Building a personal research and teaching library – a few thoughts inspired by Dave Beer, The case of bookcases. Thank you to Dave both for this post and encouraging me to say something about my books.
At home, I’m fortunate to have a large room as a study. This is the main writing collection, with all the books by Foucault, Heidegger, Lefebvre and other thinkers whose work I want to have easily accessible. I have most in original language and translation. I also have a lot of secondary literature on each of them, and, especially with Foucault, a lot of related texts – documents, bibliographies, pamphlets, etc. I also have nearly all my history of political thought and philosophy books, pre-20th century, at home – loads of books by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and many others. I also have books by Kostas Axelos, the complete run of the Arden Shakespeare, along with most of the Cambridge and Penguin editions, secondary literature and related books. Novels are all at home too, though now in a different room.
Increasingly I’ve also been building up collections of thinkers who I turned to at least initially because of a connection with Foucault – Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Ludwig Binswanger, Georges Bataille, Georges Dumézil, Sigmund Freud, Roland Kuhn, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Wahl… But some of these have or may become a focus of projects in their own right.
In my Warwick office, I have books I mainly use for teaching, which means nearly all the history, geography and politics research books and textbooks. I also have quite a lot of 20th and 21st century theory at work. These are often thinkers I teach, but don’t usually write about – including Giorgio Agamben, Louis Althusser, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Frantz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, Jean-Paul Sartre… All the books by geographers like Louise Amoore, Klaus Dodds, David Harvey, David Livingstone, Doreen Massey, Neil Smith, Edward Soja and so on are there too. My collections of theorists I’ve worked on in the past, but probably won’t again, like Eugen Fink, Carl Schmitt, and Peter Sloterdijk, are at work too. And there are loads of books by theorists I may never write on, but read or have read a lot – Alain Badiou, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Jane Bennett, Wendy Brown, William Connolly, Jenny Edkins, Umberto Eco, Roberto Esposito, Luce Irigaray, Ernst Kantorowicz, Bruno Latour, Quentin Skinner, Ann Laura Stoler, Slavoj Žižek and others. A lot of the people I read, write about or teach have written a lot, and I do tend to get most of those books. There was an ‘authors where you have more than 10 of their books’ list thing going round a while ago, and I guess I would be at something like forty authors.
At home I also have one small bookshelf and lots of piles which are of books ‘to read’ – most of the recently bought books, along with ones I’ve been sent by authors, or by publishers as review copies or in recompense for review work. There are some of those books at work too, but most are at home, which has been useful in this period when I can’t access the work office. I have no idea what post is awaiting me at work – although everything I’ve bought in the past several weeks has been sent to home, there is usually quite a bit that goes to the work address. In normal times there is a constant ferrying of books between home and work, and the pile to take to work when the University reopens is quite large now.
Despite how many I have, I wouldn’t really describe myself as a book collector, as the point of getting these is because of their use, rather than their worth or just to have. I like to be able to resolve reference queries quickly when writing, and having such an extensive library at home makes that a lot easier. But some of the books I wanted for work purposes were harder to find than others. Things like the original edition of Foucault’s Folie et déraison, or the first edition of Naissance de la clinique, superseded by newer editions, but with significant differences. Some of the early books by Lefebvre which are long out-of-print were hard to find – and I got hold of most of these in the 1990s, before sites like bookfinder.com made it much easier to find second-hand copies. His little book on Hitler, for example, took many years before I located a copy. I don’t tend to search out first editions for the sake of it, or signed copies, though I have signed books by Lefebvre and Dumézil, which were not that expensive. A signed copy of Foucault would probably be out of my price range…
I’ve written before about the appearance of books in a series, and how presses shift the style in seemingly arbitrary ways. Looking for that post led me to a couple of others I’d written about my own collection – some 2010 thoughts on how books were organised; and moving house and unpacking my library back in 2012.
I do have an awful lot of books, and even with all the space I have, the shelves are getting full and in some cases overflowing. To free up some room I’ve been trying to scan old box files of photocopied journal articles and chapters, but this is slow work. There are also some old runs of journals at work, which I almost never look at – if I want something I tend to get the pdf via the library, so those are probably the next thing to go to save space. I have a quite well-organised library of pdfs of articles and some books, which I keep in iCloud and so can access anywhere. It’s really helpful to have that access, and quite a lot of books I own I also have as pirate pdfs. I wish more publishers would follow Verso‘s model of bundling e-books with physical sales.
Although I can’t finish The Early Foucault manuscript until libraries reopen, I can continue or begin quite a few projects with what I have at home. In the weekend before the University closed, I picked up a few books from the office I thought I might need. That’s been useful, and I do have a lot of books at home, but I’m still missing being able to access the ones at work, or in libraries in the UK and further afield. This is especially the case at the moment as I’m trying to check and correct references in an edited translation.