Walter Benjamin on collecting...
I was delighted to read Walter Benjamin’s essay on collecting entitled Unpacking my library
, not only due to his exceptional ability to draft a stereotype of the collector person, but also because he does so in a manner that unfolds before your eyes much as if you were reading poetry. He explicitly states that it is by no means his intention to shake his reader’s distrust of this strange breed of persons, but at the same time his presentation of the collector’s obsessions is done in such a way as to reveal that there are noble attitudes underlying the act of collecting, and that from here it is possible to define a
good collector. So much for my own interpretations, I leave you with a few excerpts that I particularly enjoyed reading:
(…) I must ask you to join me in the disorder of [book] crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, 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 certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation – which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such a man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking only about himself.
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. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
Naturally, his [the collector] existence is tied to many other things as well: to a very mysterious relationship to ownership (…); also, to a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value – that is, their usefulness – but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate. The most profound enchantment for the collector is 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.
One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.
- To renew the old world – that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquired new things, and that is why a collector of old books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting than the acquirer of luxury editions.
- How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!
On the other hand, one of this finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might have never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned in the market place and bought it to give it its freedom – the way the prince bought a beautiful slave in The Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
(…) I fully realize that my discussion on the mental climate of collecting will confirm many of you in your conviction that this passion is behind the times, in your distrust of the collector type. Nothing is further from my mind than to shake either your conviction or your distrust. But one thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due [value?] only in the latter.
bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg’s ‘Bookworm.’ For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Pimlico, 1999, ISBN 0-7126-6575-7,
pp. 61-69 (Unpacking my library - A talk about book collecting).