I have just been reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library, a Talk about Book Collecting’, published in Illuminations (Pimlico 1999). Writing about the palpable nature of book collecting he says ‘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.’ This emotional and physical connection between the collector and his possessions is something recognised by any book collector. Are there not many of us who still sniff the pages as we open up a well-known copy that has been on our shelves for years as if in imitation of Edward Thomas who shrivels the ‘grey shreds’ of southernwood before sniffing them and thinking, trying ‘Once more to think what it is I am remembering.’
The mysterious relationship between object and ownership! Benjamin points to the ‘most profound enchantment for the collector’ being the ‘locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed, as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.’ This talismanic sense of the importance of the object took me back to my little 1905 Pocket edition of George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft where he referred to his small library, battered from many house-moves, in terms of each book’s individual nature: ‘I know men who say they had as life read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years—never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize.’
Benjamin suggests that ‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the [book] 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 become 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.’
And so where to put my recently acquired copy of Ben Watson’s Blake in Cambridge or ‘The Opposite of David Willetts’ (Unkant Publishers 2012). Do I catalogue it on the shelf alongside E.P. Thompson whose superb book on William Blake occupies the centre of the Zappa expert’s focus? Or does it sit better on the shelf with J.H. Prynne since the last chapter of Ben Watson’s scurrilous, energetic, vital prose is devoted to ‘A Mixed Cheer for Kazoo Dreamboats’? Any informal and non-library cataloguing system says much about the library’s owner. In what might appear to be some confusion on my shelves I think I know where everything is according to my individual association. At the moment Ben Watson is staying upstairs with Prynne rather than downstairs with Blake.