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Packing a Chinese-American Library

January 16, 2012

In his brilliant reflection on book collecting, “Unpacking My Library,” published after his untimely death in 1940, the great German essayist Walter Benjamin writes that “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” No doubt he was aware of the irony here. Discovery of the larger framework of culture and the broadening of intellectual perspective, at least for book collectors, follows the rather selfish and acquisitive process of building a collection of books for solitary perusal. Private libraries thus have at least the capacity to shape the direction of intellectual life, just as do public libraries and other resources available to the crowd.

As I consider next month’s move to Nanjing, where my teaching will begin for the Spring semester, it’s easy to recall Benjamin’s essay, which among other things describes the pleasure of a book collector reunited with his beloved collection after a two-year separation. With only two suitcases of luggage permitted on my Fulbright semester to China, the devoted scholar and book collector (and what English professor is not a book collector on some level?) has to make some difficult choices. Library resources for American literature will be quite limited at any university in China, especially as compared with the superb library and library services available at my home university. Moreover, I’m told that my graduate students will not have access to the kinds of books taken for granted by most American graduate students of literature. Common texts like literary anthologies, for instance, will not be in the hands of my Chinese students, and I’ve been advised that the library in Nanjing will have some anthologies, but only a few, and those few will be perhaps 15 or 20 years old. And so how to pack strategically the kinds of books that will best serve my teaching and research. Granted, some materials are going to be available on-line, at least I hope they will be available on-line and accessible through the political fire-walling of the Internet in China, but for the literary scholar, there’s not yet a complete abandonment of the book. It’s still the best technology for reading and literary teaching ever invented.

True it is that some technological resources will be crucial for the Fulbright semester in China: I’ll be bringing an iPhone (probably this will be supplemented by a local cell phone purchased in China), MacbookPro, MacBook Air, and Kindle Fire. By the way, I’m looking forward to getting some future generation of Kindle Fire that will allow wireless printing from downloaded books. Now that will be some pretty tremendous stuff.

But here’s an attempt, in no particular order, to describe one early American literature scholar’s tidy knapsack of essential books (I’m talking honest to goodness paper books, mind you) for a semester in China. Think of it as the barest beginnings of one Americanist’s desert island library:

1. C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature, 6th Edition (1992). This is really *the* crucial book for any graduate student in English, with practically faultless definitions of literary term. Necessary both for the edification of my students and to aid my memory of terms mentioned in teaching but not often used in my own work. And critical for explaining to anyone who will listen why the expression “Epic Fail” makes absolutely no sense unless it’s applied to epic poetry.

2. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony To Province (1953). Hoping to re-read this as time permits. Both for historical brilliance on the Puritan tradition and for a reminder of what intellectual history can accomplish. So much to learn here about scholarly writing at the hands of the great and tragic Miller.

3. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volumes A and B, Beginnings to 1865. Speak not to me of Heath and Bedford anthologies. This is the winner and still heavyweight champion of American literature anthologies. An adventure in bringing American literary studies into a foreign context deserves no less. I intend to photocopy from it promiscuously as needed in the land of very limited copyright protections.

4. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: or, Life in the Woods (1854). Of course I have this on my iPhone and Kindle Fire, but we’re talking Thoreau here, and I plan to model his example with reverence for the printed page and extended discussion with my students about working toward an impeccable English prose style.

5. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or the Whale (1851). Penguin classic edition. Because it is time to read it once more, even if I don’t ask my Chinese graduate students to do the same. A reminder of all that is vertiginous, transcendent, and bizarre in the American literary canon.

6. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). Stowe’s non-Uncle Tom’s Cabin books don’t get enough attention, and that’s about to change this year with my reading and writing plans. Dred was written on the eve of the Civil War, after the country had already been spun into turmoil that would lead to terrible violence. Perhaps her most profound attempt to inhabit the mind and perspective of American slaves.

7. Faithful Passages: American Catholicism in Literary Culture, 1844-1931 (forthcoming 2012). Available in manuscript only at this point, this is my personal attempt to describe some aspects of Roman Catholicism in American literature of this period. Look for updates and official publication information in this space over the next few weeks.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mary Frances Heinsohn permalink
    January 17, 2012 8:08 am

    Jim, yes, an exciting and wonderful adventure in and of itself: what books to take with such limited space! I agree with you on the usefulness of the Holman and Harmon text ( I still have my old faithful copy from graduate school days!). Again, I applaud you choice of the Stowe novel–let’s expand beyond the old standby novel! By the way, I also think that we need to explore more of Louisa May Alcott’s non-children’s novels such as her Long Fatal Love Chase. Well, happy adventures!

    Mary Frances Heinsohn

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