I spent my winter break this year packing up my office and moving to a new building. The biggest part of moving offices for me is always packing and unpacking my hundreds of books acquired over the past 25 or so years.
Each time I move offices, I read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” The essay was first published in 1931 in Literarische Welt. I read it in a collection of Benjamin’s essays and reflections called Illuminations that I purchased primarily to read his more famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
As the subtitle suggests, the essay is not really about his library per se, but about book collecting and, in essence, about a people’s relationships to their books. He insists that it is a “relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness.” Instead, he uses words like “love” and “enchantment” to describe the relationship. When unpacking his library, Benjamin says he is filled with images and memories he associates with the books. Cities he visited, rooms he occupied. In this way, to paraphrase Benjamin, our books do not live in us; we live in our books.
Every book I have, I have for a reason. They embody the places I have been, people I have known, classes I have taken, research projects I have undertaken (or have wanted to undertake or may yet undertake). So unpacking my library allows me – indeed, forces me – to re-live my past, evaluate my present, and consider my future.
Perhaps because I have parted with those books that have negative associations for me – e.g., those on Catholic higher education – I have overwhelmingly positive feelings while unpacking my library. I have a shelf reserved for my teachers over the years: Bellah, Blauner, Bonnell, Burawoy, Camic, Epstein, Gorski, Joas, Kornhauser, Lembo, Lichterman, Voss, and others. I have a shelf reserved for friends and colleagues: Baggett, Bartkowski, Byrne, Flake, Hancock, Marti, Wood, and others. And interspersed throughout the rest of the shelves are the books, too many to name, that made me and sustained me as a scholar. Every book on every shelf is there for a reason.
That said, for the first time ever, packing and unpacking my library has been a bittersweet experience. Each of my previous 4 major moves involved getting a bigger office and more space for my books. So I accumulated and accumulated, easily owning over 3,000 books at one point. In my new office, I was only given 3 bookshelves and so I have had to pare back to just 1,000ish books between work and home.
Donating box after box of books was like tearing out and throwing away pages from a photo album or diary. I only hope that someone will see in these orphaned books what I saw in them when I had world enough and time to collect without limit.