Unread book audit

With my to-be-read pile growing ever higher, and the rest of the family undertaking absorbing lockdown projects of their own (knitting, Lego towers, cooking, gardening, bottle flipping), I decided to audit my unread book collection. I was inspired by the Unread Book Challenge and Modern Mrs Darcy.

I first tackled my unread physical book pile, housed on a tower bookcase (scarily tall but perfectly stable!) and a small wooden shelf. Having passed on a third of the physical books to the community library, this collection feels more manageable. Here are some after images.

I moved on to e-books, and deleted almost half of the samples on my Kindle. That may sound like a lot, but I still have 220 samples and 12 unread books remaining. To ensure I really wanted to read these, I wrote out a brief description of each book by hand – twelve pages that look something like this:

To enable quick searching of this list, and my Kindle, I created my own categories (with books tagged in multiple categories):

  • Light and fun / 2am/ comfort reads
  • Dystopian/ speculative
  • Non-fiction/ memoir
  • Challenging/ award-winning/ non-fiction/ literature with a capital ‘L’
  • Crime/ psychological thriller/ horrow
  • Contemporary fiction/ literary fiction
  • Travel to other countries, other worlds, other times, other lives

To support reading according to mood, I refined these further into one word categories: Think, Relax, Wonder, Puzzle, Witness. With e-books sorted, I applied these categories to the physical books. Wonder and Think pictured below:

I realised I have a lot of books about books and writig, and books featuring university campuses:

My reading is tending towards the Light and fun/ 2am/ comfort read category. If you are in lockdown and missing your university campus, try a few recents reads from my collection: Never Saw Me Coming (psychopaths on campus), Plain Bad Heroines (queer gothic on campus), The Love Hypothesis (scientific romance on campus) or Legendborn (magical fantasy on campus).

Notes while reading

I sometimes keep a notebook of ‘notes while reading’. This was crucial during my PhD, but has become an occasional rather than disciplined practice. At any time, what I am reading shapes my thinking. Regular readers of this blog will know that in most posts I share excerpts from journal articles and academic books. I also frequently post on the books I am reading outside of work; for example: memoirs on mortality, dystopian fiction, a year in books and reading about time.

I find one of the joys of reading is the way in which the mind makes connections between disparate texts: a page-turning novel by Mira Grant about scientists searching for killer mermaids had me thinking about the ethics of research funding. Another example: Susan Carter’s (2020) Academic Identity and the Place of Stories: The personal in the professional starts with the wonderful analogy of a “fruitcake imaginary”:

To defuse how risky and ambitious [the] introduction of stories into an academic argument felt, I joked that this would be “one fruitcake of a book” …. The fruitcake imaginary is an extended metaphor that tries to span the intellectual richness of academia and kitchen-table homeliness of a family recipe, with a whiff of quirkiness from working across these zones. There’s the literature and framework of academic thinking, rich with accumulations of research, and flavoured by theory. Game theory is here, and, with it, a penchant towards play as a deliberate method. Stories from life persistently wind through academicity to textually enact the interconnections between extramural life and academic career. Life experience is valued. A fruitcake is an inclusive cake. It is solid by merit of all that goes into it.

There was a connection for me with the novel Gillian Polack’s The Year of the Fruitcake, in which a mind-wiped gender-switching alien anthropologist inhabits the body of a perimenopausal woman on Earth.

Here is a crop of readings that are currently stretching my thinking. The list spans academic articles in higher education, academic books, and fiction reads, and I am presenting this selection intertextually.

Reading about sharing food and ideas

I enjoyed Alison Phipps and Ronald Barnett’s (2007) article Academic Hospitality:

It takes material form in the hosting of academics giving papers. It takes epistemological form in the welcome of new ideas. It takes linguistic form in the translation of academic work into other languages, and it takes touristic form through the welcome and generosity with which academic visitors are received.

The article speculates on the giving and receiving of hospitality in academic life, who is welcomed or otherwise, rules and ceremonies and the roles of hosts and guests. It refer to a dependence on travel and crossing borders, but I read this at a time in which academic hospitality during COVID-19—changes to how we welcome and celebrate students and colleagues, limitations on travel and border closures, restrictions on shared meals and informal gatherings, and the opening up of virtual spaces.

I gobbled up two young adult books recently that focus on shared food and (sometimes dangerous) ideas: Elizabeth Acevedo With the Fire on High, about a black teen mother who is a magical cook (including sensory recipes), and Asphyxia’s Future Girl, which tells the story of a deaf teen artist in dystopian near-future Melbourne challenging food shortages (including artworks and info-graphics).

Reading about identity and emotion

The title ‘The emotional knots of academicity: a collective biography of academic subjectivities and spaces” put this article by five women (Jennifer Charteris, Susanne Gannon, Eve Mayes, Adele Nye and Lauren Stephenson) on my must-read list. What kept me reading (and thinking) were the interconnections of academic identity, higher education spaces and affect revealed in three narratives. These were written in a collective biography workshop, “where participants constructed accounts of the physical, social, material and imaginative dimensions of subjectivities in the ‘academic-city’ of higher education spaces.”

