My department is located on the eleventh floor of a building with thirteen floors. As I ride the elevator, the doors open on floors dedicated to History, Philosophy, Film Studies, Sociology and several other disciplines. One thing that I’ve noticed is that different departments have different ways of displaying books published by faculty members.
Probably the most logical way to do this is a display case facing the elevators that says “Recent Publications by Our Faculty”. Under that banner, a few shelves of books, face out, arranged chronologically. Depending on the productivity of the faculty (and, I guess, the size of the display case), this will go back a few years or many years, with all the pretty books all in a row. The advantage of this is that it is orderly and fair. Publish a book, and we’ll put it in the appropriate annual slot. The disadvantage, I suppose, is that it is easy to track the productivity of the department at a glance: “You mean the forty of you have only published this much in the past six years!?” In a building where the Dean's office is on the thirteenth floor, this may be too much of an at-a-glance productivity metric.
My department takes a different tack. We have four rather large book display cases (built by the husband of our former department manager) and we arrange the books, well, haphazardly. When I was department head I actually inquired about who was in charge of arranging the shelves. It turns out that no one was. So I took it over. I culled all the books from retired faculty, relegating them to the departmental library. Then I arranged the rest, generally by colour. If we weren’t going to be chronological (and there was no appetite for that) we would at least be aesthetically pleasing. Then, whenever someone published a new book, I would look at it and think “Hmm, where will that look best?”. It was like making a quilt. I also tried to put the new books at eye level.
(In the years since I stepped down as department head the shelves have fallen into a bit of disarray – now whenever I get off the elevator I have an overwhelming urge to prune them. But it’s not my job.)
Why tell you all this? Simple. We dedicate one entire bookcase to books published by our alumni – by our creative writing alumni, specifically. For the past seven years, every time that I go to my office, I see one book that is placed right at eye level, cover out, staring at me: Come Thou, Tortoise by Jessica Grant.
Now, Jessica Grant wrote this book, which won the Winterset Award (best book by a writer from Newfoundland and Labrador) and the Books in Canada First Novel Award (now the Amazon.ca First Novel Award because why not?), as her dissertation in my department. But that was before I was a member of the department – I have never met her, and I have no idea what she even looks like. I’m told that she was really nice, and really smart, and everyone is proud of the success of this book about even if it is not actually about a tortoise (just occasionally narrated by one).
Seven years is a long time to look at a book cover – a nice book cover! – and not wonder what is in the actual book. So, yesterday I read it.
Turns out that it’s a warm-hearted novel about death, where even the arch-enemies of certain characters turn out to be really nice people. Everyone is quite lovely – except the grandmother – and it’s all quite odd. And, just about every sixth or seventh chapter is narrated by a tortoise.
I suppose I could read the other books published by our former students, but to convince me to do that someone will probably have to reorganize the display case.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: The floors in the St. John’s airport used to be brick and bags clattered along them. I was in the St. John’s airport in October after a conference at Memorial University. I arrived early for an evening flight, thinking that I would get something to eat. No one told me that there are no restaurants in that airport after security. That is a cardinal sin of airport design.