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Henningsen: Sharing The Study

Beside my desk are two pine bookcases joined together, six feet tall and five feet wide. They were a gift from my wife when we moved into a small graduate student apartment more than thirty years ago.

Our study was a narrow hallway connecting kitchen to bedroom, where we worked back-to-back in a space so tight that we couldn’t move our chairs simultaneously. Whoever pushed back from work first pinned the other to the task.

Those bookcases followed me – followed us – through two children, two careers, three apartments, and four houses – all big enough for separate studies.

At first, they held all my books; but over time they came to be the “working” shelves – a toolbox, if you will – holding material for current research and writing. A master’s thesis, a dissertation, articles, class preparations and lectures, curriculum development projects and reports – the loose change of a scholar’s life.

At various points they contained books and reports on the introduction of domesticated reindeer into late 19th century Alaska; then material on how medieval scholars responded to the new technology of printing; and, later, books on the Cold War and Vietnam. Today they hold sources on the American Revolution.

As I work from them several hours each day, my mind carries the memory of the other, earlier, books once on each shelf. To a certain extent this gives me confidence that if I got through those projects, I’ll most likely finish this one too.

Most of all, though, when I look at those bookcases I see a representation of love – in three ways.

The first is love of a process: in this case, historical research and writing. No matter how much you read, you never know what you really think about something until you write about it.

The second is love of a profession: in this case teaching history. Almost as much as writing about a subject, trying to teach it to others is central to understanding it yourself.

I’ve been lucky to love researching, writing, and teaching about history as much as I do, but the most important thing those bookcases represent is the love of a marriage.

For us, things have come full-circle. Then, we were starting out, uncertain of ourselves, of our work, of our chances for professional success and personal fulfillment. Now we’re more confident of those things; most especially of each other.

And, for the first time since grad school, my wife and I again share a study, with desks once more back to back, though there’s room enough that we no longer bump into each other if someone takes a break.

So as I look over at the bookshelves, I see not so much a research challenge or a writing project to finish, as I do a gesture of confidence offered years ago by the woman still working across from me.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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