stamps on a small sheet of paper pasted to the inside of the front or back cover: November 21, 2003; September 16, 1992; June 11, 1985; April 1, 1971.  In his series of Today paintings, each consisting only of the date on which the painting was made, conceptual artist On Kawara represents every date as dense with human time lived in its kaleidoscope of forms across the earth.  This book was due on January 27, 1988.  This book is overdue.  This book has never been checked out.  This book was checked out three times in 1976.  What year was it when the slip of check-out and return dates disappeared from the book to be replaced by a bar code?  Where has this book been all my life?  Where have I been all this book’s life?

To deselect this book is to confront our most basic existential fact in a form devised to occlude that very fact: our time is passing away, and these books of paper, books of words are fragments I have shored against my ruins.  I am the Grim Reaper of books.  I am laying this book to rest.  I am a writer of books that will be laid to rest.  I am the woodcutter, the typesetter, the tree, the “future dead person,” as Carla Freccero says.  To deselect this book is to loop back in time, to revisit the trauma of that conference harassment, the email he sent along after it—to live it again and then kill it again and make his book a coffin to bury it in.  To deselect this book is to feel these forms of time and forms of loss—to feel the grief of the passing away of human and earthly life.  How do I talk about this grief?  How do I teach it or write about it?  There is no box on the deselection spreadsheet for my grief. 

The last time I stood on this stage two years ago was to present work on The Spanish Tragedy with my colleague Chelsea Phillips.  We staged the end of the play, experimenting with Hieronimo’s assertion that the actors in his tragedy, Soliman and Perseda, are truly dead.  We asked what it means to stage the truly dead by leaving our own actors lying still onstage for an uncomfortable amount of time, with no curtain call of resurrection.  We made you, our audience, sit with that discomfort—with the discomfort of an ending without end, the discomfort of death.  At the time I stood on this stage for that presentation, I had just come from a week at my mother’s bedside in a hospital in San Diego.  When I stood on this stage, I did not know how much longer she would live.  I fled the conference after our presentation—left early, overwhelmed and in retreat, because I could not keep this question apart from the questions we were asking on this stage.  My mother was running out of time, and here, at this conference, my grief began to perforate the fragile membrane between my thinking self and my feeling self—between the work of scholarship and the work of mourning.  My mother died eleven days after our Blackfriars presentation.  A week after her burial—in no time at all—I stood on a different stage back at Villanova, teaching the deathbed scene in 2 Henry IV because that’s what was on my syllabus.  By then, I was coming to know that the membrane separating thinking from feeling—teaching and reading and writing from mourning—had always been a fiction.  I have since found not only that I am unable to reinvest in the fiction but that I am unwilling.

In taking up this ten minutes of time that none of us will ever get back to talk about my scholarly grief, I am calling on our discipline to make room in pedagogical and scholarly conversation for the various kinds of mourning that are part of our work—not because we owe tributary tears to the early modernists of the past but because we owe it to ourselves as early modernists of the present to explore the full range of human responses that our work entails.  This is what true humanism is: it is the exploration of human experience in all of its lived forms.  When we marginalize the emotional aspects of our work—when we degrade them as naïve or effeminate or sentimental, consign them to other forms of discourse, or pretend we do not feel them so that we can fulfill an inherited, patriarchal model of scholarship—we fail to exercise our full potential as humanist thinkers and practitioners.  We need to open mourning spaces in early modern studies, from book-arts projects that make deselected books into sites of collective grief to special journal issues on topics like Scholarship and Sadness and essay collections and artifacts on Shakespeare and the Personal. 

Mourning is part of our job.  To do that job well, we must sit with mourning, in the theatre and in the library, knowing there will be no resurrection.  Let our scholarly grief make us better people than patriarchy would have us be, better teachers and better colleagues.  Writers of humanist books that tell our own, future deselectors not that we are dead but that we were alive.


[1] This paper was given at the Blackfriars Conference of the American Shakespeare Center on October 24, 2019.