A collection of books is an intriguing and mysterious thing. It happens to be a whole object, when taken singularly, and yet is constantly breaking into small parts, shifts – the various strata represent moments and interests, fascinations, much-loved sentences or passages, the thought process is captured and integrated into the greater collective. The weavers, connectors, burrowers, builders of these small monuments will often stand before them, stare at them, spend a great deal of time contemplating the spines and titles, or in the words of Walter Benjamin, “march up and down their ranks to pass them in review…” Those same builders are also familiar with the maintenance required of their work, and the inevitable prospect of needing to pack. For the fortunate, on the other side of that gloomy task, stands the real pleasure of unpacking a library, book by book, and taking stock once again of those acquisitions.
This past week I read Walter Benjamin’s great essay, Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting. In a short space, he writes about this experience, reminisces about particular acquiring events, including a memorable auction strike, and the very intimacy of a collector with his chosen objects:
” Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” – – Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)
Illuminations, published by Harcourt Brace in 1968, reprinted by Schocken in 1969. With a lenghty introduction by Hannah Arendt.