Gradually, my book shelves empty, as the contents are packed into an unthinkable number of boxes, ready for moving to the new house in a fortnight. Lamentably, the elderly couple who have bought my house plan to tear out the book shelves. I suspect they are not dedicated readers. They have no use for book shelves.
Packing the books carefully away brings to mind so many stories, theories, arguments, so many minds. Also, many unread books yet to be explored and become a memory (or be forgotten). These books are my literary curriculum vitae, mapping out the course of a life. And in packing them away, I am already anticipating with delight the unpacking, when they will be laid out on new shelves. It is impossible not to recall Walter Benjamin’s essay on book collecting.
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of 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.
I like Benjamin’s ‘mild boredom of order’ as I contemplate how I might arrange the books on my new shelves. The same taxonomy, or shall I be bold and just shelve them randomly, at risk that Virginia Woolf might sit alongside Rebecca West?
Last to be packed will be the books that sit on the shelves beside my desk, those I like to have close to hand by Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Thomas Bernhard, Anne Carson, J. M. Coetzee, Lydia Davis, Roger Deakin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Geoff Dyer, T. S. Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Handke, Gabriel Josipovici, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, László Krasznahorkai, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Powers, Marcel Proust, Philip Roth, Jean-Paul Sartre, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, Stendhal, Robert Walser and Virginia Woolf.