Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

On Personal Libraries and Book Collecting

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I visited a used bookstore in Oxford yesterday.  While I worked assiduously to fight off my desire to buy the whole shop, I came away with a nice collection of old, hardcover books: Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition; Walter Lippmann’s The Good Society; and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, to name a few.  Upon returning to my flat, I made room for these new purchases on my bookshelf and realized just how elated I was with them.  It is manifest that I love books; yet, this experience was different.  What was it about a used bookstore that augmented my experience of purchasing books for my personal library?

I thought about it for some time and recalled a brilliant little essay I once read by Walter Benjamin, a philosopher, social and literary critic, and renowned bibliophile occasionally associated with the Frankfurt School of literary theory.  “Unpacking My Library” represents Benjamin’s reflection on his own personal collection as he catalogued it in a new abode.  (Because he was Jewish, Benjamin found himself running from the Nazis, moving first to Paris, then to Switzerland, then to Spain where he ultimately committed suicide.)  He speaks of the “thrill of acquisition” and the collector’s concern for each book’s fate, as opposed to its “functional, utilitarian value.”  The book’s fate brings an additional element to its ownership, superseding anything one experiences when purchasing a new book.  That is, all of the relevant facts about that used book contribute to its essence, which the owner values or ought to value: its history, publisher, message, binding, illustrations, craftsmanship, and of course, its previous owner.  “As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.”  Thus, just as individual works have their own fates, individual copies of such works also have their own fates—a key distinction to the used collector.

Benjamin’s theory of used book acquisition indicates that purchasing such books is a rebirth or renaissance for the individual copy (not necessarily the text, for the text lives on indefinitely).  Renewal of the old world contains a childlike element in that children are always renaming, reconfiguring, recreating, and reviving old things.  The same is true of the collector, and that is why renewing the old world “is the collector’s desire when he is driven to acquire new things.”

Non-collectors may criticize: “Have you read all these books? Will you ever have time to read them all?”  Benjamin notes ironically that failure to read these books is characteristic of collectors.  Indeed, one would not have a library, properly called, if one did not have unread books.  Benjamin notes that he once tried purchasing only books he read, with deleterious consequences to his library: “This was its militant age, when no book was allowed to enter it without the certification that I had read it.  Thus, I might never have acquired a library extensive enough to be worthy of the name if there had not been an inflation.”  Hence, in some cases, the collector may intend never to read the book—only to rescue it “because he found it lonely” and in need of freedom.  “To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.”  My personal collection includes some wonderful volumes from various trips, too, many of which I have not read.  Nonetheless, they serve as a constant reminder of images and memories of cities I enjoyed.  Further, I believe firmly that cities reveal an important part of themselves in secondhand shops of all kinds, whether selling books or antiques, for example.

In summation, the intimate relationship between collector and his personal collection is of the most important kind.  Although public collections are more useful than private collections, the intimate bond between book and owner esteems the objects with their proper due in the latter, something critically absent from the former.  Perhaps, this is why I was so giddy when I returned from the used bookshop and placed my new acquisitions on my bookshelf: I was esteeming my purchases with the intimate relationship of ownership, given their previous fates and all this entails.

(All quotations from Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zorn. London: Pimlico, 1999.)


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