With a title like "Unpacking My Library" you knew I couldn't resist Walter Benjamin's essay in The Art of the Personal Essay for my first foray in my weekly essay project. I decided to just choose at random rather than start with the first essay and work my way through. This is meant to be a fun project, though I hope to learn how to read and appreciate the form as I go.
Walter Benjamin sounds like he was an interesting though underappreciated (during his lifetime anyway) writer and critic. Now he's recognized as the greatest German literary critic as well as an important social critic of the twentieth century. He was a serious intellectual and desired an academic career, but "he saw his brilliant dissertation rejected, partly because it was too difficult for his examiners to understand, partly because he was Jewish." Instead he ended up as a free-lance essayist, reviewer, translator and radio scriptwriter as well as a rare book collector. The rise of Fascism in Germany caused him to flee to France. Here's the mark of a serious book lover and collector--he initially refused to leave Paris and his library despite the exodus of so many others under Nazi pressure. By the time he did negotiate some sort of passage, the borders were closed and in the end he committed suicide.
He was a serious and avid book collector, however, during his lifetime and this essay reveals his obsession and delight. As a boy he had only four or five books in his room, which expanded to several thousand, which he discusses as he uncrates them. He begins:
"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among the piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood--it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation--which these books arouse in a genuine collector."
Benjamin admits to being just such a person and might go on to talk about the "prize pieces of his library" or why they might be useful to a writer, but he has something else in mind for this essay.
"...what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection."
The reader doesn't get to look at his collection so much as discover why he's compelled to collect and how he goes about it. There's a thrill in the act of acquiring. And the item brings with it what Benjamin calls "a magic encyclopedia"--when it was made, where, its craftsmanship and former ownership. A collector looks through the object to its past and all it carries with it. And acquiring an old book is like giving it a new life.
Benjamin goes on to talk about the different ways in which a collector goes about acquiring them beginning with "writing them oneself", which he calls the most praiseworthy method. I thought it interesting when Benjamin states, "Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like." Do you think that's true? Of course Benjamin admits to being a collector and therefore whimsical, so perhaps we're meant to take what he says with a grain of salt. I like the ways he contemplates acquiring books, like borrowing them without returning! Catalogues are often used for unseen purchases that may or may not end up being great finds. However the best finds were made on trips, as a transient. In other words by pure chance.
"Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!".
And as to reading every book in his collection? He quotes Anatole France (again I love this response), "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?".
One of the longer sections of the essay discusses acquiring books through auctions. Although he says acquiring books "is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone", I'm not entirely convinced. Benjamin was obviously passionate about his hobby and patient, too.
"...one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it its freedom--the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves."
This was such a wonderfully light-hearted essay, but poignant, too. He talks about inheriting a whole collection of books being the soundest way to acquire books. Yet he also says that "the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner." The books don't come alive in the owner, the owner lives within his books. I wonder what happened to Walter Benjamin's collection, which he wouldn't have been able to take with him as he fled the Nazis. In a way, his love of books is still alive through his words.