Packing my library, or the impossibility of precarious feeling

1. Packing my library

Twelve or fifteen standardized brown boxes of books, covered in dollar store tarps and dust from lizard corpses and asbestos toxins — I’m lining them all up, three by four, three by five. Each box is stamped identically with bar codes, and green icons certify that they are all made from recycled paper, but nothing says where the recycled paper came from, so you wonder, does it come from dead books? Obsolete books? All those textbooks that your students don’t really read — do their carcasses get recycled into your moving boxes?

I’m leaving all the boxes in a dirty garage with bad air in Whittier, California, where my precarious postdoc contract is coming to an end. And a week later the movers will come for them, but I won’t watch as they stack them up in a trailer. The books will traverse the desert flats and the desert mountains, sit indifferently through a long series of desolate towns, and cross the Mississippi driven by some unknown driver. Each day the books will get slightly more crushed by the furniture stacked on top of them. One moving company estimates that my family’s belongings collectively weigh about 8,400 pounds. I start to fantasize that the moving trailer will fall in the sea or off a cliff, and so free us from the immense weight of our household goods. But would we do anything but buy them again? What are we if not agents of our metastasized objects and objectified needs?

Even the books, for those of us working in bookish fields, become fetish objects whose inhuman spirits impel us to adopt false needs as our own — such as the need for academic work in a dehumanized world, where labor equals docility, pliability, and migration. In a rigid system whose parts don’t fit together, gnashing like mismatched gears, the individual is always asked to grease the gears with their flesh or to crush the self down into some malformed space misnamed “opportunity.” That’s why my books are en route to Cleveland, where my partner is starting a postdoc, and it’s also why I won’t be staying in Cleveland, because I’m going a few weeks later to another teaching job 8,200 miles farther away. Separation has become the condition of our continued academic labor, and we have to believe that this separation is a condition of future togetherness, a step towards solving the misnamed “two body problem.” But even my books won’t be coming on the transatlantic flight. I’ll miss them, too.

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