(Not) Unpacking My Library

by Kevin Holowack

In the past couple years, I’ve packed and unpacked all my belongings four times. It’s not an egregious amount of moving, true, but it’s enough to make you reconsider what inanimate things you’ve chosen to share in your private life and how they affect you.

As an urban-dweller, I’m part of a large category of people who idealize a simple existence, a proverbial cabin in the woods, but see no way of achieving this and so let the dream gather dust. I have, however, procrastinated more and more when it comes to unpacking, watching my belongings inch toward eternal boxhood. Today, after two months, most of my things are still boxed.

But in the past, my shelves were a disaster. As a reader, I blame books. As a reader, it’s easy to blame books, just like a carpenter can blame tools and sawdust for injuries and respiratory problems. Books are infectious, though not always in a bad way. They infected Dorian Gray with their beauty, they infected Morrissey’s lyrics with charming pretensions that make them great, and they infected my room with tripping-hazards.

I admit that I’m not especially inclined to amass things. Having lived a relatively footloose life, I’ve dodged the timeless “Who will keep the microwave if we break up?” conundrum. But books are the one thing I’ve accumulated consistently, and if I were to weigh everything I own, I’m guessing that at least seventy percent of that weight would be paper.

A couple years ago, I happened to meet three individuals exploring ways of rebelling against their belongings. One sold everything they didn’t touch at least once a week, one studied ancient methods of folding and stacking, and one proposed setting their kitsch ablaze in a cozy anti-capitalist bonfire. I was impressed by the diversity of ways people have sought to find their cabin in the woods. Today, I’m equally impressed by the diversity of motivations. I might reduce them to these:

  • The belief that possessions weight down the joy, the lightness, of the present
  • The desire to develop inner-tranquility by designing an external space that resembles the ideal internal space
  • Cyclical anger toward consumerism (which, of course, admits that we were all seduced by it will be again)

I’ve spent some time brainstorming, recalling recent and distant conversations, and I came up with a few more:

  • The desire to shed elements of one’s past by shedding souvenirs
  • The quest to be more productive
  • The pursuit of freedom vis-à-vis non-attachment
  • The realization that physical objects mean nothing after death

These motivations all ring true for me to some degree—including the last one. However morbid it sounds, as I get older, inevitable death becomes less heavy and more a source of inspiration to live better. As such, it feels like the time is ripe to liquidate.

But something that continues to bother me is that, while it’s easy do away with things like clothes and coffee mugs, I can’t honestly deny that books, too, are “things.” They are just as much things as the things my acquaintances have reacted against. As material, they are linked to distraction, consumerism, weighing down the present, and so on.

But as soon as I imagine the thud of a box landing outside the local Goodwill, I recoil. Many of them I think of as like friends, many of them I haven’t even read, but they’ve all grown with me and shared my life since I was a kid. So I began researching other methods of dealing with things, preferably something gentler than my acquaintances, and turned to the innocuous-sounding “tidiness” or “decluttering” trend.

But research leads to the cruel irony that the best guides to tidiness and decluttering are, most reliably, books. Not only that, but today’s market is oversaturated with books and SEO-optimized-blogs-turned-books with words like “clutter,” “peace” and, above all, “simplicity” wedged in the title. Naturally, the corporate book world is targeting books about clutter to people who seek to remedy their cluttered lives, meaning bullet-points, minimalist jackets displaying trees and clouds, and inspirational quotes by Steve Jobs and Henry David Thoreau.

But these anti-clutter books are still things, crying to be possessed. It’s like selling tips to reduce sugar intake by sticking them in a box of Frosted Flakes.

Recently, I took a trip to a bookstore and stood between the shelves of the Well-Being and Lifestyle sections, weighing my options. I noticed that a number of contemporary books have been inspired by Scandinavia. The Swedish word lagom (an adjective roughly translated as “not too much, not too little”) lends it title to a recent lifestyle book, for example. The most fascinating find was in the form of a Japanese manga. The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up is a text that, although undoubtedly containing some valid advice, is paradoxically targeted at collectors of manga.

I went away with two conclusions. Firstly, that the trendiness of decluttering around the world speaks to the magnitude of anxiety people in “developed countries” (those are scare quotes) are having over their belongings. In a completely quotidian way, rather than for any religious or philosophical reasons, people are feeling alienated by things, and I’m convinced this is an entirely new problem.

Secondly, and perhaps pessimistically, simplicity is a brand image; the cabin in the woods a marketing tactic that is especially effective in light of peoples’ anxieties, which does, and should, put one’s guard up. But then again, I tend to see things harshly. Even—or especially—if I’m complicit in them. In any case, I decided that if I were to declutter, I would have to do it on my own terms.

So I went home and I tore through my first box of books, almost as if the books themselves would reveal to me a solution. Serendipitously, I came across a copy of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. I’d read snippets of Benjamin’s posthumously compiled essays when I was an undergraduate, getting my feet wet in literary theory. Reading Benjamin in particular, I found it was possible to dive into the text, almost indiscriminately, in search of vocabulary, quotations, and metaphors, like a duck diving into a particular point on the lake in search of fish.

I turned to an essay called “The Storyteller” and read through some of my earlier marginal notes. Having spent so much time recently thinking about books as material objects, burdensome attachments, I overlooked that they are first and foremost conduits of experience. They are stories. I’d like to explore this train of thought. with this question in mind: Are books exempt for thinghood and, if so, how?

