Confessions of a Bookish Hamster

After hoarding innumerable volumes all these years, it's time to pack the library.

While sorting the papers on my desk, I found a copy of the English version of Walter Benjamin's famous essay "Unpacking my Library" in which he asks the reader to join him "in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open ... to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood."

It is a classic essay, quoted again and again, with many insights into the vast subject of book-collecting. It includes Benjamin's statement, based apparently on firsthand experience, that "a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it," and the conclusion that inevitably follows - that the non-reading of books is the characteristic of the book-collector. Writes Benjamin: "It is not news at all."

I could not have read Benjamin's essay in its original German (due to limits in my lingual education) nor in its Hebrew version, as both volumes of Benjamin's writing in Hebrew are, as of this writing, deep in one of the 70 crates of books, on their way to a new abode.

And that is how it struck me that Benjamin took upon himself to write about the easier and more pleasant part of the process that involves books and packing. He did not write an essay on "Packing my Library," that arduous and painful task. And as he writes that "writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like," I had no choice but to try and write such an essay myself.

While packing my library - in a methodical way that will make it easy for me to put the right volumes on the right shelves - it struck me how right Benjamin was when he stated that "There is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order." In my case, the problem is that I have too many books for them to be in some sort of order, and too few in order to create real disorder.

I sit beside a huge crate, empty at this stage. I truly mean to fill it up with books of the same kind (author, subject, genre, etc.), to put them on one shelf or in one section on the new shelves in the new flat. But soon enough, I find out that all my books fall into so many categories and sub-categories, that there are not enough - or there are too many - of one kind to fill one crate.

So I sit down, and write on one crate "Shakespeare, etc.," on the next "Dostoyevsky and others," and then "Reading books," and, "From the upper shelf above the computer," "leftovers from the big shelf on the left" and finally "more books."

Contradictory answers

I have already made a major effort of weeding out and giving up, and am now reaching the final and critical stage. I sit facing the empty crate, and my industrious helpers (there is a reason, after all, for a book collector to have children) take stacks of books from the upper shelves and dust them off lovingly, raising in the air a yellowish cloud that sticks to your fingers. They show me the volumes in their hands and mouth the unspoken question: "Do you really need all these books?"

The question leaves me dumbstruck. I look at the books and take them in my hand; some of them seem to be vaguely familiar, and others are complete strangers. Two contradicting answers - both of them equally true and false at the same time - battle each other in my lethargic mind. One is: "I'm not giving any of them up. They are the very rock of my intellectual existence." The other, equally strong (or weak) is: "Throw them out. I never needed or wanted them in the first place."

Maybe that is because I'm not really a book collector. A book collector - like Benjamin and many others - collects his books lovingly. He knows about rare copies and their condition. He attends auctions and sometimes makes purchases at them. He is also excited about a date of publication and a format of a book, which, according to Anatol France (quoted by Benjamin), is "the only exact knowledge that is."

I do not care about such knowledge. I'm not immune to appreciating the age of a book and the beauty of the copy - and that is how I spent considerable time, pondering which of my three copies of Rabelais' "Gargantua and Pantagruel" (all three in English, all three 80-something years old) to give up. Finally, I think I decided not to decide.

But no, I am not a collector. I'm a mere book gatherer. I'm a sort of a bookish hamster, with large reading cheek-pouches in which I gather books to be savored sometime in the future. Gathering, but not devouring, neither to swallow nor to throw up. But even I have to pack my library, hoping there will be enough room for the books on the new shelves. Then I'll reach the blissful stage, so extoled by Benjamin, of "Unpacking my Library."