February 22, 2008

Notes on Unpacking My Library

"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 the genuine collector."

-Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library," 1931.

Although Benjamin's essay is nominally about his personal library, it's really about the art, the passion, the chaos of collecting. Although this collecting spirit is something that interests me greatly, it is not what this post is about. (I'll leave that to the more capable Mr. Benjamin.) This post is about a single collection: mine, which is, at this very moment, sitting in its own chaos of bubble-wrap and half-emptied packing boxes on the floor of my basement study. And I invite you to take a stroll through my collection with me ...

Like Benjamin's collection, mine has been sitting in storage for nearly two years, and it was not without the thrill of anticipation -- and a hint of trepidation -- that I opened the first boxes. Would they still be in reasonable condition, or were they soggy with mold and silverfish? Would all my favorites still be there, or did I chucked the out in the rash of cleaning that precedes every big move?


In the months prior to our arrival, when we were living out of suitcases in Germany or in the United States, some of my happiest daydreams were of unpacking our books again and seeing them all laid out, side by side.

In our previous apartment, our books had held pride of place: three full walls of the hallway and living room, although space was in short supply and the books often had to be shelved two deep. In our new house, our books were finally to have the kind of space they deserved -- a Room of Their Own. Most people would have turned a "spare room" into a guest room, but since we have so few guests and so many books that didn't seem quite proportional.

Our "study," as I dreamed it, would have emerald green walls, a red oriental rug, and wall-to-wall wooden bookshelves (none of that fiberboard stuff we'd had in the past). My writing desk would claim one corner, a creaking old reading chair another, and my collection of prints and photographs would fit into any remaining wall space like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, it was going to be be favorite room, a recreation of that ideal scene of domestic comfort evoked in Dürer's etching, "St. Jerome in his Study." We would have to put a small guest bed in there for the occasional dwarfish guest, but it would be in corner out of the way, in front of those shelves of books that don't get used much, like poetry, say, or travel guides.

Unfortunately, my happy plan didn't quite work out. Very soon after moving into our new house, we realized that the rooms weren't very big at all. We couldn't even unroll the red oriental rug in the 7' x 12' room designated as the "study," much less squeeze in a bed, a desk and a few bookshelves.

We'd also run into a simple problem of finance. We no longer had any of our old bookcases -- cheap Target purchases that were sold for scrap before our last move -- nor did we have the money to buy new ones. The "nicer" bookcases at IKEA, still wood veneer over fiberboard, though -- l cost $300 a piece, and we would need four or five of them at the very least. And so our books have languished in their boxes in ill-stacked towers against one wall of our erstwhile study for nearly two months now.

Until today, that is. After months of shuffling through boxes in search of that one book I want the moment I wanted it, I have finally decided I can take it no longer. A house without my books just doesn't feel like a home, and so I am unpacking them. I am setting them free from their cardboard cells and transferring them to another: my windowless basement-study. Since the spare room cannot expand to fit my dreams, I am commandeering one of the musty, half-finished basement rooms and I am lining it with enough cheap metal bookshelves to hold every single volume, all 2,000 of them. (At $20 a piece, I can wallpaper the room with bookshelves if I want.)


I used to want to keep a copy of every book I had ever read -- even the ones I didn't like -- as a sort of testament to the accomplishment of having read it, or maybe just as evidence of having done something useful with all of those hours of solitary amusement. How nice it would be, I thought, to look over my collection of books and map the development of my consciousness, from a high school dalliance with Virginia Woolf to a more mature affair with the entire Bloomsbury Group. It's arrogant and pretentious, I know, but what reader can deny having had the same urges?

Ultimately, though, it was not the arrogance and pretension that put me off this habit, rather the simple impracticality of it. Moving as I did, nearly every year, from parental home, to dorm room, to dorm room, to cheap apartment, to nicer apartment and finally abroad, I was forced to part with a number of beloved old volumes: my 11th grade copy of The Great Gatsby, my meticulously marked-up edition of The Riverside Milton, and all of those books on current affairs that I had devoured for work, but which, ultimately, were less permanent in the public consciousness than the paper on which they were printed. (One spring a sudden thaw followed by April showers flooded my basement and destroyed most of my college textbooks, including the Milton, which hadn't quite made it onto by working-girl bookshelves. I mourned and cried, and felt a bit like Lucifer being caste out of heaven for having been so negligent as to store books in a basement.)

As my collection crept toward the 2,000 mark, though, my books began to take over my living space and -- I began to fear -- my life. Every time we moved I had to lug twenty boxes of those books down one set of apartment stairs and up another. (We are not rich, we do not hire movers.) Although I am young and relatively healthy, I felt I was risking an aneurysm every time we moved. And to make matters worse, every year or so, when our collection would start spilling over, and we'd have to rent a car and schlep out to a suburban big box store for another $30 bookcase. Pretty soon, I thought, our bookcases would outgrow our wall space and then what would we do? I had read about a man in New York who died when his bookshelves collapsed on him, just like a row of dominoes. His whole living room had been filled to the brim with bookcases. It took the authorities days to clear out the books and get to his body.