Benjamin sketches the traditional figure of the “storyteller,” a kind of ancient mariner type who wandered the continent before books were mechanically reproducible at any large scale, and brought news and council from afar—a figure who, in that sense, lived and breathed the stories they were telling. They were able to let the experience sink into them before sharing it with their listeners. The storyteller vanished in Europe when people began to shirk stories and prefer “information,” specifically “news,” which Benjamin defines unflatteringly as that which “does not survive the moment in which it was new.”

Defined this way, information is consumable and quick to digest. It is what stories are not.

Benjamin was concerned that humans were becoming alienated from the mode of storytelling because of changes in technology and mechanics, including the advent of the novel and the short story. But as a bibliophile writing in the 1930s, Benjamin himself had never lived in a world with alternatives. Indeed, one could argue that the kind of storyteller that Benjamin idealizes never really existed as such. So as I read his essay, I see a subtle mission to, like me, find a way of thinking about books in which the spirit of the wandering storyteller is born.

 A shade of hope comes when Benjamin borrows an idea from the Russian novelist Leskov that storytelling, even if it is done through a novel, might be considered a craft rather than an art. Like a weaver, a storyteller is tasked with being patient. Benjamin then drops the following line from the poet Paul Valéry: “Miniatures, ivory carvings…stones that are perfect in polish and engraving, lacquer work or paintings in which a series of thin, transparent layers are placed one on top of the other—all these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing…”

Benjamin is asking us to visualize the same kind of labour being done by a writer, emphasizing the phrase “thin, transparent layers.”

This strikes me. The thin, transparent layering of lives and experiences over any object may be the best metaphor for shattering “thinghood” that I’ve ever heard. It encourages us to feel realities that are not visible but certainly there; personally, it gives me an intellectual and emotional stability.

But what I want to do, as a book collector, is suggest that the reader is also a craftsperson. I say this because readers, too, must be patient, proceed slowly, and apply our hands (holding) as well as our hearts (absorbing) to get through a book.

And books, by straining our eyes, by growing dog-eared against our thumbs, by being lent and borrowed, by surfacing in our thoughts and conversations, by causing us to fall in love or become indignant, acquire “thin, translucent layers” of our own lives that make them unique, different even from other apparently identical versions of the same book.

Let’s shuffle back a few pages.

Benjamin also wrote an essay called “Unpacking My Library.” Upon rereading this one, I feel ridiculous calling my books a “library.” It doesn’t hold a candle to Benjamin’s boasted “several thousand volumes” out of which he could (probably literally) create a dwelling “with books as building stones.”

But as I’ve already come to believe, piles of books are not important because they are a “collection” but because they are being collected, which is a less stable quality and so easier to dance with, or chat about. For this reason, Benjamin’s off-handed anecdotes about where his books came from are to me the most important quality of his essay.

Benjamin tells us of the exhilaration he felt upon realizing that certain books were hard to find and the grace that came in the form of book catalogues; or the fact that he walked around Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, and Paris in search of bookshops; or, my personal favourite, that somewhere on the edge of his library are two books of stickers that he inherited from his mother and became the foundation of a sub-collection of children’s books that he has never read.

Thin, translucent layers.

I continue to unpack a box, slowly. I’m occasionally overwhelmed by the layers upon layers that shake from the pages and can’t help but match Benjamin’s memories with some of my own:

Dear Life by Alice Munro brings me to a bookshop hidden in the bustle of Saint Catherine Street in Montreal, and the time I read the first story, about a train, on a train at two a.m., heading to Halifax, and the woman I met in Nova Scotia who borrowed the book to improve her English. A fifty-year-old hardcover War and Peace was given to me as a cheeky Christmas present by a Couchsurfing host in Manchester who knew I had to carry the tome around for months. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came both passed hands several times when I was part of a collective of poets in my final year of university. The collected poems by W.B. Yeats is something I bought it in Sweden when I was studying abroad and, when the spring came, I read it in the woods.

The list goes on. With each book, the details of a moment come. A place, usually. A café playing Eric Satie, a room with no fan, a library in winter, or a kitchen floor. Often there is another person waiting in the book: a friend, a barista, a professor, an ex, or a complete stranger speaking in my periphery whose voice and manner still coat the text.

In fact, as I write this, I remember meeting a man four years ago in Poland who took this way of thinking about books to the limit. He would treat his books as an impromptu journal. He went so far as to write at the foot of pages as he read, things like “Train station, Krakow, sitting near a Labradoodle” or “Hostel, Budapest, raining” or “Outside the window: sunset.”

I close the box.

I want to return to the concerns that opened this article about whether it’s worth holding on to clutter. I can’t say that the insight I’ve gained from Walter Benjamin definitively releases my books from their “thinghood.” One could still cite the motivations I listed above: that books are distractions, that they hinder a peaceful state of mind, that they are entwined in consumerism, that they can prevent productivity, that they mean nothing after death. If I did liquidate, I’m sure I’d be happier in a subtle way that I couldn’t predict.

But I choose to believe that books are worth keeping for at least one reason: they don’t care that they are clutter. They are busy living.

So I encourage you to pull down a book and look between the layers. And next time you buy one, consider the used copy littered with scribbles and coffee rings or, even better, polaroid bookmarks, phone numbers, “WTFs,” erotic doodles, Saskatoon Public Library stamps, and annotations of confusion and delight.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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