B is for Books
I once knew a professor who liked books. He read one a day, it was said, every day of his adult life. His office was filled with the things, as you can imagine, to the point that he had floor-to-ceiling bookcases built throughout, including just inside the door. Visitors stepped across the threshold, shuffled to the left, squeezed forward, and shuffled to the right, to find him waiting like a hedgehog in a den. Perhaps students dropped a trail of paperbacks along the way, to help find their way back, I don't know.
Walk down the corridor of any university building, peeking in the offices, and you will see that professors (and grad students, for that matter) love their books. They also love mess, yellowing Doonesbury cartoons, travel mugs, and dying plants, but mostly books. Books piled two-deep, as if for their R-value. Thick books signifying a discipline disciplined. Thin books, a second thought, a moment of weakness. Books with bookmarks, Post-it Notes, annotations, highlighting, index cards, and dog ears. Books inscribed by colleagues, never to be read. Books carried from city to city, position to position, since grad school, in the hopes of finally sitting just as they are in a more permanent home. Books organized, but usually only enough to suggest a preference for disorganization, like a hotel bed partially remade.
We like to say we need these books close at hand, for both research and teaching purposes. What if I need advice on displaying visual information, and Edward Tufte isn't close at hand? What if a grad student disagrees with me on the discursive effect of "sic" and I can't turn to novelist James Kelman writing, "Naw, but what they done, just to show me who was boss, one of the qualities DID publish my letter. But see I had made a bloomer, I spelt 'victimising' wrong. . . . So they just left it in. And then they done an insert, the buggars, they stuck a wee SIC beside it. That was all they done. So easy! . . . Ye pay a lot of dough for a lesson like that on the outside." (Sic.)
What if one of my students asks about the King-Byng affair, and, as often happens, all I can remember is that this isn't a reference to Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs? Well, life would go on. And, of course, I could always fall back on the web. (Stay tuned for "G is for Google".)
But we also argue that our books serve an important rhetorical function. They tell students the importance we place on learning, and the importance they should place on it, too. We're a university, we deal in books, or rather the stuff in books. This has the advantage of being true, but it is only part of the truth. Books also serve the rhetorical function of telling visitors that I know a lot about a few topics - presumably the topics they are likely to come talk to me about. The books are to remind me of that, too. I have shelves and shelves of the little soldiers, standing at attention, ready to protect their owner from whatever force might darken my doorway.
I think it is worthwhile to consider how our offices may intimidate students. And so I am planning to draw attention to the whole issue, by transforming my office explicitly into a conceptual space. I may turn all the spines inward, shielding visitors from whatever I've been reading. Or I may offer one book to each visitor - watching with interest as their eyes graze over titles and interpreting the significance of their eventual choice - until every book is gone. Or I may move my books to storage, buy up the 800 remaining copies of my own two authored books, and shelve these instead. Or I may stack books like sandbags across the middle of my office, building a foxhole to protect my intellectual position.
At the moment, I am most interested in carpeting my office floor with six inches of books, to remind myself and others of universities' long intellectual tradition. If we see further now, it is by standing on the shoulders - and spines - of giants.
Alan MacEachern is director of the Public History program at the University of Western Ontario and a regular columnist for University Affairs.