A Personal Anthology

Apart from books and other printed material, I also “collect” websites and news articles dealing with bookish topics that interest me: book collecting, bibliomania, libricide, the survival of books, and whatever else grabs my attention. Some especially interesting blogs are linked in the blogroll in the sidebar, while a number of the stories serve as raw material for my posts.

Here below I have gathered some essays by major writers which touch on book-related subjects. As one might expect, bibliophilia and a writing career often go hand in hand.

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Walter Benjamin: Unpacking My Library (1931)

An absolute classic. Benjamin penned this essay in the aftermath of an acrimonious divorce, as he was moving away from his ex-wife into a small apartment. Most of his book collection had been stored away in crates for two years, and upon unpacking them, Benjamin took the opportunity to meditate upon the highlights of his collection as well as to reflect on what drove him in the pursuit. The name of this blog is partly a tribute to Walter Benjamin.

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 Species have their fates. A collector, however, interprets this Latin saying differently. For him, not only books but also 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. I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age.

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Julian Barnes: My Life as Bibliophile (2012)

Barnes’ heroes are often booklovers, and it is no surprise that the author came out as a bibliophile himself. In a series of anecdotes he guides us through every step of his bookish life, in a tone which is part witty and part melancholic, and occasionally naughty. His progression from avid reader to full-on bibliophile is easy to empathize with, as is his lament for the glory days of the British second-hand bookstore.

By now, I probably preferred secondhand books to new ones. In America such items were disparagingly referred to as “previously owned”; but this very continuity of ownership was part of their charm. A book dispensed its explanation of the world to one person, then another, and so on down the generations; different hands held the same book and drew sometimes the same, sometimes a different wisdom from it. Old books showed their age: they had fox marks the way old people had liver spots. They also smelt good – even when they reeked of cigarettes and (occasionally) cigars. And many might disgorge pungent ephemera: ancient publishers’ announcements and old bookmarks – often for insurance companies or Sunlight soap.

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Rose Macaulay: Book-Building after a Blitz (1942)

Not every library manages to outlive its owner. Rose Macaulay lost hers in one of the German bomb attacks on London, and after some days of stunned sickness, she started writing a tribute to her lost books. What appears at first as a simple enumeration emerges as a work of remarkable stoicism, the literary version of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” She finishes it almost in medias res, noting that one can’t list all the books that are gone, and indeed her essay can stand as a tribute to all the other nameless books carried away by World War II.

Here was a charred, curled page from one of the twelve volumes of the Oxford Dictionary, telling of hot-beds, hotch-pots, hot cockles, hotes, and hotels; there, among a pile of damp ashes and smashed boards, were a few pages from Pepys, perhaps relating of another London fire, a few from Horace Walpole, urbane among earthquakes, revolutions, and wars, knowing that all things pass. But no book remains; my library, with so many other libraries, is gone.

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Michael Atkinson: O Biblioklepts! (2003)

You wouldn’t expect a bicycle thief or a purse snatcher to produce such a passionate and erudite defense of their craft, but book thieves are an exception. Despite the provocative title and first sentence – “I steal books” – thievery isn’t all that Atkinson’s up to. Instead, as he candidly guides us through all the bookstores which involuntarily helped to enlarge his collection, he uses this as a take-off point to reflect on the inherent quirkiness of booklovers, and on the vastness of the gulf that separates ordinary Homo sapiens from Homo sapiens bibliophilus.

Howard may have—definitely has—read more of his books than I have mine, but that’s a separate point: owning books is a discreet vocation from reading. It’s the difference between cultivating a victory garden, and eating its radishes. The former may hold the latter as its culminating purpose, but ask the gardener where her deeper satisfaction lies, and she’ll tell you, in the dirt.

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James Wood: Shelf Life (2011)

A somewhat contrary perspective to the ones above. Wood opens with a quote by W. G. Sebald, and the rest of the essay proceeds in a similar, weary tone. His subject is the library left behind by his late father-in-law, the mostly unsuccessful attempts to pass it on, and the tenuousness of the connection between a library and its owner. A sympathetic but jaded outsider’s view of collecting, and a bibliophile equivalent of poetry of ruins.

He read in the same way, following interests, like an army moving along a line of supply, and searching out all the available books on a particular subject. Someone once made fun of Edmund Wilson’s relentlessness, because Wilson said that, when writing an essay, he was “working my way through the oeuvre” of a writer. My father-in-law was no Edmund Wilson (to start with, he never wrote anything), and, as he got older and busier, he acquired far more books than he could read, but there was a similar voracity. The acquisition of a book signalled not just the potential acquisition of knowledge but also something like the property rights to a piece of ground: the knowledge became a visitable place. 

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