by Mark S. Weiner
On a winter afternoon in 2006, on my birthday, I gave away my library.
The previous week, I owned so many books that I built teetering stacks of them on the floor of my study. I stored the overflow in my wife’s office, and on the shelves next to the treadmill, and downstairs, beside the television. I loved those books, each one, and I had spent countless hours in their company—some I had known for over twenty years. Just looking at them made me feel secure, as though all the supportive friends I had ever known were by my side, ready to offer me their wise advice and comfort.
Then, after my wife and I crammed our ailing station wagon full of white shipping boxes, and drove to the local post office, and lifted each box to the chest-high counter, and watched an agent wheel them behind a wall, they were gone, on their way to a public library that had a use for them. Poof! The process was over surprisingly quickly.
I confess that I didn’t give away each and every one. My wife is a professor of English, so we kept the great literature. She had a claim to those books as much as I did. When I was sixteen, my mother gave me a set of Harvard Classics. I kept those. And I kept a handful of rare books that had become moderately valuable, a hedge against financial apocalypse (thanks, Joyce Carol Oates and John Dos Passos). But otherwise, when I returned to my study, my shelves and floor were bare.
Many friends and colleagues were surprised, and some thought me foolish. This was especially the view among scholars—understandably, because the books I sent away included the major works in the academic fields to which I had devoted the past fifteen years of my life. In addition to having deep emotional associations, they were my daily tools, as important to my trade as wrenches and pliers are to a plumber.
But the moment my books disappeared behind the post office wall, I was elated.
I did it to inspire myself to take a risk. I had recently received tenure as a law professor, and the security tenure provides enables scholars to be intellectually entrepreneurial. It allows them to pursue lines of research that the marketplace is unable to support and that may take years to bear fruit (if they bear fruit at all). With tenure, some faculty begin a magnum opus. I wanted to leap into the blue.
Giving away my books was a way to ensure that I would actually jump. I wanted to guarantee that what I wrote in the future wouldn’t be determined simply by grooves I had laid down in the past—that it would be the result of a determined choice. I also wanted to open the possibility of completely revising the narrative of my scholarly life.
Choosing new books to fill my empty shelves filled me with the pleasure of a beginner. Supported by a university research account, I lingered happily for hours in bookstores and online, purchasing whatever struck my fancy. My imagination hadn’t been so free since college.
Sometimes, I bought the very books I had earlier given away. I was pleased when I did so, because I knew then that I really needed them.
But for the most part, the books I purchased were about subjects entirely new to me. They filled the evenings my wife and I spent together with conversations about unfamiliar subjects, and in time they sent us on many adventures, including a semester’s stay in Akureyri, Iceland, at the northern edge of the inhabited world.
From that semester emerged my new book, The Rule of the Clan—whose subject is the future of individual freedom.
If I had been told seven years ago that I would write it, I would have looked up with happy surprise.
Mark S. Weiner teaches constitutional law and legal history at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey. He is the author of Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste, recipient of the Silver Gavel Award of the American Bar Association; and Americans without Law: The Racial Boundaries of Citizenship, recipient of the President’s Book Award of the Social Science History Association. He lives with his wife in Connecticut.