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, Lindsay Burton shares her take on a shelfie that fails to be on a shelf but succeeds in reflecting the chaotic nature of her research topic and approach to study.
By Lindsay Burton, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Being a doctoral researcher means creating order out of chaos, creating knowledge where there previously was none, and creating legible papers and chapters out of a maelstrom of ideas and words and data. In my various roles at the Faculty of Education (member of the Centre for Research on Children’s Literature, co-chair of FERSA, undergraduate supervisor), I have developed a reputation for being organized, which I think is in large part due to my Google Calendar and email list obsessions, rather than as a reflection of my actual, you know, doctoral work. What I’ve discovered as I enter my third year at the Faculty is that my affinity for these extraneous organizational tools is merely a cover for the messy process that is my research. Although I’m meant to create order out of chaos, a reflection on my shelfie suggests that, conversely, the chaos of my work breaks down any semblance of order I attempt to apply to it.
My #PhDShelfie exemplifies this messiness excellently. For starters, my shelf is not, in fact, a shelf, but rather two stacks of books, one on the hearth and one in the firebox. (Yes, I Googled ‘anatomy of a fireplace’ for this blog post. Yes, the space where the actual fire goes is called the firebox. #TheMoreYouKnow.) Appropriately, most of these books are children’s and young adult books from my own collection. I have eighteen actual bookshelves in my house, filled with children’s and young adult books, fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, poetry, some classics, and even the occasional work of non-fiction, but I tend to keep a rotating selection of books that I needed to glance at, or that I felt like rereading, or that I felt like pushing onto a friend who came for tea last week. (You know that friend that likes to push book recommendations onto the unwary like a door-to-door salesman? Yep, that’s me.) (Relatedly, treat yourself this Christmas and read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The BBC show is excellent but pairs even better with a good series read – or reread). Right now, that collection includes Tolkien’s Silmarillion, two of the three aforementioned His Dark Materials trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, and Diana Wynne Jones’ The Dark Lord of Derkholm.
Also in my #PhDHearthie are books that are more relevant to my research. These include Marie Lu’s Warcross, Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. These books appeal to me because of the nature of my research. Briefly, I’m interested in the intersection of posthumanist theory and the central theory of children’s literature, called aetonormativity. Posthumanism challenges “humanism’s restricted notion of what counts as the human” (Braidotti 16), using posthuman figures such as cyborgs, animals, and the environment to refigure how we think about what it means to be human in the 21st century. Notably absent on this list of liminal figures is the figure of the child. Aetonormativity is a two-part theory, which states that (1) society norms adults and others children, and (2) this power imbalance is inherently present in all literature and media created for children. I am investigating the relevance of posthumanist theories for better understanding children’s literature, and the relevance of children’s literature for better understanding posthumanism. Warcross, Pinocchio, and A Wind in the Door all feature children who are post—beyond—human in some crucial way.
Braidotti’s formative text, The Posthuman, does not feature in my #Hearthie, but several other related theory texts do. Two of these texts—Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People, by Noga Applebaum, and Twenty-First Century Feminisms in Children’s and Adolescent Literature, by Roberta Trites—also consider the intersection of posthumanism and children’s literature. As the chaos of my #Hearthie system would dictate, these books aren’t heavily featured in my research thus far—in fact, all of the theory texts featured here need to be returned to the library but have yet to be recalled.
Why haven’t I returned these books to the various libraries in which they belong? Why haven’t I reshelved books that I pulled out of their proper resting places to wave in the face of unsuspecting guests? Why do I keep texts that are central to my research on my living room hearth? One answer: chaos. The hearth is central and next to all of my favorite at-home reading and writing places, so it’s easy to leave books there when I’m done for the day. It’s near the door, so it’s easy to rationalize leaving library books there (“It’ll help me remember to return them!” she told herself, months ago). The fireplace is entirely non-functional, so there’s no danger of anything untowardly flamey happening to them. If these statements sound like excuses, it’s because they are. This is fitting, however, if you consider that excuses are merely attempts to assign order to something—in this case, completing a doctoral degree—that is rife with chaos.
Lindsay Burton is a second-year PhD student at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge researching the intersection of posthumanism and children’s literature. When she’s not reading, supervising undergrads, or co-chairing FERSA, she can usually be found playing with her cat, Jane, or traveling with her husband, Nick. You can find her on Twitter @lindsayb_reads.