Every time I travel somewhere, two Yelp searches happen. The first is for donuts. The second is for used book stores.
I have a pretty significant habit of collecting books on my shelves that go unread. For a while, I started feeling guilty about this habit. What a waste! Sometimes, ultimatums get thrown around. “No more buying until you finish this shelf.” That works approximately .2% of the time because lo and behold, another trip comes up, another bookstore appears only blocks from where I stay, and my suitcase fills up with volumes. Especially if the bookstores have a religion section. Or a cookbook section. Or memoir.
I read a delicious article the other day that demanded I stop feeling guilty about acquiring unread books (within limits). It suggested that seeing unread books on shelves makes us eager to keep learning each day, because we know that our knowledge is limited and we can keep expanding it. The unread books serve as a reminder that we don’t know everything.
As a PhD student, this attitude of “not knowing” often translates to poor work. It can be difficult to admit when we don’t know a particular fact, or an entire body of literature. There have been moments in class, in a workshop, even in a meeting when I feel silly asking a question that “I should know the answer to.” But not asking the question breeds further imposter syndrome, no matter how many Google searches one can do to alleviate the feeling of not belonging due to a lack of awareness.
It almost feels comical sometimes, the way we pivot conversations to disguise not knowing for what we do know. Think of the typical politician who somehow always gets their talking points in an interview, without being asked. One of my professors assured me that the longer I do this work, the more I will realize I actually don’t know.
Reframing my work brings some comfort to this awkward admission. Maybe my job isn’t “to know,” but actually to recognize what I don’t know, and to strategize ways to find out. Moreover, maybe it’s about the questions we ask. Why are we fascinated by people of the past? What do their lives mean for us? If I interview 50 chaplains about their work, will they give me similar answers?
Academia’s most exciting aspects rest in the unread section of the bookshelf. In fact, I believe life’s most virtuous moments appear in the form of the unread. Often, the stories we tell deal with surprise and an unexpected turn of events. How we react to our surprises dictates the kind of memory it is.
Perhaps the biggest question we will never know how to answer is what our purpose is, and I think it right that we never cease wondering. We can continue asking, and continue seeking, but in this case, not knowing is the one thing that connects us beyond our towns and counties and states. If only we could celebrate not knowing.