In his essay “Unpacking My Library” Walter Benjamin, a critic who knew no school or home in his lifetime, lovingly describes his book collection. An aphoristic writer, Benjamin peppers his “talk about book collecting” (the essay’s subtitle) with all sorts of gems about books, writing, collecting, reading, and memory. To wit, “A real library…is always somewhat impenetrable and at the same time uniquely itself… The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership—for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.” Collecting was the point, not just reading: Benjamin gloried in the acquisition.
If you encounter Benjamin’s essay in the collection Illuminations, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt describing the circumstances of Benjamin’s life, however, “Library” takes on another dimension. Though Benjamin was a homme de lettres who pursued the life of the mind with vigor and zeal, his material circumstances and the political times in which he lived made this pursuit neigh well impossible. Benjamin was a German Jew born in 1892 who spent much of his adult life as a refugee, making the book collection he hauled from country to country an even more remarkable feat. In “Unpacking My Library” he is literally taking the books out of cartons and fantasizing about them. Arendt claims that Benjamin’s collecting had a “fetish character.” Benjamin imbues the book with totemic powers (“magic encyclopedia”), and the collection as a whole with a sense of wonder and collective identity (“uniquely itself”).
So there is a blunt irony in the title of the new anthology featuring sumptuous photographs of thirteen well-known writers’ bookshelves also being called Unpacking My Library. Unlike poor Benjamin, whose life was one of impoverishment and alienation, these are people who have made it, the literary establishment, and their bookshelves are emblems of their success. The presentation of the book in Unpacking is such that books take on a fetishistic quality in a literal way: call it library porn. They are seductively posed flat on their sides or perfectly aligned with their coordinated spines facing out, lovingly lit, labeled by category, encased in plastic, nestled in exotic bookends. You are waiting for one to beckon to you fetchingly accessorized with a lamp, a cozy chair and a snifter of something delicious: the literary equivalent of a nightie and a bearskin rug. It’s refreshing after Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein’s white floor-to- ceiling, arranged by category and author, bourgeois bookshelf masterpieces to see Phillip Pullman’s piles on the floor and Junot Diaz’s hodgepodge of vertical and horizontal paperbacks and hardcovers. They, and slovenly Edmund White, are the exceptions: the rule is books lovingly arranged, organized, fetishized. Unpacking is coffee-table fodder for the nerd set.
The format of Unpacking is a question-and-answer session in which editor Leah Price asks each writer about his library, followed by the writer choosing his “Top Ten Books,” with the photographs of the actual bookshelves after that. The pictures are really the soul of the book: a better arrangement would have had the interviews come last, since the temptation to flip straight to the shelves is pretty irresistible. Just like walking into someone’s house, it’s on the shelves that most of the best discoveries are made: Gary Shteyngart keeps his Sopranos DVDs between David Copperfield and the Divine Comedy; someone is reading Camus in French in Claire Massud and James Wood’s house; Jonthan Lethem’s Peanuts collections live right above his Kafka. Oh, and either Lev Grossman or Sophie Gee has been reading the Twilight books.
The interviews get a bit repetitive after a while (Price asks most of the writers the same questions) but do have some revelatory moments. Alison Bechdel reveals- slash-explains the function of the covetable Atlas Ergonomic Bookstand on her shelf which she got “to facilitate reading in tandem with eating. I got tired of trying to prop a book open and use a knife and fork at the same time.” Rebecca Goldstein shudders at the thought of putting vases or other objects on a shelf with books, saying “it seemed to me to qualify as what philosophers call a ‘category mistake.’” Married couple Goldstein and Pinker are among the liveliest interviews in the book, along with having those incredibly enviable shelves: in fact, Pinker loves the shelves so much he did a testimonial for them for a TV show called I Want That which ended up on YouTube though, confusingly, there are vases on the shelves in the video. Pinker and Pullman are also the only interviewees who cop to reading ebooks (Pullman likes to read thrillers on his Kindle).
The most refreshingly non-reverential writer interviewed is Edmund White, who not only regularly clears out his sagging shelves and donates to charitable bookstore Housing Works but has no compunction about throwing a book in the garbage “if I truly despise” it. After all of the precious talk of categorization and annotation and cataloguing and custom-made shelving (perhaps the most enthralling and slightly nauseating detail is Shteyngart’s confession that “I’m big on sniffing books. The old Soviet ones have this really strong smell, reminding me, for some reason, of tomato soup in a cheap Soviet cafeteria”), White reminds us that these libraries should not only be collections but workshops. “You could say I’m pretty hostile to books as objects and space-grabbers and dust-collectors,” White says, and it’s so contrary to the sentimentalism and fetishizing of the other writers the reader almost gasps at the thought books could be anything but worshipped. Or sniffed.
The idea behind Unpacking My Library is that we can get to know writers better by peeking at their bookshelves and hearing them talk about their attitude toward book collecting, or maybe book owning is a better term. One of Price’s better questions asks what books are not in the photographs (lots of cookbooks). Critic James Wood confesses: “I have a separate bookcase for ‘unread books I want to read sometime soon.’ Of course, it’s enormous and dispiriting.” That is the spirit of Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” peeking through this Unpacking My Library, a sentiment he could understand lurking behind these bourgeois bookshelves.