Cultural sociologist Julian Schaap (1988) comes from a family of teachers. His mother was a primary school teacher, while his father was a lecturer at Codarts, Rotterdam’s university for the arts. After secondary school, Schaap went to work in a pallet factory. Together with some colleagues, he would produce six hundred decent-looking pallets every day. At the end of the week, he’d be given his salary, which he spent in pubs and on concerts at the weekend. He played in a heavy metal band. “All I wanted to do was become a musician. I wasn’t interested in school. I had more important things on my mind. Call it middle-class Weltschmerz. The luxury of privilege. It was a vital ingredient of the punk movement too.”

After a few years of that, Schaap decided to embark on a degree in social work at a university of applied sciences. “Working with pallets was turning into a dead end.” While doing his degree, a lecturer asked him if he might want to switch to a regular university, a thought that had never occurred to him. “I knew universities existed, but I had no idea what they were like.” He scoured the Internet for a degree that might appeal to him. “I was surprised to find there were degrees in history. So that’s what I chose.” A new world opened up to him. “I saw how enthusiastic the lecturers were when they told their stories and was really motivated by them.”

Julian Schaap is an assistant professor of sociology at the Department of Arts and Culture Studies. His research focuses on culture, inequality, wellbeing and popular music. When he was doing his PhD, he conducted research on white males in the world of rock music. His PhD thesis was awarded the 2020 Praemium Erasmianum Dissertation Prize as well as the 2020 Erasmus University Research Award.

Absurd world

While doing his degree, he became a reader. “A female friend gave me Herman BrusselmansMuggepuut. ‘You’ll enjoy this’, she said. And she was right. I absolutely loved it.” He has been a keen reader ever since, reading everything from Nietzsche to Sofie Lakmaker’s recently published De geschiedenis van mijn seksualiteit. The book that is currently high on his top 10 – ‘which changes all the time’ – is The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst (in Dutch: De helaasheid der dingen). “The absurdism of Verhulst and Brusselmans plays with society’s rules and morals in a provocative way. A well-groomed man wearing a three-piece suit can enter a room with his head held high in one line, and in the next line, that man will be on a toilet bowl, taking a dump. It’s basically the great equaliser.”

However, just because Schaap likes to take an absurdist approach to life doesn’t mean that he doesn’t give meaning to the world. “We’re given two options. Either you think life is meaningless and you leave it at that, or you make sure you give your life some meaning yourself. I choose the latter option. If life has no meaning, we must simply give it meaning, as Gummbah1 said.”

Reading habits:

Number of books read per year: 40

Favourite genre: fiction

Reason to read: “People who read lead double lives”, which is the motto of a bookshop in Dordrecht.

Most recently read: the free book given with each book purchased during National Book Week: Wat wij zagen by Hanna Bervoets

The apple never falls far from the tree

In The Misfortunates, Verhulst returns to Reetveerdegem, the village where he grew up. It’s an environment without any prospects, marked by poverty and a great deal of booze. Verhulst left the village and ended up living a different type of life himself, but even so, there are still similarities between him and his family. “I think it’s fascinating that, even though you can outgrow the village in which you grew up, your childhood will always continue to affect the way you look at things.”

This is sociological subject matter. After his Bachelor’s degree in history, Schaap switched to sociology. One of the focuses of his doctoral research project was the influence that your background and nurture (i.e. class, gender and race/ethnicity) have on your musical preferences. His own musical preferences do not align with that of his parents. He loves rock and heavy metal, whereas his father is a jazz musician. But as far as their professions are concerned, there are similarities. “I followed in my parents’ footsteps by going into teaching.”

Like father, like son

Another theme in the book is fatherhood, or rather the lack thereof. The protagonist has an egocentric father. Schaap himself is not exactly a perfect father to his son, either. “Painful,” says Schaap, who recently became a dad for the second time. “When I re-read the book after becoming a father, I had a hard time imagining how a dad could be so indifferent to his son. I think it’s weird not to feel that sense of responsibility, or not enough anyway. It’s actually rather crucial to humanity, because no other offspring in the entire animal kingdom are as dependent on their parents as human babies.”

  1. Gummbah is a famous Dutch cartoonist that uses a lot of absurdism ↩︎