Friday, July 25, 2008

Books not ballgowns

There is one shopping habit common to all grad students. What is it we buy? Sub-$5 books, by the used-plastic-bagful. It never ends, and we have nowhere to put them. I still refuse to call book-collection an addiction or a vice, but I might reconsider the next time I have to move. Yesterday's acquisitions: Wendy Shalit's discovery of shomer negiah, $2, and Disraeli's Coningsby, which if the little about it I know is true is yet another busman's holiday pick, at $1 a frivolous purchase, given that it appears to be online. That's not counting Jo's picks, which would need to be included if I were to give an accurate picture of just how little non-book space remains in our apartment.

When grad students and others of this ilk talk of buying books, there's this sense that we are secretly proud of our behavior, that we think ourselves better than those for whom shopping means clothes or X-boxes. Reading is a respectable activity, enough so that those who earn little but read lots are still considered noble.

The secret--I speak of myself, not to implicate any colleagues--is that we also like to shop, 'shopping' defined as the gratuitous trip to Sephora or H&M. Dollar-book-shopping is enjoyable for us in and of itself, but it's also a way to sublimate the urge to go out and drop $150 on a pair of shoes only slightly different from the ones we already own. (I feel I must link to Amber, who makes a convincing case for using more restraint when it comes to book-buying than when it comes to buying clothes. After all, the library does not exist as an alternative to dress purchases.)

Confession time: the financial constraints of even well-funded grad school can be a strain even on the intellectually-oriented folks drawn to grad school in the first place. Contrary to popular opinion, a love of books does not rule out a love of shoes. You can't divide the world into the materialistic types drawn to lucrative fields or husbands and those of us too preoccupied with what Sartre really meant by this one sentence to wonder whether Camper ever has such a thing as a clearance sale.

The trade-off--do what you love, buy what you need--is worth it for most of us, most of the time. Things must feel quite different for those who have prior experience with the opposite trade-off. If you go more or less straight to grad school from college, on the one hand you don't have to adjust to a change in lifestyle, but on the other, the older you get, the stranger it can feel to live as a student. You go from being amazed that someone will pay you to read to realizing that you're doing as much work as your friends in other fields, yet no one's willing to rent you an apartment because you're a student. It's good to keep in mind that even a salary of $5,000 (to give a dramatic example) sounds like lots of money to someone used to being a student/unpaid intern, but the expenses of adulthood, even without kids or a car, are impossible to overestimate.

Advising others not to pursue a well-paid profession because doing so would make you miserable is considered reasonable advice. Telling those interested in doctoral programs to prepare themselves for thinking twice about buying nail polish at the drug store (normal for a teen, but sadder when one approaches 30) sounds silly--who cares about nail polish when you could be pondering Ideas?--but it's something to be prepared for before signing on.

1 comment:

Withywindle said...

There will come a point when must give away books, and/or sell them to a used book store. This point is agonizing. Once reached, one has a blissful, Buddhist sense of the non-importance of possessions. Then one can regularly give away books--not without pain, but mingled with non-possessive pleasure.