The Other Reality

Unpacking My Library

Posted in Annotation, MFA by aryckman on April 30, 2009

Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Schocken Books; New York, 1968. Pg 59-67.

Walter Benjamin belongs to a group of people who he feels is becoming extinct. He is a true collector, more specifically a book collector. In his essay Unpacking My Library he takes a serious if not humorous look at the act of collecting and the relationship between the collector and his or her possessions. The inspiration for this essay was the act of unpacking his library after its two-year storage.

Benjamin sets the scene not by describing orderly rows of books usually associated with libraries but talking about the disarray of storage. His imagery helps set the mood and can inspire a sense of anticipation of rediscovering each object, each book. Benjamin states that there is a “spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions” elaborating further saying “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories” (60). The anticipation of unpacking his library is not only caused by being reunited by the actual books but also by being able to relive the experiences associated with each book.

It is a little ironic that the book or object is not the ultimate pleasure of collecting but it also incorporates the thrill of acquisition and the history of the object: “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property. The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object” (60). These things overshadow the functional, utilitarian aspect of the object. This is emphasized when Benjamin suggests that most books in a library are not actually read by the owner.

One of the most important aspects of the relationship between the collector and his objects is that act of acquisition. Benjamin takes the majority of the essay describing the various means of acquiring books and retelling stories of some of the books within his library. The first means of acquisition and “the most praiseworthy” is by writing the book oneself. This concept turns every author into a collector who is unhappy with what is currently available and while its an unexpected concept it has whimsical merit. Another of the ‘free’ methods of adding books to ones collection, and the most common, is by borrowing them and not returning them, which he suggests is a conscious act for the habitual collector.

Purchasing is a much more varied means of obtaining books and it “has very little in common with that done in a bookshop by a student getting a textbook, a man of the world buying a present for his lady, or a business man intending to while away his next train journey” (62-63). A collector is much more strategic in his purchasing methods, “their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position” (63). Apart from buying books in stores auctions are another arena for buying books but this can be more dangerous as the collector needs to pay attention not only to the books but also to other bidders. Also, auctions can allow collectors to get carried away with winning the bid. The last means of acquiring books is through inheritance and this is the soundest way because “a collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property” (66).

At the end of this essay Benjamin returns to the memories incited by the objects talking about how his library conjures memories of “where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseltwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me” (67). He reasserts that it is the relationship of the collector to his or her objects that is important to the collection because “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner,” no one will be able to order a collection with the same understanding that the original owner did (67). Collections can tell, for the collector, not only the historical story of the object itself but also the story of the collector—“ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them” (67).