It seems that wherever I go, a bit of my collection goes with me, expanding like cancer cells or like water to fit the shape of its vessel. When we moved to Germany, I shipped two very expensive boxes of books along with the rest of my "necessaries." Indeed, they were as necessary to me as having enough socks and underwear.

"What if they don't have any English-language books in Germany," I fretted to Kevin, when he balked at the shipping bill. "At least not the ones I want to read next year." (Because you do plan your future reading almost a year in advance like I do, don't you?)

Then when it turned out that I could get quite a few good English books in Germany and any number of good German books (once I learned how to read them), I began acquiring boxes of those, too -- even though it would cost me another small fortune to ship them home again.

"But you don't really read all those books, do you?" asks the skeptic. To which I'll take a line from Benjamin's essay and reply: "Not one tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sevres China every day?" My average is probably a little better than that, closer to nine-tenths, I would wager, but then I long ago gave up buying more than one books at a time.

"One day at a time," they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. "One book at a time," should be the mantra, then, for recovering bibliophiles.


When I was in college, I got a job at a big chain bookstore. I needed the spending money for sure, but I mainly took the job for the hefty 40% employee discount. I made dozens of important purchases that way: volumes of fiction and poetry, a few good biographies, some seminal works of intellectual history, but most especially big, beautiful volumes on art. There was an over-size volume of Picasso (unfortunately, it was not the period of his work that I like), a four-edition set of Monet, the definitive volume on Art Nouveau. There were several books on photography, its history and practice, and several more of Klimt, Schiele, Chagall, and other college-girl favorites.

I am embarrassed to admit, though, that most of my income stayed in the store. I also realized pretty quickly that with my after school job sapping most of my time and energy, I had little opportunity to do my school work much less read all of the books I had been acquiring. So, after about six months I quit -- the bookstore, that is -- and I have never been tempted to work at a bookstore again. I would rather sit at home, penniless, and read the books I already have.


In all this rambling, I'm sure you've remarked on the conspicuous absence of the names of of my volumes or of volumes of any real value, and so you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Well, I would argue a catalogue of books is interesting only to the owner of said books or to the patron visiting his local public library, and that, furthermore, a book's true value is relational to the author's experience of reading it, but more on that later. First, I must boast about those few books of mine that are of any real worth (heirs take note):

There is the first (American) edition of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, purchased from a London rare book dealer by a former boyfriend and some of who's pages were still uncut when I first read it. There is even another rare volume of Woolfian criticism, published by the Woolfs' own Hogarth Press and purchased by the same former boyfriend, God bless him.

My most valuable books, it would seem, have all been gifts or windfalls. There is a signed volume of Philip Booth's memoirs and criticism -- a gift from a friend who must have pulled out his eye teeth in parting with it. There is a 1901 edition, 32-volume set of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets -- a Christmas gift from my Aunt Matilda. There is a signed volume of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, -- signed by the illustrator Edward Gorey that is, not the author, T.S. Eliot -- and won in a raffle at a rare book fair. And there is a first-edition Gone with the Wind, inscribed in childish scrawl: "To Daddy from Matilda, 1936," and underneath, in a much more mature handwriting: "... And now to her Granddaughter, Sarah Matilda, 1992."

Some of my most valuable books I acquired more or less legitimately, through the sweat of my own brow. When I worked for a public radio program, I used to have every author I booked on the show sign a copy of his or her most recent hardcover (usually review copies I'd received free from the publisher.) And so I have some very fine volumes signed by John Updike, Toni Morrison, Peter Carey and others -- surely the most value added for the least expenditure in the history of book collecting.

Then there are those who "got away," and by "got away," I'm referring to the author, not the books. I bought books by Seamus Heaney, Donald Hall, David Gopnik Jane Goodall and others, intending to get them signed, but bowing out at the last minute, discouraged by the long lines of fans waiting to meet the author. Often, though, I was really too afraid to speak to my childhood heroes, my adolescent crushes. I'll never forget my disappointment as I handed my copy of Genius to Harold Bloom for his signature; he leaned in closely, whetted his puffy lips and said to me, "You know you have the most striking eyes." That's not how wanted to imagine the 80-year-old literary lion when I read him wax poetic about Hamlet.

There are second chances, though. Jane Goodall is coming to speak at the University next month, and I still have a much-loved copy of her In the Shadow of Man. Perhaps I had better get it signed then. It may be my last chance; she must be getting awfully old.


Of course, the value of a book rarely corresponds with it's monetary value. Some of the most personally valuable books in my collection have no resale value at all: the five-volume paperback set of Leon Edel's Henry James, a 1950 edition of Faulkner's short stories, the 25th anniversary edition of Taschen's Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Curiosities. (Alas, I could not afford the much nicer $300 edition, though I tried saving up for a year to get it). I also have a particular soft spot for a collection of the Babar books for children, not because I learned to read with them when I was a child -- although I did -- but because I learned to read them as an adult, in the original French, with my then-boyfriend, who is now my husband.


