Monday, December 12, 2016

Library packed, unpacked

About a year ago now I was packing up house. I whittled down my possessions to those I truly wanted to possess, those that I would freely invite into my new home. That included books.

I gave away about half of my books. That still leaves me with too many books.

It's also about a year ago that a friend sent me a "postcard book," something she'd recently picked up in Atlantis Books on Santorini. It's a 2013 publication from Paravion Press of Walter Benjamin's essay, Unpacking My Library.

It seemed a small gem, and I kept it in my purse for a few weeks for fear of losing it in the shuffle of boxes. But then I decided I should put it in a safe place, where it would be protected from my daily rummaging. But then I couldn't remember where I'd put it, so it was effectively lost for a few months, till I found it and moved it to a more logical, more sensible, safer place. And so it was lost for another couple months. Till I slipped it back in my purse, and finally read it.

Illustration (detail) by Marie Basten
It's not really about books; it's about collecting books. It's not even really about libraries, except insofar as libraries house collections. The books here are incidental. It's about books as objects.

This shouldn't surprise me. I encountered Benjamin previously in a class on Dada and Surrealism; he had some thoughts on thingness. In this essay books are physical things with physical histories, never mind their contents.
[For the collector] it is not so much books as copies of books that have their fates. I am not saying too much: for the true collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. [...] To make the old world new again — that is the deepest drive in the collector's wish to acquire new things, and that is why the collector holds older books to be closer to the essence of collecting than reprints, which are interesting for bibliophiles.
Clearly, although I have collected many books, I am not a collector.

Benjamin offers some thoughts on the book collector hovering between the poles of order and disorder "If there is a counterpart to the lawlessness of a library, it is the strict adherence to rules in its indexing." Benjamin seems to claim that this is the only respect in which a collector of books is distinguished from a collector of fine china or come other collectible. But I dispute it, having viewed finely catalogued collections of stamps, baseball cards, and geological samples.

My library of books, much reduced over the years, is in my head more than it can be defined in spatial terms. But much like a collector, the value of the books I have read is inextricably linked to the circumstances that brought me to them, the network of people, places, subjects in which they are entrenched.

I am more enamored of the idea of them than the physical evidence of them. But this is not a natural position of mine; it had to be learned. Maybe there's something to Benjamin's position that childishness permeates the collector. Simply I've outgrown it.

Benjamin's essay is a phenomenological digression, and not the paean to books that sings in my soul.

I wonder what Benjamin would make of ebooks.

Read Benjamin's essay online.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

"My library of books, much reduced over the years, is in my head more than it can be defined in spatial terms" yes! I am finding this too. And as a long vacation over the holidays approaches I am looking forward to sorting through my shelves and getting rid of books. I have never looked forward to doing this before but over the last year or two something has switched and the need to own and be completely surrounded by books has simply become the need to read and let go of the book afterwards and not be weighed down by their continual presence.