Unpacking My Library: Impenetrable and Uniquely Itself

“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.”
Walter Benjamin

I recently spent some meditative, physical moments unpacking boxes of books. I moved offices, or locations of work, rather, the word “office” is fungible. The books are now lined up, their crenellated spines showing lots of blacks and red. Are those more attractive to book buyers? I do love red. Do I read them first? The slim ones, those are the ones I read first. Sorry Proust.

After a lifetime of reading, novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz revisited the expended time, energy and passion, asking How should a life be spent? Was this enough?

Lying in the shadow of books, I brood on my reading habit. What is it all about? What am I doing it for? And the classic addict’s question, What is it doing for me? … I’m not sure my mind could be free without reading, or that the action books have on it is properly termed “interference.” I suspect the interaction of the mind and the book is something more complex. I can see it encompassing an intimate history and geography: the evolution of character, the shifting map of personal taste.

From Lynne Sharon Schwartz’ Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

I brood on my own reading habit, the ultimate freedom of books. “What more felicity can fall to creature than to enjoy delight with liberty?” asked C. S. Lewis, I think he meant books. Novelist Marilynne Robinson confessed to a childhood of reading, and like Schwartz, an unretractable lifetime of reading.

I brood on my Dad’s collection of books – a 60/40 balance of read and to be read. For his birthday one year I transferred sheets and sheets of handwritten titles, page numbers and dates read to a computer. He loved seeing the page count, it was indeed astounding. I couldn’t help notice how many books were read on my birthday, Christmas, other days of family.

Was it enough?

Now my Dad volunteers at the local library, blessing this local institution with a talented, well-read mind, and ensuring a pipeline of orphaned books directly to his shelves. “Look what they were getting rid of today!” he presents to my mother’s cringing face, no doubt weekly. Piles and piles, lists and lists. On and on he reads.

C. S. Lewis had a mindful obsession with books and imagination in his childhood that owed much to his father’s book hoarding habit.

My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.

From C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy

Unordered books on shelves.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I order these things on my mental shelves: books, reading, collecting, and above all, the concept of a library. What turns a pile of books into an inclusive space of wonder and knowledge?

“The books are not yet on the shelves…” writes philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in his 1930s essay “Unpacking My Library”, which dives into the books, the collection and, most importantly, the collector.

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 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. For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself. Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in order to appear convincingly objective and down-to-earth, I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with their history or even their usefulness to a writer? I, for one, have in mind something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions.

From Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”

A lamentation of swans is more than a few swans that swim up to the unsuspecting tourist holding bread. A murder of crows is more than the flurry of black feathers that pounce on the remains of a picnic. These things, these words, mean some level of social gathering, some interaction, some emotional give and take.

A library is more than books, it’s a collection of books that are held and read and loved and, or, even hated by many.

To Benjamin the space of books, his library as he called it, was the insurmountable feature of his daily life. He wrapped its comfort around his shoulders and dived into its depths for inspiration.

Walter Benjamin's card for Bibioteque nationale de France. Featured in Walter Benjamin's "Illuminations" in the Examined Life Library.
Walter Benjamin’s library card for the Biblioteque Nationale de France, 1940.

One of Benjamin’s unachieved but life-long pursuits was to make a work that existed entirely of quotations. Imagine that, in the time before the computer, before data aggregation methods, even before Post-it notes, he catalogued, memorized and collected thousands of quotes into a body of knowledge.1

The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone. Not even both factors together suffice for the establishment of a real library, which is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself. Anyone who buys from catalogues must have flair in addition to the qualities I have mentioned. Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him something-not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not. An auction requires yet another set of qualities in a collector. To the reader of a catalogue the book itself must speak, or possibly its previous ownership if the provenance of the copy has been established.

From Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”

When choosing what to read I pull the slim books first, but start with the thick ones when shelving. They anchor and define the space. I pay particular attention – deliberate or not – to the unread books. Unrelenting thoughts that I am not smart enough to understand them. Yet. Their words and wisdom set aside until some future, intellectually improved version of me arrives.

Then I recall – deliberately – something one of my imagined mentors, film-critic Roger Ebert, said. When watching a movie he didn’t understand, 2001: A Space Odyssey was his example, he simply wrote about how it made him feel.

There is knowledge in feeling, meaning in emotions. My Dad reads books and will tell me timelines and dates and connections of individuals, but rarely speaks of how the books make him feel. I know he has an emotional dialogue with the books, we all do. Even if it’s unspoken.

Unordered books waiting to be shelved.
Unpacking my library in a room of my own. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I love the openness of Benjamin’s essay, the invitation: “I must ask you to join me…” He longs to share this vast collection, to discuss.
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I wonder sometimes if that’s my Dad’s aim too, talking about books he’s finished and purchased, to invite me into the collection.

To the question of whether a life spent reading was worth it, Lynne Sharon Schwartz answered simply “It didn’t replace living, it infused it, till the two became inextricable, like molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in a bead of water.”

If that is true, what happens when reading and life are separated? When the books are torn from us?

Walter Benjamin died in 1940. He was a German-Jewish exile in Europe when such a thing meant death. When the Nazis marched into Paris, Benjamin fled to Spain. Without his books, without his quotes. Heavy with loss, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine and was found in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border.

A library is a collection of books that are loved and a home for the spirits who loved them.

I’ve created a library on my shelves and I try, every other day, to create a library on The Examined Life. To turn a digital space into something penetrable and unique. It requires care, certainly. And something else: obsessiveness, a competitive mindset and constant existence in a state of wonder. It is more than enough.

But first things first, I need to order the books.