Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Of Marginal Interest

Doctor Erlen Meijer, he thought. Adjunct Professor Doctor Erlen Meijer. He picked up another book from a pile and put it with others in a box. A young man with a newly-published dissertation can expect to do a lot of moving, and Erlen was packing up his efficiency in Newport. Over the eight years he'd spent in one school or another, he'd acquired a facility for living lightly, making kits of essential gear, the cooking kit, the clothing kit, the technology kit. Instead of an old car, he had an eleven year old pickup truck with a cap over the bed. With that and a few reused boxes, he could move out of or into a small apartment in less than a day. Travel was likewise codified. When he had to fly, he took a backpack and a shoulder bag for his laptop. One went under the seat ahead and the other overhead. His residences were bare of decoration, but he was as ready to depart as a fugitive. The only flaw in the logistical schema was the books.

He was a literary academic, and the equipment of his profession was almost as bulky as that of a biologist or a physician. His dissertation discussed an obscure aspect of D. H. Lawrence and the New Mexico period. It was built, of course, on published material, and what Erlen saved by streamlining his physical life, he spent on books, journals, and reprints of articles. He kept track of things he had on hand, and he always referred to his list before he bought anything else. The list, at this point in his career, had 328 titles in one physical form or another, not to mention 204 digital documents. It occurred to him, usually late at night, that instead of coffee spoons, he'd measured out his life in volumes of literary criticism and technique.

Now, though, he was past two milestones. He'd completed his doctoral work and found an actual faculty job, and he was prepared to part with some of the library. The near term task was a move to Michigan, and over 30 of his old books were going into a box that would not be going with him. It would go only as far as an online sales service. Soon, these books, some well-used, some barely explored, would go back into circulation, and the few dollars he got for them would pay for some of the gasoline the drive would burn up.

He picked up a hardbound volume, a leftover from an undergraduate Humanities class. He realized that he'd been carrying it around ever since, without once referring back to it. He was near the end of the culling and packing process, and he spared a moment to flip a few pages. He noticed at once that it was annotated. The sections that were covered in the course were covered in the book with notes in his handwriting, and he was first surprised and then amused at his early reactions to what the author had to say. 

The book was Konstanza Eueler's Surreal Film: The Narrative of Non-narration. In his Sophomore year, it had been au courant in film school circles, and Erlen had paid a little less than fifty dollars for a new copy. As it turned out, his interest in film and the reputation of the author waned at the same rate, but at the time, he'd worked his way through the book, carefully underlining things and writing, as he thought you were supposed to, things like "Wow!" or "Hmmm?" in the margin. As the text went on, his comments gained greater weight in his undergraduate self-estimation. He added references to other writers, even managing to bring Susan Sontag into it and inserting a gratuitous reference to the Catholic liturgy. 

Today, as he read through it, he began to be embarrassed by what he'd thought of things, all those years back -- or, he realized suddenly, by what he'd thought he was supposed to think, the not-insightful insights he'd borrowed, and the obvious pretension of it all. The gerund posing came to mind, and if he'd been familiar with it, so would the meme imposter syndrome. He closed the book with what was nearly a shudder, dropped it into the box, and folded the flaps. Time to go.

Eight years went by. Erlen was almost completely absorbed by his young career. Positions in the humanities were thin on the ground, and the amount of work, far removed from study and analysis, was by itself enough for a full job. On top of the departmental administrivia came teaching, counseling identity-crisis-stricken undergraduates, and always, always, the struggle to publish, present, and be noted. The quarterly accounting of funds and grants and stipends would have made Luca Pacioli hesitate.

The environments – the departments -- were hierarchical in a way that nationalistic governments could only admire. Still a young and relatively new academic, Erlen existed in an environment of sweetly expressed passive aggression. The old joke about the psychiatrist who says "Good Morning" and the colleague who thinks "I wonder what he meant by that?" was a remarkably apt touchtone. Erlen accepted it and even found a space within it. So, although each passing year made it harder to think about another way of making a living, he scraped out a tiny den in a shrinking wilderness. He wasn't aware of any serious failings or false steps or blots on his escutcheon. And so a discussion, one on one with his department Chair, was not unusual or especially frightening. Sitting across a desk from her, he nodded at the right times, offered a few suggestions he knew would be acceptable, and saw the clear signs of the meeting coming to an end. He stood up.

At this point, the Chair leaned back, thanked him, and then picked up a book. It was a hardcover, worn a bit at the edges of the binding, dark blue with white titles. "I can't stay out of book stores," she said. "I was in Atlanta this week, and I wandered into a place just off campus. I saw this, and I just had to have it. Very dated, of course. The text itself is funny enough, but the comments someone's written in it are a scream." She turned it around and pushed it across the deck. There, in text larger than the title, was Konstanza Eueler. The black and white picture of her, wearing a beret and standing in front of a pillared university building, struck Erlen like a swastika spray-painted on a door.

Oh my God, he thought. Every look, every slightly stiff greeting from the Chair, every laughing conversation he'd seen her have, far down a hall, with someone else appeared like captions on a screen. My God, my God, did I write my name in that book?! 

He picked it up, opened it to the inside of the cover. No name there. He turned a few pages. "Oh, yes," he said. His mouth was exceedingly dry. "I ... I see what you mean." He pretended to look for more notes, scanning for anything that might give him away. "Oh. Oh, yes. I see. Very funny." He put it back on the desk, glanced desperately at his watch, and made some papier-mâché exit line.

All night, he was awake, turning over and over in his mind the ways that his childishness might be traced back to him. On one hand, he argued, if she'd known, why would she have shown it to me? How could she know? And why would she want to confront me with it? He tried to imagine something he might have done or said to offend. It wouldn't have to have been to her; it could have been with someone else and they reported it

What are you saying? he'd ask. What do you mean, 'reported' it? This isn't the Soviet Union. There's no KGB here. But the memories kept coming back: the foolish, naive, self-assured youth he'd been and the callow, received ideas he'd betrayed . And then, near dawn, the real horror descended on him. That was only one book!

He could see, as clearly as if he were back in that Rhode Island apartment, the box of books. He drew in a deep breath as he realized that he'd deliberately selected things from his early years, purposefully gathered up titles in which he might have written anything! And if one obscure and long-forgotten piece of the nineteen-eighties had surfaced, where were the others? And in how many of them had he fatally recorded himself as an owner?

He got up, walked to the window of his bedroom, and raised the shade. Even in the dark, the shape of the town was laid out in streetlights. Up a hill, though, the University itself was a darker rectangle, framed in the external lines of bright roads. The reality of the situation closed in and made itself a comfortable home. This was a personal issue. All of the time spent learning, following, and re-learning the rules, all of those uncomfortable meetings, interviews, starched-stiff social events, all of those petty, uninformed, cavalier comments from reviewers ... all that he'd endured to be here, clinging to a crack in the cliff face with just the edge of the summit of Mount Tenure visible ... all of that was at stake.

He turned around and went to the small second bedroom. There was a desk, and his laptop was on it. In a couple of minutes, he was looking at his long book inventory list, sorting it by date acquired, and scrolling through to the items marked as "Sold". In a second window, he brought up a browser. One by one, he began working his way through the list of entries, searching used book sites. How long will this take me, he wondered, and how much will I have to spend to destroy the evidence?
Joseph McConnell, 2017

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