The Blog

Walter Benjamin and How I Learnt to Love My Library

Benjamin remembers some of the books he has collected over the years. He recalls ordering books from catalogues - which are essentially the Amazon of the first half of the twentieth century - and waiting eagerly for their arrival.

I often find myself wasting time perusing my small library. I'm ashamed to say that most of the books on those four shelves are dishevelled Amazon paperbacks. I'm ashamed not because they're dishevelled - there is a stoic charm to worn-out works - but because I have bought them from a tax-avoiding, royalty-suppressing, multi-national corporation. Unfortunately, I'm too poor to be self-righteous. On pay day I usually buy a hardback from an independent bookshop to ease my conscience. This doesn't really help.

The perusal of my library is a pointless and self-indulgent venture, but one in which an inordinate amount of my time is spent. Recently, I have started to question the quiet pride that I have for this collection of inanimate objects. To find an answer, I turned to the most appropriate place - my bookshelf. I picked up Walter Benjamin's One-way Street and Other Writings - one of the better books of my collection - and read an essay entitled 'Unpacking my Library'.

Benjamin is one of the twentieth century's great Marxist critics. He is a writer of clarity and exceptional insight. He is also a collector of books. In 'Unpacking my Library', Benjamin sets out to give his reader a sense of the collector's relationship to his or her possessions. He seeks to convince his reader that it is the experience of collecting and reading our books that gives us pride in our collection. Our libraries, Benjamin contends, are archives of memories, completely personal to the individual.

Benjamin remembers some of the books he has collected over the years. He recalls ordering books from catalogues - which are essentially the Amazon of the first half of the twentieth century - and waiting eagerly for their arrival. 'The copy,' he tells us, 'will always come as a surprise and represent some risk. But as well as dire disappointments there are also happy finds.' Anyone who has purchased a used book online will understand this feeling. The torn pages, the folded corners and the public library tags can be soul-destroying. There is, however, the occasional excitement of receiving a book already annotated, especially if the annotations are poignant, poetic or plain old crazy. I once ordered a collection of Keats's poems and found flowers and hearts adorning each page and the sententious inscriptions of one-time lovers on the inside cover. The collector is always grateful for these little surprises.

The collector has memories of the bookstores, charity shops and car boot sales where they have purchased books. My fondest memories come from strange locations such as Portobello Market, a pop-up stall outside the public toilets in Dulwich and the famous bookshop 'Shakespeare and Company' in Paris. These strange locations, and the memories that these places evoke, are perhaps the best reason to buy books offline, in the real world.

Of course, we also have fond memories of reading our books. I remember, for example, reading Jack Kerouac's famous 'mad ones' passage on my first journey back to London after leaving for University. Upon arrival, my mum wanted to ask me all sorts of questions about my first few months away from home - always a slightly overbearing experience - yet all I could think about was Kerouac. Three years later, a few days after graduation, my parents bought me a hardback edition of On the Road. Now the dishevelled Amazon copy and my treasured hardback sit felicitously next to each other on the top shelf of my library.

The memories of reading books are not always positive. On my shelves, there are unread books that I will never read and that I wish I had never bought. There are others that were utter dissapointments, such as Thomas Fontane's Effi Briest and John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. There are others, especially particular academic books, such as Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, which mean very little to me and won't get more than a glance during my perusal.

While unpacking his library, as mentioned, Benjamin remembers some of the memories that certain books represent. As I peruse my own library I find myself doing the same. Some books are taken out on occasion and certain passages are often revisited. These passages become the heart of one's library and will certainly differ depending on the collector. One's library is personal and is arranged according to preference. My library is a wonderful mess with books organised in no particular order and yet somehow the entire library seems perfectly ordered to me - and perhaps only me.

The point that I am making - a point that I realized while reading Benjamin - is that the books on our shelves are not simply the stories of other people. These books are our own stories built into these stories. Each book is a memory of the past - some wonderful, others disappointing - and these memories represent a little bit of the individual. Benjamin concludes, rather wonderfully, by asserting that it is not the books that live inside the reader, 'it is he who lives inside them'.