There’s a wonderful little essay by Walter Benjamin called “Unpacking My Library.” Scholars tend to cite The Arcades Project or “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” when it comes to Benjamin, but the library essay is another gem. Written in 1931, Benjamin’s essay basically concerns his life as a collector, and more specifically a bibliophile, and describes the thrill that comes with tracking down rare editions and owning them. For him, it’s not just the content of the book that’s important, but the possession of the object and the memories that go along with its acquisition.
I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot lately, because I recently did the opposite with my own library: I divested myself of about 1/3 of my books.
This isn’t the first time I’ve purged my belongings. When I moved into a smaller place in 2016, I ended up getting rid of my college notes because I realized that they no longer reflected my work as a scholar. I hadn’t looked at them in over a decade, and it was unlikely that I would do so in the future. I also maintain a practice of getting rid of one piece of clothing for every new piece I acquire, so that my wardrobe remains approximately the same size at any given moment. There have been plenty of times where I’ve put some objects in storage, only to completely forget that I ever owned them in the first place, so I often end of donating those too. When it comes to material goods, I like to think that I don’t get overly attached to anything.
After boxing and hauling around my books for years, I decided it was time to clean them out too. With Brandon and I moving into a new place, and with comprehensive exams and all the reading that goes along with them occupying my near future, I figured it was as good a time as any to clear some shelf space both physically and mentally.
I’ll be honest though, it was hard. I had to spread it out over several days, and found myself getting emotional toward the end. I hadn’t reread most of these books in years, and some I hadn’t even touched at all. Why was it so hard to get rid of them then?
Part of my hesitance was undoubtedly cultural. Books are arguably one of the most powerful forms of aspirational consumption. We’re taught from a young age that reading is an important way to both improve oneself and get lost in another world. Owning books enables you to project your interests and hopes to others. Even if you haven’t read the book, you intend to, right?
Books have been prized as precious objects for centuries. In fifteenth-century Flanders, the Duc du Berry showcased his wealth and power by commissioning an extravagantly illustrated book of hours, or prayer book. Thanks to mass printing books have become more affordable, but the material object still exudes a certain tactile magnetism. Kindles may be more convenient, but how many of us still prefer to hold a book and physically turn the pages?
Beyond the broader cultural appeal, however, there’s also a strong personal dimension to these books. Part of that comes from being an academic: I read a lot of books, so why not have a lot of them, especially if I’m going to continually consult them?
Yet downsizing my library also meant confronting some long-forgotten dreams of mine. When I was in high school, I used to daydream about having a large library of my own someday, which used to go hand-in-hand with a similar aspiration of cultivating a vast rose garden. Looking back, they were the kinds of dreams someone my age could reasonably have before 2008, when home ownership still seemed feasible.
But these dreams, as pleasant as they are, don’t reflect my life in reality. After I went to college, I awakened a restless streak that has never fully quieted down. Rather than stay in one place, I’ve bounced around the country every few years. Instead of building a library of my own, I’ve discovered the joys of public libraries, and encountering books I might not have read otherwise. During my time in Roswell alone, I read about Pueblo revolts, rabies, eels, dinosaur skeletons, the neurology of politics, and more. Because I wasn’t committed to buying any of these books, I felt I could explore different genres and read things outside of my art historical wheelhouse.
That’s why getting rid of the three books above was especially charged for me. While I donated the other books in bulk, I personally put these in three in a little free library as a symbolic gesture, a way of relinquishing, or at least revising, an old dream. I bought and read these books in high school, as the first tentative step toward building my vast library. But I hadn’t looked at any of them since at least 2003, and after boxing them up and hauling them around for years, I decided it was time to let somebody else enjoy them.
By letting them go, I was also giving myself permission to update my old dreams. I may not own a beautiful house with a library and garden, but I’ve hiked the Tetons, ridden my bike along Lake Champlain, and watched sunsets in Santa Fe. My life may not look like the one I had envisioned in 2003, but frankly, I think this one is a lot richer.
And just because I don’t have a vast library now doesn’t mean I won’t have one in the future. Even after downsizing, I still have a lot of books, so my shelves are by no means empty. But rather than daydream about a future collection I may never have, I’ll enjoy the ones I’ve got now and continue taking advantage of other public collections.