Nature is healing: Reports from a self-imposed sabbatical

As long-time readers know, about a year ago, I declared a self-imposed sabbatical from all academic work that wasn’t directly required by my job. While I created a carve-out for invited lectures, I announced that I would say no to an invited contributions to journals or edited volumes, any op-ed writing, and (especially!) any peer reviews. My only writing outlet would be the blog, which I hoped would help reconnect me to the fun of writing again.

I think it — worked? While I was still a little tentative and insecure with the talk on Star Trek I gave at ACLA, I was much more confident and engaged with the talk on neoliberalism I gave this past week. I’m also working actively on the research for my forthcoming Star Trek work, which I’m finding energizing and productive rather than indimidating and draining. I’m looking forward to having a normal-for-me summer — one academic conference parlayed into a vacation with My Esteemed Partner in early June and then a wide-open summer for writing.

The real indicator that my brain is healing, though, was the way I spent my morning: book shopping. The Seminary Co-op has been an intellectual lodestar for me since late college. The amount of student loans I had forgiven under the public service program this year was likely approximately equal to what I spent there over the course of grad school. During the pandemic, when the store was struggling and they asked for donations, I actually gave a substantial sum. This was shortly after the death of Ted Jennings, and when I mentioned my donation to My Esteemed Partner, I spontaneously said, “I already lost Ted, I can’t lose the Co-op too.” Yet over the past couple years, going there felt stressful and exhausting — almost guilt-inducing. Every book stared at me from the shelf as an accusation and a demand for more work. The joy of browsing was gone. I remember taking an out-of-town visitor down there, thinking it was the ultimate academic’s escape, then realizing that I had made a mistake and couldn’t cope.

Today, I had a couple specific titles in mind and, having one last day more or less free from obligations before the end-of-semester sprint, decided to combine my cafe work routine with book shopping. I checked a few things off the to-do list in the outdoor area of the nice cafe adjoining the bookstore, then went shopping shortly after they opened. I found my ultimate purchases early on, but I lingered over the front table and new releases, before wandering to various haunts.

On a deep dive, I will usually hit the Islamic studies area pretty thoroughly, swing through philosophy, and then see where my curiosity takes me. This time around, I considered picking up a volume of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature or Aesthetics but passed on them — too expensive, plus they’ll keep. No one is going to be snatching them off the shelves any time soon. If forced to choose, I’d probably have preferred Philosophy of Nature, due to how often old-timey science figures into my teaching in the Great Books program. (I was astounded at how helpful my teaching of the history of chemistry proved for Hegel’s Science of Logic.) Maybe next time! This time, I wandered to the Classics section, browsing to see if they had a particular student’s edition of Virgil’s Aeneid about which I’d heard good things — in other words, I was feeling ambitious about language work, which hasn’t happened in a long time. I combed through the medieval studies section, to see if they had particular titles by Bynum and Le Goff (they did not). The Soviet history section was right there, so I gave it a look as well.

This was my most expansive and leisurely shopping trip in years. I picked up my purchases — Agamben’s new one, When the House Burns Down, and Anna Gryzmała-Busse’s Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State. I thought about popping over to the Regenstein to see if they had any other recent Agamben works in Italian that I could browse, but decided I already had the requisite PDFs and the bureaucracy of getting in would be annoying. Instead, I made my way to Powell’s (pictured above). I hit similar targets — Classics (right by the entrance, of course, as a crowd-pleaser/impulse-buy for the Hyde Park set), philosophy, Islamic studies, then Judaic studies and general theology. I considered a translation of Hegel’s lectures on logic, but decided that they, too, would “keep.” In theology, I found one of my long-time white whales: Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age, which is super expensive new but was $10 (marked down so sharply because of what appeared to be 20 pages with some markings in pencil). This was a once-in-a-lifetime find, so I had to act immediately. Having picked up that weighty tome, I reasoned that my bag was already pretty loaded down and decided to call it a day.

This type of trip used to be a weekly occurence for me in grad school, if not more. I didn’t buy things every time, but I did pick out targets, visit familiar aspirational volumes and sections, and basically daydream about all the things I could explore. Losing that sense of joy over the past couple years frankly scared me. I wondered if that part of my life was over and I should just become a full-time assessment coordinator or something. Having it back today felt exciting — I felt like myself again, in a way I haven’t in a long time.

I realize this achievement may be fragile and I have no plans to push myself too hard, especially given that I still have a very busy last week of classes and finals week (along with many, many meetings) between me and summer vacation. And I also realize that I need to be very deliberate about what I take on in the coming year, especially since I’ve committed to a book project for this summer — a short one, and a fun one, but still a book! I’m well aware I could relapse, but for now it feels like the worst of my burnout is behind me, and when I think about how my normal trajectory would have been to dig myself deeper into that for the sake of a few more superfluous CV lines or $250 checks, it makes me understand how unsustainable my pace has been for a long time. But still — it worked! I’m back, baby! Kotsko is good again — awooo….

2 thoughts on “Nature is healing: Reports from a self-imposed sabbatical

  1. The english translation of Hegel’s “Lectures on Logic” has some of the craziest footnotes there are; I’ve not checked the translation itself, but Butler doing both doesn’t fill me with confidence.

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