Summer monks

Most people think university professors have it easy: almost four months off in the summers, no classes, no requirement to report to work, and the paychecks still arrive each month. Why not head to Mexico?

Instead, I spend a good chunk of time each summer acting like a monk. I find a library, an archive, a repository — some institution that owns documents useful to my work — and without a backward glance I consent to spend my days not on beaches, sipping frilly drinks, but sharing long wooden tables with other antiquarians, a time-honored monastic affair. I pore over dusty, gilt-edged tomes, decipher the scribble in yellow-paged diaries, rifle through newspapers and letters left by people long dead — usually the richest dead people, too, the ones best equipped to make sure their shit wound up carefully archived, canonized, which means sometimes I’m dealing with insufferable prigs. I thumb through card catalogs, take copious notes by hand or on my computer. Sometimes I whiz through reels of microfilm like some old-fashioned genealogist.

This counterintuitive behavior may require some explanation, especially when you consider that most often this regimen requires several weeks’ separation from my family — which of course seals the monkish deal with a rather unpleasant vow of celibacy.

Why do I do this, one summer after the next? Part of my motivation, certainly, at least for the last five years, has been the issue of tenure, hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles. Each May, when teaching skids to a halt and grades are filed, I’ve had to turn all my attention to “progress on the book.” In this situation, my annual academic summer camp comes in handy. On top of the valuable resources a research archive brings, a month away from all other commitments means uninterrupted time to write: someone actually gives you a couple thousand dollars to have a serious excuse to get your reading and writing done.

Before tenure was a luxurious headache, the motivating factor for summer research trips was “progress on the dissertation.” Working on my dissertation allowed my archival habits to form in the first place, my love of leafing through stacks of old letters. Writing about New York’s late-eighteenth-century literary culture required me to make extended trips from Boston, where we lived for most of the 1990s, to New York, where I’d stay on friends’ floors and ride subways uptown to the Historical Society, where I held fellowships for successive summers. One summer I skipped town for an additional month to Princeton, to work in special collections there. Since I’d never traveled much in my twenties — I was in school pretty much from kindergarten to my Ph.D. — I got to try out life in other locations. I knew that Prospect Park, Brooklyn, where I stayed with friends, beat Central Park West for good food, but since I was poor I subsisted on street hot dogs anyway. And Princeton in August? What was I thinking? Who’s there but the cicadas? Still, such things don’t matter when you’ve got your head stuck, 10 am to 5 pm, in boxes of manuscripts.

In grad school I was also motivated by the money; summer funds ran thin, and if I could score a decent fellowship and live like a pauper — again, the monasticism — I could possibly send home an extra thousand dollars or so, get my work done and make a little money at the same time. A few years later, when money wasn’t as much of a consideration and I simply needed a serious stretch of time to finish a book, I shipped 200 lbs. of files and books to Philly, where I wrote in an attic garret provided by friends there and spent my days in the Library Company founded by Ben Franklin, tying up loose ends and covering bases with final bouts of archival work. Such trips give me intimate exposure to friends’ lives and allow me to imagine my own life elsewhere, down other paths. I’d run through Rittenhouse Square in the morning, then all the way down to the docks. I’d do yoga in crunchy central Philly neighborhoods, spend my nights grilling and chilling with my peeps.

This summer, the book safely in production and scheduled to appear sometime next spring, I’m here in LA at the Huntington, working on the next one. In addition to spending every day in what must be the most beautiful surroundings for a research library anywhere in the world, I’ve had exposure, again, to more friends’ lives from the inside out — housesitting one week for friends I’ve still not met in the flesh, then shifting down to another friend‘s beachfront neighborhood, where my morning runs come with an ocean breeze. By nights we’ve BBQed with bands from the coming Silver Lake indie boom, gone with more friends to see the same bands play, or found fantastic sushi where you’d least expect it — in a restaurant adjacent to a rundown motel.

Sex deprivation aside, spending a month or two away from home, away from habits and responsibilities, worrying about nothing but the crankiness of individual librarians or fellow researchers here or there can be rewarding. Most obviously, it’s a workaholic’s wet dream. On Saturday I decided to get some extra hours in at the library — in spite of my general rule not to work weekends — and lo and behold, the whole host of research fellows was there too, plugging away at their laptop notetaking. When do I ever get to spend a guilt-free day in a library on Saturday? Simply for asking such a question I should be branded with a scarlet N for “nerd” for life.

