My parents gave me a bookcase for Christmas. Well, not quite—I still have to go to Ikea, pick it out, and then charm one of the handier people in my life to build it with (read: for) me. But I already know that it will have a light finish to keep my apartment airy. Moreover, it must be large, taller than I am, because my shoes are sick of sacrificing their closet shelf, my chairs are tired of filling in as makeshift end tables, and my floor space has been gradually shrinking this past semester to accommodate the overflow from my single, stuffed case.
I have a classic English-major problem: the more time passes, the more books I acquire. From material and economic standpoints, there is nothing I could feel less guilty about. In contrast, when my suitcase bursts at the seams, I’m embarrassed. A high restaurant check makes me feel uncomfortable. This fall, when my heating bill came through, I turned off the radiator, made a cup of tea, and piled on the blankets. But when I go to the campus bookstore or finally click on Amazon’s check-out button and when my shopping cart tallies to more than two weeks of groceries, I have no qualms about my purchase, as long as my bank account can afford the dip.
Don’t let my accumulation of books fool you, though. Of course, I read. A lot. But, with each passing semester, birthday, and special occasion, my library becomes increasingly riddled with unread books and books that need re-reading. Before I moved, the stacks by my bed were silent witnesses to my un-accomplishments; now, I’ve shelved what I haven’t yet been able to read. Still, I can easily pick out those books by their un-creased spines and unmarked pages. So can you.
As the semesters and years roll along, my library—my store of knowledge—becomes more and more unread, and, in a similar way, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know. Each new tunnel of curiosity only leads to more tunnels and caverns to explore. At the end of each semester, I can make out a tiny bit more of the great murkiness of everything I don’t yet know or understand. At the end of each paper or project, the observation attributed to Socrates that “the only thing I know is that I know nothing” becomes a smidge clearer to me.
A few weeks ago, I hauled a grocery bag to the library and slid more unread than read books through the return slot. My research plans had been ambitious, but time and brain-power had curbed my reaching. I ended up with one good paper, one mediocre, and one whose Word file I never want to open again. Only after I had turned in those papers did I have the perspective to see how I would change everything were I to do them over again.
In a few weeks, I’ll head back down to Champaign. I’ll set up my new bookcase and fill it with read, half-read, unread, and need-to-be-read-again books. I will begin new projects, open new books, read and write more, all the while discovering how much more there is to wonder about. I’ll wade deeper into that murkiness with a knowledge that, from new vantage points, will flicker smaller and smaller until I’m left with a few answers and many questions, like the best professors I’ve had and like the wisest people I know.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.