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The Art of Unpacking a Library

By Alberto Manguel
February 1, 2018


I would argue that public libraries, holding both virtual and

material texts, are an essential instrument to counter loneliness.
I would defend their place as society’s memory and experience.
I would say that without public libraries, and without a conscious
understanding of their role, a society of the written word is
doomed to oblivion. I realize how petty, how egotistical it seems,
this longing to own the books I borrow. I believe that theft is
reprehensible, and yet countless times I’ve had to dredge up all
the moral stamina I could find not to pocket a desired volume.
Polonius echoed my thoughts precisely when he told his son,
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” My own library carried this
reminder clearly posted.
I love public libraries, and they are the first places I visit
whenever I’m in a city I don’t know. But I can work happily only
in my own private library, with my own books—or, rather, with
the books I know to be mine. Maybe there’s a certain ancient
fidelity in this, a sort of curmudgeonly domesticity, a more
conservative trait in my nature than my anarchic youth would
have ever admitted. My library was my tortoise shell.
Sometime in 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote a short and now
famous essay about readers’ relationship to their books. He
called it “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” and he
used the occasion of pulling his almost two thousand books out
of their boxes to muse on the privileges and responsibilities of a
reader. Benjamin was moving from the house he had shared with
his wife until their acrimonious divorce the previous year to a
small furnished apartment in which he would live alone, he said,
for the first time in his life, “like an adult.” Benjamin was then
“at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home
or assets.” It might not be entirely mistaken to see his meditation
on books as a counterpoise to the breakup of his marriage.
Packing and unpacking are two sides of the same impulse,
and both lend meaning to moments of chaos. “Thus is the
existence of the collector,” Benjamin writes, “dialectically pulled
between the poles of disorder and order.” He might have added:
or packing and unpacking.
Unpacking, as Benjamin realized, is essentially an
expansive and untidy activity. Freed from their bounds, the
books spill onto the floor or pile up in unsteady columns, waiting
for the places that will later be assigned to them. In this waiting
period, before the new order has been established, they exist in
a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden
and unexpected alliances or parting from each other
incongruously. Lifelong enemies Gabriel García Márquez and
Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, will sit amicably on the same
expectant shelf while the many members of the Bloomsbury
group will find themselves each exiled to a different “negatively
charged region” (as the physicists call it), waiting for the wishful
reunion of their particles.
The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially
chaotic, is a creative act, and as in every creative act, the
materials employed lose in the process their individual nature:
they become part of something different, something that
encompasses and at the same time transforms them. In the act
of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and
about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and
acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived
allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a
book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned
its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance
of order. My copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth, read for
the first time many decades ago, became in its alphabetically
ordered section a stern companion of Vercors and Verlaine,
ranking higher than Marguerite Yourcenar and Zola but lower
than Stendhal and Nathalie Sarraute, all members of the
conventional fraternity of French-language literature. No doubt
Verne’s adventurous novel retained in its pages traces of my
anxiety-ridden adolescence and of one long-vanished summer in
which I promised myself a visit to the Sneffels volcano, but these
became, once the book was placed on the shelf, secondary
features, overruled by the category to which the language of its
author and the initial of the surname have consigned it. My
memory retains the order and classification of my remembered
library and performs the rituals as if the physical place still
existed. I still keep the key to a door that I will never open again.
Places that seem essential to us resist even material
destruction. When in 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar set fire to the
First Temple in Jerusalem, the priests gathered with the keys to
the sanctuary, climbed to the burning roof, and cried out,
“Master of the world, since we have not merited to be
trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to you!” They
then threw the keys toward heaven. It is told that a hand came
out and caught them, after which the priests threw themselves
into the all-consuming flames. After the destruction of the
Second Temple by Titus in 70 A.D., the Jews continued to
perform the holy rites as if the ancient walls still rose around
them, and they kept on reciting the prescribed prayers at the
times that their corresponding offerings had been performed in
the vanished sanctuary. And ever since the destruction, a prayer
for the building of a third temple has been a formal part of the
thrice-daily Jewish service. Loss entails hope as well as
Because a library is a place of memory, as Benjamin notes,
the unpacking of one’s books quickly becomes a mnemonic
ritual. “Not thoughts,” Benjamin writes, “but images, memories”
are conjured in the process. Memories of the cities in which he
found his treasures, memories of the auction rooms in which he
bought several of them, memories of the past rooms in which his
books were kept. The book I take out of the box to which it was
consigned, in the brief moment before I give it its rightful place,
turns suddenly in my hands into a token, a keepsake, a relic, a
piece of DNA from which an entire body can be rebuilt.

