Thanks to COVID-19, I’ve been self-isolating for the last ten days or so – happily, my symptoms haven’t been too serious beyond some fatigue, headaches and a mild cough. So, I’ve been trying to fill the time by reading more, and it has to be confessed, by buying books. Almost none of them have been things which are highly reviewed in the contemporary literary press but are rather things I can find as cheaply as possible, by authors I’ve wanted to read for a while or have been mentioned by others. I bought my first collection of Kafka stories, (I know, I know) some Brecht poetry, and some essays by John Berger. Whilst reading through those, I’ve been thinking about one of Benjamin’s essays on book collecting. It’s in a collection of Benjamin’s called Illuminations, the version of which I have was published in 1973. I found it on a shelf in the lobby of one of the buildings that made up the campus of the university that I did my PhD. The book has a Benjamin portrait as it’s front cover – the famous picture of his pensive face, gazing down out of frame, perhaps reading something from his own collection. Benjamin’s fondness for book collections used to strike me as odd – an affectation that cost a fortune and, given his precarity, must have been wildly impractical. Then there’s the detail of his final days, desperately trying to escape fascist Europe with an attache case and a final manuscript alongside his trips to Paris to store his papers with librarians there. The books seemed like they weighed him down, underscoring his housing insecurity, financial precarity and nomadism.
The essay on books and book collecting is relatively short and is subtitled ‘a talk about book collecting.” It’s conversational, and an excellent reminder that Benjamin was an engaging and frequently funny public speaker – his radio scripts are also ample evidence of that point. For Benjamin, books are not simply useful tools, but a phenomenological pleasure. His whole piece can be summed up as the articulation of a “relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value” Books were for Benjamin impractical, but perhaps that is precisely the point and part of what makes the collection of them such a joy for him. He admits as such in the essay too pointing out that ‘I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient…how many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!’ Of course, the struggles of purchasing and the thrill of the auction and the vital catalogue are not really part of the book world anymore. That said, Benjamin’s writing about the thrill of the auction will still be recognizable to anyone with a passion for a certain object.
When it comes to books access is not nearly as challenging as it was for Benjamin but rereading the essay this week I do think there is still much to recommend about not just unpacking, but building a library of one’s own. Benjamin talks of how his started as just a shelf or two before growing and whilst my own collection is maybe a little bigger than that it’s still worth noting that collection doesn’t have to be a massive expensive (something Benjamin could have done with remembering I think) Whilst it’s perhaps easier than ever to find digital copies of books (what academic doesn’t have a folder full of PDFs that we will absolutely read one day) access may have proliferated but also has become more complicated. I’ve been in the midst of starting a new job and research project but without institutional credentials or a reliable internet connection, I found accessing material really hard – running into the brick wall of limited log ins or hefty paywalls. Leaving a job at a university means losing access – that’s increasingly all universities have to offer as they absolutely aren’t offering decent pay or working conditions. There is more information available online than ever before but it’s also more regulated and mediated than ever too. Books online (I’m thinking particularly here of research and non-fiction) are objects to which the prospective reader is expected to have a strictly utilitarian relationship. We need a book for a specific project so we need to pay for it. The books I’ve been ordering haven’t been particularly expensive and they haven’t been something I needed for now. It’s been refreshing to think about books outside of the logic of utility and paradoxically I think it’s made it more likely that those books will be used in writing and research precisely because they’ve been freed from the utilitarian calculus that governs much of university intellectual life.
Physical books are easily owned – rights to digital content are all too easily taken away or turned into something that can only be rented. Much of culture has become a rentier category with media becoming digital and whilst there are advantages the books arriving through the door have a comforting solidity as well as an aesthetic joy to them. Sitting next to me at the moment is a collection of Brecht poetry, the collected Kpunk blogs and Arundhati Roy’s collected non-fiction – all around 1,000 pages but beautiful objects that are more than just additions to the list of things I have to read for research purposes. Benjamin points out that books and book collections are inextricably tied up with memory and function as a reflection of the collector – after all, ‘collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.’ These books sit on my desk because they sit on my desk and have meaning in relation to my memories, political development and future intellectual work. They connect me to something outside of my own writing – to a wider intellectual community of the present (readers now) and an intellectual tradition stretching back through history. Physical books are multifunctional – repositories of memory and an expression of our political commitments and interests. In the stacks of books we accumulate, we see something of what we value, or, as Benjamin put it ‘as the scene, the stage of their [our] fate.’ So build your own library! A library that can’t be taken away by paywalls or digital access limits and one which expresses your memory, commitments and aesthetic joy.
You can read Benjamin’s original short piece here: http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/2138/benjamin.pdf