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Unpacking Libraries

March 7, 2012

Wayne writes: Before Christina and I were married, we had to decide where we were going to live. We were on opposite sides of the Atlantic, each had a good job, and I didn’t believe that the wife should always give up her old life to follow the husband. But openings for rare book librarians are scarce everywhere, and it was unlikely that a post in England would be given to an American if an equally qualified U.K. citizen applied. Also, Christina was closer to retirement than I was, and – of particular importance – I had a house which could hold both of our book collections, while Christina’s one-bedroom flat was already stuffed with hers, and we couldn’t expect to make, even jointly, the level of income needed to afford housing in or near London (if Christina were to continue at Sir John Soane’s Museum) big enough for all of our books. So our decision was made. Christina’s possessions were prepared for shipping by a professional book packer (who worked freelance for antiquarian booksellers), and they made a thankfully quick passage to America. We put the many boxes of books in one half of our garage, to remain until we could put up extra shelves indoors; and since the books arrived in November, when the weather was cold, we had until spring to unpack, before problems with mice or insects could present themselves.

Unpacking those boxes brought memories of acquisition (for Christina) and joys of discovery (for me). This is undoubtedly a universal experience for book collectors when they move house, or even when they reorganize shelves. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay about it, ‘Unpacking My Library’, which is often cited. ‘Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day – or, rather, of night’, he says (in the Harry Zohn translation), ‘what memories crowd in upon you! Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly than the difficulty of stopping this activity. I had started at noon, and it was midnight before I had worked my way to the last cases.’ Well, it took us much longer than twelve hours to unpack. We suppose that Walter Benjamin didn’t have quite so many books to set free upon his shelves.

Unpacking My Library, ArchitectsIt was Benjamin’s essay which inspired a small, oblong book we bought a couple of years ago: Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, edited by Jo Steffens (Yale University Press/Urban Center Books, 2009). And that, in turn, led to a more recent title, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, edited by Leah Price (Yale University Press, 2011). The first presents ten book collections owned by contemporary architects. Each library is described according to its dimensions, manufacture, and number of volumes, the latter ranging from 750 (Michael Sorkin) to 6,000 (Bernard Tschumi); and each section of the book begins with one or more photographs of the architect’s shelves within their rooms, and with a brief interview. At the end of each section is a list of the architect’s ‘top ten books’. In between are the pages most interesting to the book-loving voyeur: color photos of individual shelves in which most of the spines of the books can be clearly read.

Naturally, since these collectors are architects, careful thought has gone into the design, or at least the functionality, of their shelves. I particularly like the classic built-ins favored by Henry N. Cobb. No effort was made to neatly, or even coherently, arrange the books for their close-ups: some volumes topple over, or are piled on top of others, and occasionally there’s dust – we all know how that is. (Walter Benjamin wrote: ‘There is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.’) Though the libraries contain many books on architecture and art, as one would expect, they’re also abundant in philosophy, and history, and literature, as one would hope: as Bernard Tschumi says, ‘architecture doesn’t exist in a vacuum’. It’s always interesting to see which books are chosen by a collector if one must choose a ‘top ten’: here Melville, Joyce, Faulkner, and Pynchon all appear more than once (but – and this is the question one must ask of many ‘best book’ polls – have their owners actually read them?).

Unpacking My Library, WritersContemporary architecture really isn’t my subject. Of the collectors interviewed, I had heard of only two, Michael Graves and Toshiko Mori. And my and Christina’s collecting only rarely overlaps with theirs, to judge by the few books I could point to in the close-up photos and say ‘we have that’. It’s a different story with the new volume, which deals with libraries formed by thirteen writers, some of them jointly housed with partners. Here I recognized five of the collectors – contemporary literature isn’t my strong suit either. Altogether, the writers seem less concerned than the architects to impose order on their books. In Philip Pullman’s house, for example, volumes spill out of the shelves and are piled high on the floor, and they share space with acoustic guitars and a rocking horse. I don’t know how he finds particular books when he wants them. But then there are those, like Rebecca Goldstein/Steven Pinker and Jonathan Lethem, with neat built-ins, even (amazing!) the occasional empty shelf. Also relative to the architects, the writers have far more books that are on the Hammond & Scull shelves as well: here are graphic novels, Tolkien and Lewis, and Ace science fiction doubles, as well as Hazlitt, Woolf, Blake, a great many literary classics. Two of the writers chose a Tintin volume as one of their ‘top ten’.

The interviews are relatively longer in the writers’ volume. Some of the same questions were asked of different collectors and their libraries:

How far back does your collection stretch? When were the first books that you still own acquired? At what age did you start buying books? Which ones have you kept, and shed, as you moved? At what phases of your existence has reading books, and owning books, been most important to you? . . . Do you have any taboo against throwing away books when you’ve done reading them, or replacing books when they fall apart from wear and tear? . . . What to you imagine your library looking like five, ten, twenty years from now?

But also: Do you own a Kindle? Do you listen to audiobooks? How are your books arranged? The answers vary, from strong sentiments in support of the physical book, to admissions that owning books has not always been important to the interviewee. I like Philip Pullman’s verdict on e-readers: ‘I mistrust any device whose continued usage depends on a vast, mysterious, and invisible infrastructure of electricity supply, computer servers, broadband connections, credit facilities, and so on.’

I happened upon a website which performs much the same function as Unpacking My Library. It details the preserved private collection of the American artist Donald Judd, some 13,000 volumes. From a key diagram, the viewer chooses a range of shelves to view. Then, from a photograph of the range, one selects a shelf of interest aided by pop-up tags which indicate the subject or subjects on the shelf. The resulting image is enlarged, though not so much that each book can be identified from its spine. Moving the mouse cursor in front of each displayed spine, however, brings up further information about the book; and clicking on an individual book links to a cataloguing record.

Images: Upper covers of the two Unpacking My Library volumes.

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