The classic essay Unpacking my Library by cultural critic and book collector Walter Benjamin gives us an account of that venerable old bibliophile unpacking his bookcase. I had the opportunity to read this excellent piece of writing while performing the very task described in it. Some people might call such an occurrence an example of synchronicity or in the idiom of the idiot “like totally meta!”
I prefer the term coincidence. Due to renovation work being done to my house I have had to relocate my books from my bedroom to a temporary home in the kitchen. The labour involved in this task was so onerous that in a moment of madness I temporarily considered purchasing a kindle or some other kind of electronic reader, as much for the sake of my spine as any other reason.
That is until I pondered a potential future apocalypse where electricity was no longer widely available and realised what a fool I’d feel holding a defunct piece of plastic in my hand, no longer able to access my library. Not that I ponder apocalyptic scenarios more than your average individual.I assure you that I don’t belong to a Mayan calendar misinterpreting doomsday cult. The reasons for my apocalyptic reveries are a lot more pedestrian than that. I have recently been playing Bethesda games post-apocalyptic near master piece Fallout 3:New Vegas and reading Justin Cronin’s the Twelve, both of which are conducive to literary survivalist frames of mind.
After the useful e-reader insight had passed I continued my task piling my books in a chaotic jumble upon the kitchen table. Amongst this literary rubble I spotted a familiar striking yellow cover bearing large black print pronouncing its title and author in capital letters: ILLUMINATIONS by WALTER BENJAMIN. On seeing this I recalled the aforementioned essay inspired by the author sorting through his books. Unable to resist the temptation I picked up the book. After briefly consulting the index I found the essay I was looking for and sat down to enjoy it.
While reading the many observations Benjamin makes about books as objects of acquisition and those who acquire them, one idea stood out most clearly to me. That was about the intoxicating newness of a jumbled pile of books unchained from their previous bonds of order, or as the author states more eloquently than I ever could: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”
My books scattered and chaotic as they were now took on a new appearance in the light of having read this essay. Ghosts of characters, plots and ideas were unleashed in my now haunted kitchen engaging in energetic chatter and debate, Adam Smith and Karl Marx among the most vociferous. Heavy weights such as Nabokov and Joyce rubbed shoulders with more whimsical novelizations’ of sci-fi series such as Star Wars written by the armies of jobbing authors who will not be remembered by posterity, books by self-proclaimed rationalists such as Richard Dawkins sandwiched between a Bible and a Koran. Book titles combined through proximity to make strange new sentences like the poetry of the Dadaist movement, which comprised of cutting and pasting words, phrases and sentences from different sources and joining them together in order to make them anew.
My collection seemed revitalised. Books I had read long ago tantalised me with their half-remembered contents, requesting to be read again. This moment made me realise the full extent of habit’s sometimes deadening effect.How often do we live our lives ignorant of the treasures laid before us due to the blinding force of habit? My bookshelves had become objects of utility, the familiarity of their order blinding me to the wonders they contained. How often had the effect of habit blinded me to the excitement of life itself let alone the limited realm of my bookshelves? The mind can be like a bookshelf where we order and compartmentalise our experiences and memories in a comprehensible package. While this is necessary for the cohesiveness of our consciousness we should also maintain an awareness of how in ordering our reality we can rob ourselves of wonder through the reflex of habit.
This insight in itself is not a new or particularly original one, yet it is one which due to its obvious nature we often lose sight of. So join me! Overturn those bookshelves and liberate your library! Look at your books and maybe even your life with fresh eyes! I have included a link to a pdf of Walter Benjamin’s essay below should you wish to read this wonderful essay. I have also included a link about Dadaist poetry: