Thursday, August 15, 2019

Books as armor

As a striving student in the late 1970s, I would take the 166 bus from New Jersey to Manhattan, walk downtown to the Strand Book Store, and make my way back to the Port Authority with two big shopping bags of books. The Strand then was mostly remainders and “review copies.” I found all kinds of academic remainders on the sale tables: a collection of essays on the metaphysical poets, studies of John Dryden, an anthology of selections from The Spectator (the 1711–1712 version). Shorter Novels: Elizabethan for $1.49? Sold!

In a post about an old Strand bookmark, I characterized this buying as a matter of Accumulation Mode. I realize now that it would be more accurate to say that I was in Armoring Mode: I was accumulating books as armor, as protection, as certification that I belonged in the academic world I aspired to enter. I didn’t wear my armor: it just sat on shelves at home, where it could come in handy as needed.

Of course I made no use of many of the odds and ends I bought at the Strand. But then again, I did.

Are books-as-armor a common experience for aspiring academics? For aspiring academics from working-class backgrounds? Asking for a friend.

[“Review copies”: widely understood to be a euphemism, as many were sold by enterprising editorial assistants on their lunch hour.]

comments: 7

Fresca said...

Totally! M father was a professor from a working-class immigrant family, and I know he surrounded himself with books as Proof of Standing.
That shielding/proof was also a factor in his choice of my mother in marriage--a girl whose mother and grandmother had gone to college.

I did that with books, too--though I wasn't an aspiring academic, it was important to me to see and present myself as intellectual.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I felt I could remove T. S. Eliot from my bookshelf and still be smart---like taking off the training wheels.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Fresca.

Do you need any studies of Dryden? (But in truth, I gave those books away when I retired.)

Fresca said...

I do feel a loving recognition when books such as studies of Dryden get donated to the bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely books do serve as armor. My father was a professor and head of an electrical engineering department at one point. Books were always around. I wonder if my parents collected books also as they were the first in their family to have attended college.

Perhaps that is why books are a big love of mine to this day (as Fresca knows!).

Our house also never had a tv until the mid-70's.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for that, Kirsten. As you might know, there’s a body of literature about academics from working-class families. I can’t recall though ever reading about books as armor.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

I'm not from a working class background, but I do sometimes have imposter which I'd never previously linked to book acquisition. I think you're on to something.

Michael Leddy said...

I hope so. I wouldn’t want it to be just me. :)

By the way, I found my reservations about they vanish after reading this piece by Geoffrey Nunberg. I think he sets a good example.