Unpacking my library

April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

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.

–Walter Benjamin


I am writing amid an archipelago of book boxes that spans my living room – twenty-one boxes, to be exact. Nearly four months ago I started packing them, then consigned them, along with the rest of my old apartment’s contents, to a shipping company with a silent prayer to the god of books to get them across two oceans safely. After what seemed an interminable wait (how on earth did Benjamin last two whole years without his books?) they finally arrived. Lack of shelves plus an excess of travel conspired to keep me from ripping open the boxes (not quite as herculean an undertaking as wrenching open crates, but still satisfying)… until today.

Incredible as it may sound, this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve had my entire library in one place. Although my art books will – fingers crossed – eventually go to my office once it gets refurbished (i.e. I will have more than one shelf for my books) it feels somehow right to have them all together at home. For it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that combined, they tell the story of my life.

I’m not a bibliophile in the traditional sense of collecting first or rare editions – student poverty coupled with my having chosen a discipline which requires constant purchasing of large, expensive volumes full of pictures means that anything not an exhibition catalogue is likely to be a cheap paperback, bonus points if it’s second-hand. And I’ll readily admit that once they’re unpacked, they will indeed be touched by ‘the mild boredom of order’ – an order I’m more than happy to temporarily muddle… as anyone who has ever had dinner at my place can probably attest, I have a habit of popping up from the table in the midst of conversation to snatch a few books off the shelf to look up a reference/underline a point I was making/quote a line or two of poetry (this usually happens after the second glass of wine, so if you haven’t had dinner at mine, consider yourself warned).

What I am, if not a traditional bibliophile, is a bit of a hoarder and a bit of a sentimentalist, although multiple moves over the last fourteen years have forced me to pare my library down now and then. I find it easiest to say goodbye to novels, near-impossible to give up a volume of poetry or an art book (a common trait, judging from the usual selection at second-hand bookshops) so it’s necessarily the novels that have been reduced to the most essential and the most well-loved and most re-read. I still have three that figured strongly in my childhood and whose heroines were mine: Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They all get re-read on a regular basis. So does Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which I always begin wishing fervently and futilely that this time it will end happily.

Other books have earned their permanent spot in my library as much because of their associations as because of their content. This is especially true of my French books – I can tell you which trip to Paris netted me such-and-such a book, or how I bought The Red and the Black to read on a trip to Alsace and A Very Long Engagement to read on a train journey that would take me through Picardy (I got into the habit of reading books set in the locale where I was travelling the year I lived in France, and have kept it ever since). Then there are those whose authors I’ve met (I still blush at how, as a college freshman, I marched up to Erin Belieu in one of the campus cafés and asked her to autograph Infanta for me) or those whose giver I am particularly attached to. So maybe my insistence that I care about what’s in the book, not the book as an object, isn’t strictly accurate. If (heaven forbid) I were to lose my books, I could replace them, yes, but it just wouldn’t be the same, and I’d never be able to convince myself otherwise.

So, a life in a library. I’ve been in my flat for three months and a bit, but only now that I’ve got my library back – even if it is still in a pile of battered boxes – does it feel like home.


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