"... When you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life does," muses Meg Ryan's character in "You've Got Mail." Although she was talking about the books we read as children, she could have just as well have been talking about the books we read at any time in our lives. Portrait of a Lady, which I read at 20, was as significant to my development as Anne of Green Gables, which I read at 10. But she's right that the books we value most are the ones that shaped us, the ones we encounter at just the right time, and so the memory of reading that particular book is wrapped up in the memory of that long-ago moment, the memory of who we were then, and who we are again whenever we open its pages.

Where ever I go, I still carry my copy of The Secret Garden, which my mother read to me until at last I was old enough to read it to myself; my volume of E.B. White's essays, which are inextricably linked to long weekends in Maine with precious friends; and that volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor's ramblings across Europe, which I read last year during my own European Wanderjahr. I will never get rid of those books, and I will return to them again and again every time I want to revisit who I was then.


I'm sure we could have found a way to accommodate all of our books upstairs: a bookshelf in each bedroom, a couple more in the living room, etc. But I feared being overtaken by my own books like the New York man, and then, a funny thing happened during these past few months of book-less living: I discovered I kind of liked it.

One whole shelf of my library contains the evidence of my guiltiest pleasure, something even more embarrassing that bibliophilia: interior design. I have several big glossy design books with names like Simple Style and Simply Paris, and for years I lusted over their chic, uncluttered interiors: empty walls, unadorned linens, an old farmhouse dining table, and then a riot of parrot tulips in a white vase... . But as much as I admired -- nay, aspired -- to such interior fashions, I could never pull them off. It is impossible to achieve a "simple" style when you have two-thousand books to store and display. Having 2,000 of anything goes squarely against the "simple style" aesthetic.

The only time I came close to inhabiting my dream home was in a temporary studio apartment we lived in prior to our move to Germany. The apartment was tiny -- only 100 square feet -- and we were only going to be living there for four months, so everything we owned, including all of our books, was packed up and shipped off to a storage unit in Arkansas, until the day nearly two years later when we'd need it again.

And much to my surprise, I discovered I didn't need any of it at all. For about $100, I'd outfitted our garret with "disposable furniture" from garage sales and second-hand stores: a bed, a dresser, a table and two chairs, a small desk, and a few plain, white dishes. There just wasn't room for anything else. And the small crate of books I'd kept with me and stored underneath the bed -- those twenty or so books that I deemed too important, too useful, to ever be parted from -- I didn't need, not even once. Whenever I wanted a particular book, I checked it out from Harvard's Widener Library (which has every book anyone could ever want), or I walked down the street to one of my neighborhood's three bookstores, pulled up a chair, and read it in the store while drinking my Chai latte. I've never been happier, and my apartment -- the 100 square-foot hovel filled with someone else's caste-offs -- finally looked like a picture straight out of Simply Paris.


Walking through these boxes and boxes of books, I see many volumes that recall a time in my life that it no longer seems important to remember, a time that I'd just as soon forget and replace the happier memories and better books. And so, before I unpack them all, my collection will get culled again. In fact, most of my books fall into this later category. it's not that I regret most of my past, I don't. I just don't see the need to relive it all, nor do I see the need reread many of these books. They are already a part of me, as much as they will ever be. And so, they will either wind up in the rubbish bin or the Goodwill box. I'll take the remainder upstairs to sit in the one or two nice bookshelves I will eventually afford, or I will just leave them down here until another flood carries them away. And in time, too, some of the books that I now prize so greatly, will no doubt join their ranks. But we must be for ever changing and reinventing ourselves, just as we do our libraries.

To paraphrase Benjamin, it is not that books live in the collector, but the collector who lives in his books -- his life experience is bound up within the volumes he read in his boyhood bedroom, in his shabby student dorm, in the first home he shared with his lover and spouse. And so these books can move along and live in someone else, and I will learn to live outside of them.

(All photographs copyright me, from the Strahovsky Monastery, Prague.)


Jesse said...

Bravo! Notes: Ew, silverfish. I believe you mean Adam Gopnik. I especially liked the part where you look upon your library as mapping the evolution of your consciousness, a sentiment I've attributed to my own collection in similar terms, as a history of my curiosity. And what's a few eye teeth among dear friends? Afterall, I do still have someone's Breathing Room, a book no one of our common literary ancestry should be without. This is excellent.

Anukatri said...

This reminds me of all the libraries that have been destroyed during wars and genocides. What will happen to Google books in a time of emergency?

I truly enjoyed your post. I have colour-coded my several bookshelves, my favourite one is "Sunset". I am also imagining Benjamin sending his precious books in apple boxes to Brecht in Denmark, and finally ending up at the cottage on the night's last ferry from Germany...

Audrey Ellis said...

What a wonderful essay/post! Would you mind if I printed it to keep on file? I found myself nodding and grinning along while reading. Once I finish college and find somewhere permanent to live, I'll finally be able to unpack my own library after 4 years of being in boxes. I can't wait!