Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 30 Jul 2019

Me, My Books and Walter Benjamin

We’ve been living in our current house for over a decade and I can feel that the itch to move on to something new and different is growing stronger as each year passes. I may well have already passed the point of no return had it not been for the fact that we’ve invested considerable time, effort and money in shelving almost all of the living space to accommodate a book collection that has grown substantially since we first moved there. Now the mere thought of packing them up to go elsewhere seems overwhelmingly daunting.

There's obviously ways around this if you’ve got the money to spend – removals firms will come in and pack for you if you don’t mind them simply slinging everything  into boxes willy-nilly. But could I let them do that to my books? And what about the chance to weed out some stuff I didn’t even remember I had or which I know I’m never going to read again? Each of those decisions is a debate with myself and I’m never sure which way it’s going to go.

And at the other end, wherever we move, a lot of the books will have to stay packed away in boxes until we get the shelving sorted out again. All those books with nowhere to go – it just doesn’t bear thinking about: so I tend not to.

All of this ramble is by way of trying to contextualise the frame of mind I was in when I picked up Walter Benjamin’s iconic book of essays, Illuminations. The philosopher committed suicide in 1940 – driven to this act of self-destruction by the fear of Nazi persecution and imprisonment – and this collection brought together in the 1960s contains some of his most influential work, including 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' and 'Theses on the Philosophy of History'. In truth, I don’t personally find Benjamin an easy writer to understand and appreciate; it’s quite a lot of hard work which is, of course, no excuse. But strangely enough it is one of the least considered and most accessible essays in the collection that really jumped out at me and spoke directly to the concerns I have rattling around in the lumber yard of my mind. The essay, written in 1931, is called ‘Unpacking My Library’.

Benjamin takes us into his home and lets us share his thoughts as he literally unpacks his library from the packing cases they have been in for two years. He explains to us that he’s not interested in telling us the titles of the books or his prized possessions but instead ‘what I’m really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than the collection.’

From that moment on I was completely riveted by someone who seemed not just to be speaking to me but speaking for me. The poet, Alexander Pope famously said that the skill of the writer or artist is to take your thoughts and ideas and turn them into words in a way you couldn’t yourself -  “What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd” – and Benjamin does this here for me on the issue of books in my life and my emotions as a ‘collector’. He addresses himself to the act of acquiring books – specifically of buying them in ways that have ‘very little in common with that done in a bookshop by a student getting a text book’. He claims an approach he calls ‘strategic’ :

“Collectors are people with a tactical instinct…when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress…Many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in pursuit of books!”

And then, gloriously:

“ of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought…because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give its freedom…To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.”

He tells the story of his most celebrated victory in a book auction where he outflanks the opposition who seem equally determined that he should not have the books he wants and as he unpacks his collection from the packing cases all these moments stream back into his mind.

The question of what will happen to my book collection when I die is another topic that’s been haunting me of late and I’m delighted to discover it was also something Benjamin had thought about too. He thinks of his collection as one that must be handed on because ‘the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.’ It’s not good enough that the books should be donated to an institution:

“Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.”

And then, for me the most telling revelation as the essay comes to its end: the true collector not only possesses the books that are gathered on the shelves, together with all their associated memories, but that collection also contains that collectors essence, his spirit. It’s as if the books are the vessel in which the genie of the collector is stored. And that, for me, is such a positive and affirming message – something which distils what I feel but couldn’t easily have articulated.

So now when people ask me to explain why collecting books is such a great idea I’m not going to struggle to articulate why it’s the centre of my life – instead I’m going to give them the details of where to find this essay and tell them honestly that if they really want to know, the answer lies here.


Terry Potter

July 2019