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Packing My Library

It is that time again, even if it is slightly premature, the time when I pull out Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library” and read it. My untimeliness has nothing to with reading the essay while packing up my library; after all, I’ve only always read it while putting my books into boxes. My untimeliness has to with the fact that we aren’t yet moving, as the semester is still not over and the house is still not sold. But, the getting the house ready for sell requires that I box up three of the five bookshelves at home, and eventually all of the ones at the office, and put them in storage. It seems that for those who know this essay, and if you’ve spent anytime in post-graduate work in humanities in US academe you know at least one or two of his essays, moving provides the impetus to revisit this little gem on books, libraries, collecting, and the peripatetic life.

There was a time when my entire library consisted of books I’d read; they fit on two shelves and I thought myself so smart because I could remember most every detail about the couple hundred in my collection. I could bore you with much more about Raskalnikov and the Inspector and the Pawn Lady than I could ever dream to do now. Or, if you preferred, I could get lost in the minutia of whaling ships. Now, my library is littered with books not read, half-read, and read but completely forgotten… swallowed by the depths, taken down to ocean floor of my mind in the belly of a whale. Then, they were arranged by date of publication; or, as in the case of a book like Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, the “official” date of completion/composition. They sat there on the shelves “touched by the mild boredom of order.” And I sat in my chair, king of my castle, lord of my manor, master of my domain.

I am no where near done packing up the library. I’ve got several more books to box up at the office and take home. Someone, though asked me, as I was taping a box up, “Do you really need all those books? Have you read all those books? Will you read all those books?” To that I can only answer with the anecdote that Benjamin recounts of Anatole France’s rejoinder “Not one tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?” when he was asked the same question.