In the first story, a casual academic travels to unpaid meetings in the hope of a job, comparing “thirsty Australian landscape of meadows and scrawny looking sheep” to the “verdant pastoral belt of … home.” In the second, an academic is schooled in the hierarchy of office locations and parking spaces, and in the third story a PhD candidate finds a feminist community in a “fiery women’s cottage”.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is on my list of favourite reads for this year. For a story about mental illness and the end of a marriage, narrated by a sometimes unlikeable character, this book is strangely hopeful: “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change, usually on their own.” Another of my favourites, which resonated for ideas about community and disconnection is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.

Reading about bodies and refusal

This autoethnography from two (Ab)original academic women, Lauren Tynan and Michelle Bishop, is an unconventional and powerful piece of writing. It offers a collaborative account of working for their communities within the systems and structures of whiteness:

Refusal is empowering – it’s about learning to say ‘no’. Not in an arrogant way, but learning to see exploitation, and learning to avoid it. Sometimes saying no feels like a mistake; a missed ‘opportunity’. But who ultimately benefits from my continual acquiescence? I check myself, learn
to trust my gut and listen to the messages from Country and our Old People.

There were many corollaries with my recent reading: on hierarchical systems and power, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; on remembering and refusal, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police; and on rising to the challenge of writing against white conventions, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.

And happy NAIDOC week! Books are a great way to reflect on the theme “Always Was, Always Will Be”. We have enjoyed these kids books (via a school subscription to Storybox Library):

Tell me: what have been your favourite books this difficult year? And do you have any higher education articles to recommend that share the themes of community, connection, identity and power?

Contaminated time

Following my recent article with co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics, I have been noticing discussions of time everywhere (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work). Our article appeared in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching. Here is what the editors, Penny Jane Burke and Catherine Manathunga had to say:

This special issue was conceived of and developed before the advent of COVID-19.  Yet, in writing our editorial in the middle of this significant rupture in time, we noted how COVID-19 has brought to the fore existing inequities in how time is experienced everyday by people living on the margins …

I am slowly making my way through the articles, reading some with the Idea of the University reading group (what a pleasure it is to read and think together):

In our article, Lilia, Vanessa and I positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

I have noticed this idea of contaminated and deferred time recurring in writings about the experience of COVID-19.

In a BBC article on the perception of time:

During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill … This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception … [We are] forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.

Similarly, Scientific American describes the numbing sameness of days, noticing the effects of time distortion. Heidi Pitlor’s Days Without Name captures the mundane (“My son had helped organise the spice drawer”), and Trent Dalton’s Tales from the Bunker shares the anxiety:

Can’t sleep … Gonna be a long year for us overthinkers. I’ll take a thought in the early hours of the morning and turn it upside down and inside out until it has existed so long in my head and in my bones that it’s grown strength. Mutated. Negative thinking’s like a virus. Host thoughts find host thoughts. Each thought mutates and multiplies exponentially and inexplicably…

I’m looking forward to Dalton’s new book (Boy Swallows Universe was one of last year’s favourites). Many authors are writing through their experience of COVID-19. Clare Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (another book that made my yearly favourites list, in 2014), writes:

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now.

Jesmyn Ward lost her husband and her favourite place in the world, tucked under his arm. She kept writing:

My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor.

On grief and time, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, written after the sudden death of her adult son, is a powerful work of fragmented non-fiction: “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life … living in suddenly arrested time.”

In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy reveals of the impact of COVID-19 in her “poor-rich country” India. It is a powerful piece for the comparison of America and India, the backdrop of Muslim/Hindi relations, caste system, government denial, violence and limited preparation for lockdown. “A nation of 1.38bn people … locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice.” The deep inequalities that Roy highlights are devastating. It is upsetting to read this several months after it was written, knowing that India now has the fastest growing number of cases worldwide. In April, Roy wrote:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

And, thinking of portals, here is last night’s distraction, upscaled video footage of England in 1901. Described as a “time travel experience”, it is uncanny and mesmerising. Check out Denis Shiryaev’s YouTube channel for footage of New York, Tokyo, Germany, France and more in the early 1900s.

I read some of these pieces for my creative writing studies, looking at non-fiction this semester, and completed my own writing exercise on the senses:

Our emotions were tumultuous. We were overwhelmed, playful, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—all before getting dressed. Two adults working and two children schooling from home was a challenge, but we’ve survived worse. My daughter previously missed eight months of school due to illness, so this constrained intimacy was familiar.

Six months in, our emotional response has flattened. There is a sameness to each day, and we crave novelty. We want the anticipation of a holiday, the shock of new sensations. Noticing an ordinary day reminds me that against the scale of collective trauma elsewhere, our banality is fortunate.

I spend the work day on my laptop, jumping between Zoom meetings. My eyes are feeling the strain. While walking the dog, I try to stretch my sight to the tops of trees, into the blue sky.

A woman is selling home-made biscuits door to door. She has lost her job and has children to support. The biscuits taste of cinnamon and desperation.

My seven-year-old sings and chatters constantly. He talks to his Lego. It is charming and annoying.

The children need more hugs. So does the dog. During a Zoom meeting she pushes her too-large body onto my lap. My fingers curl around her spoodle-soft fur.

At the end of the day, I climb into clean sheets. All the goodness and comfort of laundry powder, a hint of eucalyptus and lemon, and the wind. It smells like home, renewed.

For those seeking the distractions of fiction, these are my favourite time distortion books: Conni Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Tabitha Bird’s A Lifetime of Impossible Days, and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel. Read all those? Try Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill, Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Next on my to-be-read list comes from here.