packing my library

22Mar11

For the last few days, I’ve been packing my library, removing the books from whatever “mild boredom of order” the shelves may have imposed on them and hiding them away instead in brown cardboard boxes that will soon be packed into a larger brown wooden box and put on a boat that will spend several weeks making its way across the flat expanse of the Pacific Ocean until it arrives at last at the Port of Oakland.  On April 1st, after six years of living in Japan, I’ll be heading back to the States for at least a year while I work on finishing my dissertation and making the next necessary set of moves in terms of my academic and writing career(s).   The mode of packing and unpacking my library always reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Unpacking My Library,” and I live in anticipation of the day when I pop open my boxes and free the books to their quasi-ordered shelfworld:

I am unpacking my library.  Yes, I am.  The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order.  I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience.  You need not fear any of that.  Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust  of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood, it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation — which these books arouse in a genuine collector.  For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself.

Of course, I have another library back in the States, and other collections as well: a music collection built up while a graduate student at Berkeley that includes a host of discs picked up at Mod Lang, Rasputin, and Ameoba; a library full of books that I’ve been building up since childhood, including a large pile of art and architecture books; a huge collection of comics, most of which I picked up at Comic Relief (RIP, Rory), except for the stacks of self-published genius picked up every year at the Alternative Press Expo; paintings, prints, and posters by friends of mine and various local Bay Area artists and comic artists; the tchotchkes! the tchotchkes! (I can’t even remember what they are, although there is a set of Jim Woodring’s Crazy Newts in there, as well as a Dan Clowes Little Enid vinyl toy).  As Benjamin points out, “the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”; in the case of the things I have in storage in Oakland there’s the memory, the flavor, of an entire way of life that I can sometimes almost feel my way back into.

[W]hat I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection.  If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary.  This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.  Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.  More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.  For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?

In a sense there will be an order to each of these two collections: one of them contains the germ of my graduate school existence and all of the objects in this collection somehow swirl around that center, while the second collection orbits around the center of gravity that has taken shape during my time here in Osaka.  This second collection includes: a distinct set of tchotchkes, including an original Tower of the Sun sculpture from the 1970 World Expo in Osaka and a stack of papercraft Tsutenkaku Towers; books (of course) including a host of exhibit catalogs, stacks of books and pamphlets from various temples and shrines, several photo books, a couple of underground and self-published comics, a bag of zines, and four full goshuin books; then there are the countless tenegui and furoshiki that I’ve picked up along the way, as well as a couple of masks, several kokeshi dolls (I’m partial to the more traditional styles), and lots of other swellness.  And, inevitably, a few vinyl figures and capsule toys as well. 

Thus there is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.  Naturally, his existence is tied to many other things as well: to a very mysterious relationship to ownership, something about which we shall have more to say later; also, to a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value — that is, their usefulness — but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.  The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items withing a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.  Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property.  The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership — for a true collector the whole background of an item ads up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.

In the future, I imagine all of these objects freed from their boxes and arranged in some form of pleasantly disordered order, perhaps in a house with vast walls of built-in bookshelves and specially constructed display cases.  Nothing too structured, mind you, or the things lose their charm and end up as specimens rather than the captivating storage places of chance encounter, memory, aesthetic pleasure, and dream that they should be.



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