In 1931, Walter Benjamin penned his piece called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It is a piece cherished by bibliophiles throughout the world. You know the ones: they collect whatever books they happen to find, whether outrageously expensive or found in a dump. It matters little what the books concern, for it is the nature of the book itself that is the object of desire, if not fetishism. Benjamin himself had a fetish for antiquarian books, first editions that he would caress and peruse before placing them on a makeshift shelf in what whatever makeshift lodgings he found himself.
Once I too was such a bibliophile. I had books I purchased for a few cents from the library of the high school I attended in the 1970s – by Joseph Conrad or Joyce Cary. I had books I faithfully gathered from a second-hand bookshop in Sydney during the 1990s, on a weekly ride on my bicycle. My panniers would be empty on arrival, overflowing on departure. Later, I scoured the discount shelves as a poor student at international gatherings, seeking a good deal and then hugging the books all the way home. And in my itinerant life, I devoted much energy and time to carting such books from one place to another, packing and unpacking them each time. As a passer-by observed when I was engaged in such a transfer some years ago, the history of my life was displayed in such books.
But what does it mean when I came to throw out my library, or at least substantial portions of it?
In the past, I had made vain efforts to trim my books, but after hours of perusal I could find only one or two that had to go – strange acquisitions, gifts, or simply bad books. But on a particular day, it struck me: I will never read many of these books ever again. The thought of leaving my children to sort through thousands of books on my death made me realise how unpalatable such a prospect would be for any of them.
Here were books that seemed extremely important at the time, but whose relevance had swiftly disappeared. Their shelf-life – quite literally – was ephemeral, to be forgotten by history. And upon perusing them again, I realised they were not as good as I thought they were at the time of acquisition. Here was a collection by an author for a chapter of a book I was writing at the time. But upon completing the chapter, I already knew that I was not so taken with the author and would not return to their works. Here was a whole sub-discipline with which I had finished working. I would not read most of the texts again, apart from one or two of greater importance. Here was a whole series of useless books I had to read for another study (on Lenin and Stalin, for instance) – books I read then for the sake of knowing a field, but books that were of not much use in any substantial way even then. And here were the odd books, bought on a whim: on gardening in Europe, on veteran and vintage cars, on Australian poetry, or on non-passerine birds. I had hung onto them to recall the moment they drew me, but they now seemed to be clogging my shelves.
So I began. One or two books soon became a pile. A pile soon became many piles. Shelves were emptied, boxes filled for carting away. Once you begin, you realise how many are simply not worth keeping. Where to take them all? The local second-hand bookshop would quail at thousands of books suddenly dumped on their doorstep. A church book sale? A charity sale? Gifts to students? All of these and more became clearing houses for my library.
At the same time, it was difficult to do so. I felt often that I was tearing out a part of my own history, my own identity. Had not these books defined who I was then, who I had become today? Yet, it was also deeply cathartic. I recalled a moment many years ago, when I was in the process of divesting myself of a phase of life and work. One evening, I stood outside by the garbage bins, having wheeled them out onto the street for collection. On the spur of the moment, I stripped down and threw all of the old clothes I was wearing into the bin. It was cleansing and liberating, for I had cast off of my skin, my old self.
Or, to change the metaphor, it signalled a change of horses, one that I had already made and was now enacting. So also with the books.