Re Collection

Walter Benjamin, in "Unpacking My Library," writes

The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of
individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final
thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them. (60)

Today, I’m thinking of my exam areas and the respective lists–collections,
really–as temporarily locked items in magic circles. I’m semi-officially
in the exam phase of my program of study, and although I have yet to type up a
reflective essay (a post-coursework "Stuff I’m Thinking About") and get
thumbs-ups from the grad committee in the fall, my lists are


With a streak of good, steady studying, I hope to examine in November.

I filled two hours this afternoon with shelving toward what Benjamin calls
the "mild boredom of order" in a book collection. I’m still missing a few;
they should arrive from various sellers in ten days or twelve. My
library hunts are complete, and I have nearly all of the article length stuff in
pdf, html or paper. And a couple of (bold) books on my list are neither
in Bird Library nor in the collections of my examiners. For these, I’ll
wait a few weeks before deciding what to do about it. I have a slim margin
of excess in my lists. That is, they’re built to withstand subtractions.
And I should expect, as I would with any reading, that a few items in the
collections will peel off and drop away while other shadow texts will be
recruited into the sets along the way. About the "mild boredom of order":
I tend to keep books loosely organized into chaopiles. But ten-book stacks
were beginning to wall in my desk space, so I picked up a cheap shelf and
dedicated it to housing exam items.

I’ve half-joked before that exam lists could just be randomizations of titles
from the book collections of our committee members. In such a system, each
examiner or committee member would provide a long list of books, an
idiosyncratic list of books ever-before-read. Examinees (or computers!)
would determine student’s exam lists by running a randomization rule on the
larger list. And then read. Eccentric, sure. But I’d bet you a
quarter that the stuff I’m reading (collections more or less of my own design)
wouldn’t diverge in drastic ways from randomizations pulled from my examiners’

There is still more work to do with the formal statements defining each
examination area. I have rough starts, but those will have to be polished
before the first grad committee meeting in early fall. Although there’s no
provision to allow for such a thing, I’m tempted to break precedent and submit a
photo for my exam proposal. I doubt it would fly. Maybe just for the exam
on visualization and new media. Might improve the proposal’s odds if I
appeared in the photo, reading or even posed-as-if-about-to-start-reading.

Qualifying Exams


  1. wow… now I do feel behind. How did I start out ahead and end up behind? guess I better get crankin’.

    Your tip about starting by making a combined list of the books from coursework is a great idea. I think I’ll start there.

  2. I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary to make those lists or even collect all of the exam reading the way I’ve done here. These things probably say more about my own OCD tendencies with certain projects than anything else. I mainly wanted to see the exam collections all at once, apart from the more abstract-seeming lists. So given that I have to get my hands on all of this stuff along the way, I put it together. But I’m sure it’s both reasonable and practical to approach the reading and accessing materials much more casually without sacrificing quality.

  3. this is just another example of how organized you are (or, how disorganized I am). my exam stuff, while it did start out on it’s own bookshelf, had to become more mobile. that is, I needed to be able to move my exam preparing to various rooms in my house to accomodate house guests and remodeling and etc. so I have THREE laundry basketsfull of books and notebooks and folders full of articles and ETC that appear in and disappear from spaces in my house.

    right now I’m at the end of my dining room table. *sigh*

  4. One of the pleasures of getting through the diss that I never realized until you posted this was the gradual disappearance of books from my dissertation bookcase. Three feet wide, three shelves high, and now it’s finally fully empty except for some old conference programs and Chronicle almanacs.

    The books have gone back to the library, into my ‘real’ bookshelves, or back to the local used book store. And there’s something in that Benjamin essay about the affective weight of how we order our knowledge that makes me almost feel like asking: “Is that all there is? The dissertation as a process of evacuation?”

  5. I had a similar experience to Mike’s with my diss bookcase. But–and maybe it’s because I’m in home-buying mode more than academic mode right now–despite the substance this post begs for, the only comment I can think to make after reading/viewing it is that you appear to have some very nice hardwood floors.

  6. Not a bad idea, M. But I’d have had to do a bunch of laundry to free up the baskets, and I’m feeling disaffected with a case of the June lazies. Organized, maybe. But I haven’t been reading especially intensely lately. I’ll need a more mobile system when the fall rolls around.

    I meant to leave you a note of congratulations on wrapping up the diss, Mike. I’m sure you’re relieved to be at that point. It has helped me to see the books, to corral them into a space where I can get my hands on any given one of them (or any other one of them after leafing through the first). It makes the exams more tangible, even if the questions remain nebulous. I’ve been trying lately to come up with more focused themes to trace through the reading, but the paradox is that more I read, the more themes suggest themselves. Still, I’m very early in the process.

    They’re cold in the winter, Lance, but yes, we have decent hardwoods. Always preferred them, especially after tearing up carpet in our previous house and finding how wonderfully carpet collects and traps vast amounts of floor nastiness. I suppose they’re not the best for a baby’s fresh knees, but we’ll try throw rugs and other play mats to soften that stage when it comes.

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