But in addition to making me feel professionally productive, there’s simply the pleasure of the texts to be taken into consideration. Archival research, especially in the kinds of material I work with (family papers, diaries, familiar correspondence) lets me in on lives even farther removed from my own than the distance from New York to Philly or LA. I can run through decades of an individual’s or family’s experience in a matter of days. I have the advantage of knowing when their time will be up, knowing which letter will be their last. Unlike the people I’m researching, I know what some associates say about them behind their backs and what their friends will write about them when they die. If I’m lucky I’ll find a stash of documents that will allow me to be able to reconstruct personalities, flesh out characters, understand something about the forces that shaped their experiences. I’ll stumble onto a story someone thought to preserve, and find a way to tell it that feels compelling to me — and, I hope, to my audience. 

Academics feel guilty when we aren’t working, which seems strange considering how little we’re actually paid, comparatively, for the amount of time and resources we put into our educations and our careers. We don’t keep 9 to 5 hours, for the most part: we work until the work’s through, grading papers all night, reading in all our spare moments to prepare for class. If my Monday morning lecture’s not finished Sunday night, I have to stay up until it is, even if it means no sleep. My summer monkishness is about something different: it’s about the thrill of the chase, about touching something from a past world, about retreating into my own imagination and remembering why I was the kid who spent my summers in libraries reading books in the first place.

8 responses to “Summer monks”

  1. Missy says:

    Congratulations on the book. Sucks to be such an exile that I only find out about things this way. But very cool, and certainly very deserved.

  2. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Great post, Bryan. However, though I know you acknowledge the leisure activities you’ve experienced on these trips, on this most recent “monastic affair,” I believe you have consented to spend a great deal of your time on beaches–at least, as far as the sand in my car can attest–and I’ve also seen you sip quite a few drinks, even if they were more manly than frilly…

  3. autumn says:

    I enjoyed this quite a lot. Your immersion into all of these worlds other than your own- present and past – it reads slow and meditative. and I further agree that the Huntington Library is a fine place to monk out at for the summer.

  4. Thanks, autumn. I like the verb “to monk out.” I will use that. The Huntington would be so much lovelier if this damn heat wave would break.

    Jeremy: What the hell? Any sand in your car got there in off hours, or the legit vacation week we spent here before the fellowship started. Whose ass was out the door to the library (following a 4-mile run and breakfast) before you were even awake this morning?

    Missy: Thanks. I thought I told J when I saw her in December but I guess not. I just sent the copyedits back today. Thank God. Let’s shop talk soon.

  5. PB says:

    Sometimes I am haunted by the seeming fact that so many great artists-writers-creators that I admire have crappy personal lives. Cast off lovers and spouses, barely recognized children, friends sorted through like post cards, these people wihisper the question in my ears–does a diverse life of obligation and responsibility breed mediocrity? I feel in my “monkish” moments–traveling, immersed in a store somewhere–that incredible flow of energy and I wonder. Then I get home and it fades. Then . . .
    Great post and yes you did miss me darn it, I am home and back to the fray. I for one, however, had 2 (!!) frothy drinks in a row Sunday.

  6. Lisa Parrish says:

    Per PB’s comment, one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons in the last couple of years shows a young woman writing a letter, saying, “Dear Mom and Dad: Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.”

  7. […] This year I spent a good chunk of the summer in a rental car, mastering LA’s freeways as I commuted to my research gig in Pasadena or zipped (sometimes crawled) between many fine friends’ houses (often down the 710 or 405 from Hollywood or Silver Lake toward Long Beach late at night). One byproduct of this driving ritual was that I spent more time than usual listening to full CDs rather than to my alphabetically ordered iPod. Albums! Remember those? Ten songs or so from the same artist, artistically sequenced for an overall effect? […]

  8. […] diary. Here (without giving too much away), Harry’s back at it again, doing the same sorts of things I spend my own summers doing: examining old letters and portraits and newspapers; sifting through […]