By: Catherine J. Kudlick, Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability
Ok, I think as I start to unpack boxes of books to load them onto my funky olive green Ikea bookshelves that I brought with me from UC Davis where I used to teach, I’m not and never will be Paul. So I’ve got to build this new thing that somehow honors Paul’s memory while being true to my own unique contributions. I brighten. I get it: I’ll never be Paul Longmore. Fair enough. I can do this, even missing him.
Then I start to load the books onto the shelves, and I’m sobbing. I’d decided to blend his and mine, figuring it would be the basis of an excellent library of books devoted to the critical study of disability, especially those related to history. We have many of the same ones, so there were duplicates, not always of the ones I expected. I imagine each of us reading our respective copies, me two inches from my nose and often with a magnifier, him leaning up against the podium in his dining room or stretched out on his bed. Did we puzzle over and appreciate the same passages? Did he, like me, own many that he hadn’t read but hoped to? Flipping through the thick pages of a hefty blue tome, I couldn’t decide if it was sadder to hold a book knowing that it had been read or realizing that it never would be. Either way, I wasn’t ready for this kind of intimacy. I turned my back to the large ground-floor windows of the Institute feeling very vulnerable and exposed. Then I looked up at the books again, “the friends!,” my favorite professor of undergraduate days used to call them. Paul was there, alright, urging me on with every book I pulled out of a box.
And even for ones that seemed to have proper places, who was to say that my proper places resonated with what others would expect, let alone with what Paul would have wanted? I ultimately decided on a loose schema that placed individual disabilities like blindness, deafness, madness, cognitive disabilities, survivors of polio in their own groups. Most everything was history, but I had sections about thematic topics like law, gender, theory, policy, work, entertainment, religion, bodies, disease, medicine, rehabilitation, sports, and international. But I’d also created a section on life writing, so where to put the memoir by a deaf guy who served in the Peace Corps in Zambia? And where to put writings by Peter Singer, the respected Princeton philosophy professor who has argued for euthanasia for some people with disabilities: in ethics or next to the histories of Nazi doctors?
Realizing that the books would be in the Institute’s public space, and knowing the disability community as I do, I even fretted over which shelves should contain which categories of books. After all, no one deserved to be on the bottom shelf, just as no one was entitled to be on top. What message was I sending by placing deaf histories above blind ones or placing books on AIDS next to gay history rather than close to studies of race? And what would someone in a chair see vs. someone who walked? Not all books were within easy reach, which could be considered a form of elitism. What of people who could see none of the books, what would they want to know or have to say? And what if I’d inadvertently caused offense by placing two newly warring titles or genres next to one another?
“Cathy, oh PLEASE!” It’s Paul Longmore taking a spin in the new Institute, sucking on his ventilator tube, somehow making it clear that the sounds are about exasperation rather than respiration. “You’re going to piss someone off no matter what you do, so just put the books on shelves already and get down to the real work of launching this place!”