This piece was originally published on 30 January 2018 at the FERSA University of Cambridge blog.
As the intellectual cousin of the word selfie, a shelfie is a photograph of someone’s bookshelf. In July 2017, FERSA started a #PhDshelfie initiative on social media, encouraging PhD students to share photos of, and reflections about, important books on their bookshelf. In this blog post, Michelle Anya Anjirbag shares her “fend-off-the-burnout” PhD shelfie, reflecting upon a selection of books that she uses as a “balm for a too-often overtired mind.”
Hi, my name is Michelle and if I have any special talent it is approaching burnout and staying on the brink of it for far too long. For those who don’t know, “burnout” is a term coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, to describe the effects of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, such as doctors and nurses. Today it is used to refer to the phenomenon in professions across the board, with main signs and symptoms falling into three main categories: exhaustion, alienation from work-related activities, and reduced performance. These signs can be both physical and emotional and are starting to be more recognized as a problem within academia.
Burnout is something I have a close, complex, and personal relationship with. The background on my phone reads, “Don’t stop when you are tired, stop when you’re done.” I treat my work like an endurance sport; it’s a long-term race that doesn’t end. I am bad at moderation; I am really good at finding the absolute edge of my limits, and then crashing. This is not a good thing to be good at generally speaking, but especially not as a first year PhD student. Pursuing a PhD is supposed to set oneself up for a longer career, not consume the burgeoning academic before they have a chance to really start their life-long work. Because of this, when I was planning my transatlantic move and really being forced to think about what kinds of books might come with me, and later how I would build my library here, I largely ignored academic texts. When packing, I chose books — and films — that would be a reminder of home, but also things that that would remind me why I chose to pursue this career. My hope was that I would become better at stepping back from the work and into a literary space that remained enjoyable and could act as a balm for a too-often overtired mind.
While my bookshelf is clearly filled with many texts related to my topics, which include children’s literature, fantasy, fairy tales, and adaptations, it is the left two quadrants that are the most important to me. Books from the Cambridge Central Library — currently limited to the two most recent Cassandra Clare novels — sit in the top, and my personal copies take up the bottom. Public libraries are a big part of how I keep the burnout at bay. I grew up in a New England state that has more public libraries than it has towns, and we tend to fight to keep them. They aren’t places that just hold books; they are community centers where retirees come to read the newspaper and chat, new parents bring their little ones to learn how to start being part of the town, and teens find their own space to hang out that isn’t school or under the eyes of their parents. They host public readings, invite authors to chat, and generally provide the space for community life to happen. In comparison, PhDs are a lonely business; it is easy to forget that reading and the sharing of literature and knowledge is not only an erudite pursuit, but a way we build our communities. Browsing the shelves of a public library versus those of university or college libraries, simply being around other people and participating in that part of community life helps me feel connected to something more than just my work in what is still a new place for me.
My shelfie picks are united by that idea of connection as well, to either places or people who have meant a lot to me in my life. Three of the books I brought with me are by one of my former professors. Mr. Pickering was one of the few professors who could convince 30 to 40 undergraduates that the one place they wanted to be at 8 a.m. on a winter morning was in his classroom. In his classroom, we never knew that we were being taught how to write; rather, we were being taught how to see, more, how to listen. Turning to his essays, whether in Dreamtime, A Happy Vagrancy, or Edinburgh Days, I have a moment where I can go back to that classroom. I go back to a place where I can take a breath and wander through sentences remembering why I love the written word.
My Penguin Little Black Classics edition of excerpts from the essays of Michel de Montaigne also helps me with this; in many ways, Montaigne can be considered the first essayist, one of the first to weave together the observations from his daily life with larger meditations on more esoteric topics. When I need a little break, How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing provides a wonderful step away from my work.
I read the Cambridge Companion to The Arthurian Legend for fun because at one point, I thought I was going to be a medievalist. I fell in love with reading because of the Arthurian legend and Robin Hood, and I still like reading criticism about the topic. When I was picking up research texts at the Cambridge University Press bookstore, I couldn’t resist getting this too.
I brought East by Edith Pattou from home because it is my favorite retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and one of the reasons I fell into wanting to work on adaptations, fairy tales, and folklore, and not stay firmly a medievalist. A paper I wrote in college compared this to other retellings of disambiguations of Cupid and Psyche, and whether we call it that, or East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Beauty and the Beast, or Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type 425C, it remains my favorite series of tales in folklore.
The Little Prince is always a cathartic read; I remember the first time I read the line, “You are responsible forever for what you have tamed,” and it remains full of lessons for how we love and treat others, too. Sometimes things that make me cry are good — which is also why I brought Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium with me. It’s a beautiful story about a magical toy store and growing through loss, and I definitely watch it when I’m feeling down or exhausted.
I hadn’t read, or even heard of, The Little White Horse until recently. I borrowed this when I went to my boyfriend’s parents’ house for the first time, because his mom was shocked I hadn’t come across it. Literature is better shared, and sharing it is a way of showing care for someone — which is certainly what I felt in that moment.
Last but not least, the Slytherin (hey, no judgement, Merlin was a Slytherin, too) cover version of the 20-year anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I haven’t actually read this; being American, I know this properly as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I was not able to bring all my own copies with me. When I moved to Cambridge, my family visited the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour, and my sister bought me a copy so here could feel like home, too.
That’s my fend-off-the-burnout shelfie. It shows me the people I love and the people who made me, and who I am outside of a PhD student. What about yours?
Recommended reads from Michelle’s Shelf:
- Sam Pickering, Edinburgh Days, or Doing What I Want to Do
- Michel de Montaigne, How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing
- Bonus text if you like falling into beautifully used language: Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, unfortunately un-pictured as it was hiding next to my teacup
- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
- Sam Pickering, Dreamtime: A Happy Book
- The Cambridge Companion to The Arthurian Legend
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
- Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
- Edith Pattou, East (sold in the UK as North Child)
- Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
- Sam Pickering, Happy Vagrancy
Michelle Anya Anjirbag is in her first year of a PhD in Children’s Literature through the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of Clare Hall, and her dissertation will be on depictions of diversity in fairy tale adaptations in children’s and young adult media. Her interests include adaptations of folklore and fairy tales, fantasy literature and film, censorship and propaganda, global corporate consumer media constructs, and the ties between multiplicities of identity, agency and expression, culture, and storytelling, and social media and the construction of metanarratives. Follow her on Twitter: @anjirbaguette, Instagram: @michelle_anya, Medium: @michelle.anjirbag, and WordPress: manjirbag.wordpress.com.