August 24, 2006KR BlogReading

Unpacking my library: on book-moving and Benjamin

Last night, in the midst of moving books all over my house, I took the opportunity to revisit Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” I recently returned to tiny Gambier from a week-long sojourn in New York City. When I called my parents to let them know my trip had concluded safely, my mother asked how many books I’d bought; she knew that I’d haunted bookshops throughout my eight days away. “Probably ten or twelve,” I answered, truthfully, my days of hiding my book purchasing mostly over (though I believe I did not confess that post-airport stop at a Columbus Barnes and Noble). “You really are reforming,” she said. “I was expecting you to say thirty or forty.”

I have been building my library, in a serious and often self-forgetful (though I prefer to think self-transcendent) way, for nearly a decade. I am no rare book collector. Instead, I am a bibliomane of utterly democratic stripe: I welcome all comers. I relish a well-designed paperback as much as a brand-new hardback; I pencil-annotate a nineteenth-century volume as readily as a twenty-first century remainder. I will not buy a book that has already been annotated, but that might be the only mechanism of self-control I possess when immersed in the unparalleled joy and easy grace granted to me by bookshops.

During my move to Gambier two years ago, I learned the hazards of indiscriminate book amassing. Most of my library had been in storage during the previous year, while I rented a sabbatical house. Packing some 50 boxes of books for the move out of my own house in Ithaca, NY, had been a true test of my will (not to mention my back and biceps, not to mention several friendships); trying to unpack all of those boxes and to find places for their beloved contents in someone else’s house was simply too daunting. And so it was not until I arrived in Gambier–now with some 60 boxes, roughly (the valiant movers and I guessed, as boxes 40-45 came off the truck) two tons of bound paper–that I saw all my books assembled in one place again. I nearly cried. They are such excellent companions.

For excellent companions, though, they lead a rough life with me. Most of my books are still where they landed when I realized that I’d need to shelve them in some slightly random order if I wanted to get everything out of boxes at all. Two years later, I still shuffle books around in mass-quantity ways, moving whole sections of my holdings to and from my office, or up and down my stairs. As another Kenyon semester draws its first deep breaths, preparing for the plunge, I have realized how diffused even my teaching collection is.

But I’m starting to wonder whether the chaos of my collection isn’t something I’ve willfully cultivated, simply so that I can have the joy of rediscovering and reuniting with my books over and over again. And so, after an evening of circling through the house, refinding all of my poetry volumes, I turned last night to Benjamin’s essay, which a friend who’s recently moved asked me about earlier this summer. But for the fact that his discussions of canny collecting–of strategizing about how not to inflate a book’s price during an auction, for example–deal with precisely the rare and unique materials that I (mercifully) have not yet grown enamoured of, he could be writing out my life of companionship in books. “I am unpacking my library,” Benjamin begins (in Harry Zohn’s translation). “Yes, I am…. I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open.”

One of the great beauties of Benjamin’s essay is that he submerges us in the anticipatory joys both of reuniting with books one already possesses and of effecting new acquaintanceships, as it were, in shop after shop, auction after auction, city after city. “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” he tells us, explaining how “[c]ollectors are people with a tactical instinct,” how he has made some of his best purchases while traveling. Benjamin details his searches for books not to proclaim the greatness of his collection but rather to celebrate the pleasures and wonders of collecting itself.

Most poignantly–given that within two years of having written this essay, he would go into exile in Paris, leaving much of his library behind in Germany–Benjamin intimates the stirring connections between reviewing his books and revisiting his life, gesturing toward “the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.” “Every passion borders on the chaotic,” Benjamin tells us, “but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

As he reaches the end of his simultaneously anticipatory and elegaic essay–which, in case I have not yet made myself clear, I am hoping you’ll read, in all its brief and tender beauty–Benjamin reveals how time has passed during our sojourn with his unpacking self. “Now I am on the last half-emptied case and it is way past midnight,” he writes, continuing, “Other thoughts fill me than the ones I am talking about–not thoughts but images, memories. Memories of the cities in which I found so many things.” We imagine his delving into that last half of that last case, as he delves into a catalogue of the places that yielded to him the contents of the library strewn around him, the “piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness.” He carries us across Europe and back through his life, until we reach with him his “boyhood room,” only to have him disappear from us into the objects in which, for the time being, he still has his life. “Collectors,” he has already told us, “are the physiognomists of the world of objects.” To reassemble his library is, for Benjamin, to reassemble his past, his world, his very self. It is a sentiment, even a belief, that the bibliomanes among us can readily recognize.