I have just had occasion to reread Walter Benjamin’s essay Unpacking my library. It is full of memorable lines (from the Zohn translation in the accessible Illuminations collection):
“The only exact knowledge there is,” says 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.
Anyone who buys from catalogues must have flair in addition to the qualities I have mentioned. Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings and the like: all these details must tell him something – not as dry, isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole; from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not.
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.
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.
But what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accustomed itself to such an extent that it can appear an order?
Habent sua fata libelli: these words may have been intended as a general statement about books. So books like The Divine Comedy, Spinoza’s Ethics, and The Origin of the Species have their fates. A collector, however, interprets this Latin saying differently. For him, not only books, but copies of books have their fates. And in this sense, the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his own collection.
Benjamin emphasizes the private pleasures of the collector. Since I first read this many years ago, I have always thought that the initiate user of a library enjoys some of these pleasures also, and that certainly the librarian does.
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