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Book notes (September 2019)

Immediately after I finished my MA in 2017, I felt driven to consider starting a PhD. It seemed like the obvious thing to do, like riding a bike once you’ve mastered the training wheel stage. But it soon became clear that there would be a few obstacles in the way. To name a few: a nagging uncertainty about whether anthropology would be the right field for me to invest 5 to 7 years of my life (I feel equally drawn to science and technology studies and occasionally critical management studies); the institutional near-impossibility of finding a program that would allow part-time study and wouldn’t require me to act as cheap labour for the university; and the lack of a sufficiently sustainable topic to apply with.

While doing coursework — and particularly when writing — my reading became narrowly focused and purpose-driven. For me, that was one of the greatest benefits of being in a graduate program: the nature of the work forced me to stay with particular lines of inquiry, to become an expert in the literature about something very specific. To then write about it (and doing a half-decent job of it) felt very satisfying. I generally enjoyed having to read things that I wouldn’t organically pick for myself. This was a kind of experience that was entirely lost on me the first time I went to university when I had not yet learned to appreciate the value of operating within constraints. In my early to mid 20s, I expended a lot of energy chafing at “having to” read things I didn’t think I needed.

By the end of my MA program, I did feel a certain reading fatigue, or more precisely, a growing desire to start tackling the piles of books that had inevitably accumulated in the meantime but had been set aside in favour of ethnographies and papers about research ethics [1].

Book piles accumulate in my office and on my night table all the time. While I completely understand that I will never be able to read all of the books that I buy — just like I’ll never listen to all the music on Spotify — the acts of browsing, ordering, acquiring, paging, “reading around in,” sorting, etc. have been essential to my intellectual formation and continue to play an important role for me. Books are visual signposts of where my head is at, what’s next on the thinking agenda, of the big and small topics that make up the project that is Carsten’s head.

I have diverse and eclectic interests but also suffer from various preference and priority constraints of my own invention that can sometimes be a hindrance. As a rule, I tend to think the most “worthwhile” things to read are philosophy, critical theory, history, classic literature, and so on. The effect is that progress through the backlog is slow, and because I tend to put fiction at or near the bottom of the list, often not very enjoyable. Lately, I’ve been trying to change it up a bit in favour of more narrative fare, be it Marco Polo’s Travels or Julietta Singh’s strange but wonderful No Archive will Restore You [2].

Not surprisingly perhaps, I have very few people to talk to about my reading interests. As a non-academic, I read a lot of academic fare; as a non-specialist, however, I don’t generally read “deeply” enough to really be able to dig in with my academic friends (this I suppose is generally a flaw with how academic careers are now structured and stratified). And most of my “business” friends could care less about Marxism, or historical critiques of design, or Hellenistic philosophy, or any of the other idiosyncratic foibles on my list.

Here, then, by way of a photo gallery of sorts, is a portrait of what’s currently in my “to read” book piles. Yes, there are multiple piles. Quite a few of these books are partially read. Many will quite possibly never be read any more than they already are, but for now, they’ve been judged “still current” and haven’t been filed into the bookshelves yet. Many fill me with equal amounts of excitement and melancholy because I may never fully get to them (and maybe a small amount of dread).

Book pile September 2019 - I
Book pile September 2019 – I

I.

Book pile September 2019 - II
Book pile September 2019 – II

II.

Book pile September 2019 - III
Book pile September 2019 – III

III.

Book pile September 2019 - IV
Book pile September 2019 – IV

IV.