Unpacking my library

Mark Woods posted an excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking my Library” at the exact moment that I was unpacking my own.

I’ve adopted a strategy of imposed order on my books, because as I get older I find that I can’t instantly remember where certain titles are when I need them. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to confirm or explore something and then having to search half the day to find it. So, I use Delicious Library to record the books as I place them, for reasons of diminishing space, into numbered boxes rather than neatly arrayed (and spine bleaching) rows. Doing archival work inspired my approach. Archives generally lack a consistent organizing strategy but instead are simply placed into random arrays in numbered boxes with a finding guide. That’s how my boxes are done—simply frozen for a moment in the order they fell within reach of the computer, and easily found with a computer’s help. I found Benjamin’s Illuminations in a moment.

Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day—or, rather, of night—what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity . . .

Oh! bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, no one has a greater sense of well being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweig’s “Bookworm.” For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to that for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—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. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting. (Zohn trans, 66-67)

What I find most interesting about the essay is that it suggests that arrangements of books share the order/disorder of memory. This order is neither alphabetic nor chronological; it is thematic and based in moments, not taxonomies. In my case, this thought was in box B018.

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