Alberto Manguel is a writer, translator, editor, and critic but would rather
define himself as a reader and a lover of books. Born in Buenos Aires, he
has since resided in Israel, Europe, the South Pacific, and Canada. He is
now the director of the National Library of Argentina.
Excerpted from Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, by
Alberto Manguel, to be published in March 2018. Reprinted with permission
of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Alberto Manguel.
Walter Benjamin on book collecting

"I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient.

Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are
people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that
when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a
fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many
cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in
the pursuit of books!"
—Walter Benjamin: "Unpacking my Library"

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 davlight 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. Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in
order to appear convincingly objective and down-to-earth, I enumerated for
you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with
their history or even their usefulness to a writer? I, for one, have in mind
something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what 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? You have all heard of people whom the
loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to
acquire them became criminals. These are the very areas in which any order
is a balancing act of extreme precariousness. "The only exact knowledge
there is," said Anatole France, "is the knowledge of the date of publication
and the format of books." And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the
confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.
ActualIy, inheritance is the soundest way of acquiring a collection. For a
collector's attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner's feeling of
responsibility toward his property. Thus it is, in the highest sense, the
attitude of an heir, and the most distinguished trait of a collection will
always be its transmissibility. You should know that in saying this I fully
realize that my discussion of the mental climate of collecting will confirm
many of you in your conviction that this passion is behind the times, in your
distrust of the collector type. Nothing is further from my mind than to shake
either your conviction or your distrust. But one thing should be noted: the
phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.
Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more
useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only
in the latter. I do know that time is running out for the type that I am
discussing here and have been representing before you a bit ex officio. But,
as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight.
Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.
O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been
expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man
who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of
Spitzweg,'s "Bookworm." For inside him there are spirits, or at least little
genii, which have seen to it that for a collector - and I mean a real collector,
a collector as he ought to be - ownersliip is the most intimate relationship
that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who
lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the
building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is
only fitting.

Walter Benjamin: "Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting," in

Illuminations, Engl. trans. (London: Fontana, 1982), pp. 59-60, 63, and 66-
On My Shelves
Charles-Adam Foster-Simard

Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25
cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of
a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional
bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space
amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them
because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much
space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for
a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I
own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of
course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books,
but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as
such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true
library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures,
and several shortcomings.

As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current
state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are
still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my
collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French
books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the
Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895
from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays,
published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and
eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous
paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my
desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg
is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats
shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the
pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring
spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot
Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne
Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni
Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors
should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his
collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to
take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.

The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of

this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of
bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different
facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his
own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France,
Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them
alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my
own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for
instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library
(which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is,
perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which
the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1
to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his
bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting
on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height —
gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they
all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the
majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge
into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is
limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time
Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in
Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something
flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section
discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books
by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by
potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an
author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well
together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or
style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb
and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor
— soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and
spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious
and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book
collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.

As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the
words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some
covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want
anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and
books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if
it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly
collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am
ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had
them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply
become a waste of space.

Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple

of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before
entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days
later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead
to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never
reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No
English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a
preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why
I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection
after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means
am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my
library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love,
give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could
never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not
even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them.
Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really
know my library, almost every week I buy more books.

Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant

collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them.
Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled
simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular
book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the
type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed
apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on
thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this
problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact
that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I
realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice
Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were
that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a
public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the
books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless
mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from
a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare,
reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the
congratulations card from the English department of my college which
awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card
is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page
edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin
bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my
Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I
turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on
self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and
Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the
physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books
was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems,
had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of
an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock
the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and
shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top
left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the
beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few
piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf
would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord
of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place
Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I
am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon
manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-
century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done
more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are
inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter
Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military
history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George
Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all
end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know
she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new
there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try
to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes
Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and
Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just
after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after
all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on
their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel,
Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read
Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here.
There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes,
Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill,
Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction
(The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands
by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss
buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my
floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves
in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom.
I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my
own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves,
mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is
too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in
too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with
female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I
have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-
arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the
cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D.
H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s
Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside
my three editions of Paradise Lost.

Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy

anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The
Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I
keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there,
like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which
map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty
Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact
shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French
covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to
Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then
Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus,
Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the
masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading
L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war),
and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books
to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above
my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t
be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library,
rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the
majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I
have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a
Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that
I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I
dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are
many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or
Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage
Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s
One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My
book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book
collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath
my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by
the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the
books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into
book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have
some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
The Millions' future depends on your support. Become a member today.
comes from Montreal, Canada and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at
the University of British Columbia. He currently teaches English and French
in the San Francisco Bay Area.