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Unpacking My Library

A portion of my pandemic shelf.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote about his deeply felt and avid book collecting as he opened boxes to organize his books to place on shelves (a chapter in Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1969). Although he spoke lovingly of particular details about his collection that included memories of acquisition, his approach to collecting books seems to me to be more akin to that of a museum curator’s than to my own relationship with books. My acquisitions came about for reasons beyond my love of reading for its own sake, but unlike Benjamin, I did not buy books (or art or anything else I have acquired) conventionally for their caché, rarity or value in any publicly sanctioned sense. Although my books were not hunted down at auctions or purchased in specialized shops around the world, I do share a feeling similar to Benjamin’s regarding owning particular ones and recalling in many instances where I found them. 

A “bookworm” since childhood (when I did not actually own very many at all), I have amassed and purged untold numbers of books over my life about all kinds of subjects. Those that became part of my physical surroundings are due to the effect they had through my direct experience of them. They may have been intellectually transformative, inspiring or thrilling in their mastery of the written word. I have purchased some books (used) in multiple copies to give away, knowing that a loan is hardly ever returned. I like being able to go to my own shelves and find an answer to a question. I add postcards and other related chotchkes (also sentimental but not actually valuable) near them, as if to keep them company, or vice versa. Collectively, whether dog-eared or yellowed with age, the physical presences of my books are a treasure to me, like favorite photographs from long ago or works of art that have likewise made the cut over and over again. (My one aversion in acquiring used books is finding another’s ink notations in a book I would otherwise choose to own, and I make a point these days to only mark lightly with pencil as I read.)

With every relocation of home, what to do about my books has been a dilemma. Having lived relatively lightly by choice for most of my years, embracing the concepts of Voluntary Simplicity (Duane Elgin, 1981), money for me was always first to be spent on food, after which were choices between art supplies or books. After that, making something by hand was preferable to venturing out to a retail store of any kind. Repurposing, purchasing used, reusing, using up or recycling (if there was still life left in something), was and still is my preferred way of spending resources. As books hold a remarkably important place amid that which surrounds me, so do certain plates with chips (that I paint with gold, as in Japanese kintsugi) or fabrics that have been repaired, beautiful things acquired at flea markets long ago that I finally have the opportunity to use, or particular containers that were never of monetary value but have been holding particular art supplies in my studio for many decades and still work just fine. I find comfort in the old and the used, particularly something that brings a positive memory to mind every time I see it. Objects of all kinds are touchstones to extended time that remains present even in the forward motion of evolution and change. This kind of “holding onto” that by default becomes collecting is, for me, part of making a life in which things are chosen for the quality of their interior resonance, like friends.

As my husband and I relocated to much smaller quarters over the past year I have had to come to grips with collections I acquired without realizing how much space they had previously occupied. Since the need to sell so many of my books decades ago had been a painful experience, I had over time repurchased many of them. With higher paying employment while wearing the mantle of academia I became better able and more willing to purchase more and more books, justifying that they also enhanced my teaching (which many did). Our recent last-in-a-lifetime move to a new state made reassessment about books and my dream of one day having a room that served as an actual library finally, peacefully drift away.

Retirement, then COVID-19, allowed me to put all and everything into perspective. During the pandemic I began to re-read books from my own library, particularly those having to do with concepts of Eastern thought I have studied since undergraduate years. It was astonishing to realize how much more I understand now than when I initially came upon and wrestled with the ideas. Rather than thinking I could let go of such books I’ve had for so long, I ended up wanting even more to keep them—especially with their additional pencil marginalia from my most recent rereads. Each book, whether at home or in the studio, will continue to be assessed and may end up being among all that I leave behind when no longer physically here. Although my hope is that someone else will value what I do, I am well aware that as Benjamin noted, “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner” and “objects get their due only…[in private collections].” The “intimate relationship” to the objects are, he wrote “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” (Illuminations, pg. 67)

In this spirit I address every object that I vetted to come with me to Rhode Island, including things that might have seemed like garbage to anyone other than me (and my understanding husband). Many boxes of books, however, have only been boxed to bring up here to give away. Once I learned where the places were that welcomed what I had, the giving was not only painless, it became a joy. The emotions seemed to hinge upon someone else’s valuing something that I have also valued, even when the things in question are relatively humble. What someone else has loved cannot be thrown away, it must be given to someone else who will also value it, or it must be destroyed, like a bowl in an ancient tomb has a hole forced into it to release the user’s spirit. Something disparaged needs a ceremony, a burial, a flame lit to it, I feel. Whereas things that cause negative memories to arise are good to tear or discard. A balance is somehow struck between opposites.

As a collage artist, this is also how I’m dealing with my own work and materials that have accompanied me here. This is the last studio in which I will try to “use everything up”. Now the world, circumstances, everything has changed. The ways, means and purposes for creating have new chapters. Every book I read, many of which now come from our beautiful local library, and every object and scrap that I touch is being vetted for the last time. Having gotten to the other side of letting go, the movement continues easily now and life flows as it did many decades ago, in freedom. Unpacking my books has led to the unpacking of so much else. 

©2021 Janet Maher, Circlegarden Studio