Of the reading of many books there is no end...

I am a little bit overwhelmed right now. I kinda feel like crying. Probably means it's time to take a break from the work.

All I'm doing is drafting the reading list for my exams. If I were on schedule, this would have been done two years ago. But, um, I'm not. So...

The requirements for the list are extremely reasonable. Select 30-40 titles, with minimum distribution requirements for different historical periods, and solicit suggestions and approval from your committee. I've read well over 40 suitable books in the last decade, so the list-making is more a winnowing process than the creation of new assignments. Not that I won't be reading some of the books on my list for the first time this summer, but those will be kept to a minimum, and strategically picked to complement the bulk of the list which will be review.

Actually, before the winnowing comes the archaeology. A decade's-worth (give-or-take, depending on whether you count undergraduate work) of reading and intellectual production adds up to many pounds of paper (which makes the project rather un-portable). I've been busy digging out old papers, syllabi, and bibliographies; scouring my bookshelves; and pulling out the CD-ROM archives of the hard-drive contents of my last three computers.

This gets complicated when you don't have electricity, but a fair bit can be accomplished by candlelight, especially with the assistance of a headlamp-style flashlight -- at least until it starts to make your forehead itch. (The CD-ROM part, of course, has to wait when you've already run down your computer battery.)

I spent this afternoon running around the library, hunting up copies of books that I read some years ago but do not own, or books that I haven't read but should have by now, or books that might lead me to other books that will serve my purposes.

And here's where the overwhelming comes in. Open-stack libraries are a beautiful, beautiful thing for a scholar, as Alan Jacobs eloquently eulogized in Books & Culture. But they're probably not the best thing when you're trying to impose boundaries on your intellectual projects rather than expand the boundaries thereof. I had maybe six books on my list of things to look up when I went into the library, and came out with closer to 20. Few, if any, of those additional books will end up on my reading list -- not even all of the original six will -- but the geometric multiplication of titles of interest points up the utter futility of the whole project of trying to "comprehend" a field of study -- even if the exams are intentionally and very purposefully labelled "preliminaries" rather than "comprehensives."

I mean, really, how do you select only 40 titles to represent the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition? I talked with my advisor last week about identifying books to "plug some holes" in my bibliography, but once I really get to work on the bibliography itself, that seems laughable, because a bibliography of 40 titles is more hole than net, to mix metaphors, and could never be otherwise. There's no freakin' way this is going to be anything remotely resembling comprehensive.

Of course, my whole committee knows that. Of course, they're not expecting me to be comprehensive. Of course, that's exactly why they've given me this 40-title limit, to keep me from killing myself trying to become an expert on all things Christian.

Still, the prelim bibliography project represents my personal library crisis writ large -- or rather, writ small. It is an encounter with my own finitude. I cannot master the thousands of books in the Divinity library, or the hundreds of books in my apartment -- but I can become competently familiar with 30 or 40 books.

And it is actually rather fun to cull through the books I have, and have read, and have intended to read, and see the connections that emerge. The pieces of my intellectual biography are starting to come together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and the bibliography is a sort of snapshot of that thought world. And I'm getting excited again, not only about the work I've already done, but about the directions it could lead and the contributions I could make and the conversations I could join.

And even though I'm exhausted -- beyond the degree explicable by the physical exertion of going up and down the library's staircases a dozen times or so -- I recognize that this sense of overwhelmedness is categorically different than that I was experiencing three or four months ago. Then, I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I had to read; now, I'm overwhelmed by the amount I want to read. And I think that's the difference between packing it all in and just possibly actually finishing this damn degree.


***

I had a dream this morning that the power had come back on. But then I woke up, and it was only a dream. I hope it will be on when I go home, but I'm typing this in Durham, just in case.

On the one hand, the number of households without power in Orange County has been cut in half compared to yesterday; on the other hand, there is still quite a colorful array of speckles on the part of the power-outage map that represents my neighborhood. And the power company isn't predicting a full restoration of service to the area until THURSDAY AFTERNOON. I hope that's just a conservative estimate designed to make us happy when they beat it, rather than a true representation of how long it's going to take.

At least it's warm. (Warm enough to take a luke-warm shower, even.) And I have a car, and candles, and plenty of batteries. And Duke has power, so I can use their facilities and pirate energy to recharge my computer. And I don't have a toddler or an infant to care for. (If someone has to be without electricity for a day or two, I'd rather it be me than Sarah.) And I can afford to eat out for a few days without breaking the bank, and I really don't mind the excuse for a holiday from cooking. All in all, it's a minor inconvenience. But I hope it's over soon.

***

I did not spill coffee in my lap, or anywhere else, this morning. I will not confess in public the boneheaded un-coordinated thing I did instead, but the good news is that the property involved is more resilient than I at first feared, and so I will not be forced to shell out big bucks for a moment's inattention. I think I'll upgrade my copy of BibleWorks with the money I just "saved."

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