Unburdening and Unpacking

Throughout packing to move to a new house on Friday, my recurring thought was: when and why did I acquire so much stuff? I’m not alluding to the two thousand books that were carefully, lovingly boxed up for the relocation. I can rationalise the books, satisfactorily at least to my wife and daughter, who more than share my passion for reading. It was the other stuff that made me feel bilious: casual (mostly minor) purchases, gifts, evidence of complacent consumption. In theory, I am revolted by the seduction of consumerism, shopping turned into a pastime rather than the acquisition of needed goods. In practise, I have been seduced into a near-bovine acquisition of needless baubles.

Resolved, I partly alleviated my biliousness by making several expeditions to charity shops and the local dump. Unpacking items, in the same disposition, has lead to further similar journeys, and a sincere intention to continue to unencumber myself of under-used possessions. I am resolved to build a stronger resistance to the allure of the market-place

Last night I began to unbox my books, and shelve them in what I have pompously termed ‘the library’. Is it conceivable to unpack a library without recalling Walter Benjamin’s admirable essay? Although the boxes of books are meticulously labelled, alphabetically by writer’s surname, I am shelving them unsystematically, with no attempt of sorting the books by name, genre, colour or any other classification; they are being shelved as randomly as is humanly possible. Am I nuts? How will I ever find the book I am seeking?

I want fortuitous discovery; to enter the library seeking a particular book and be waylaid, hijacked by an author I haven’t read for ages or perhaps at all (such examples are all too abundant in my collection of books). The randomness may drive me nuts and find me within a month staying up into the small hours to impose order. Already I am enjoying the juxtapositions thrown up by a lack of order: would Edward Said enjoy being nestled up to Hannah Arendt? Perhaps not, but it brings a smile to my lips.

The Mild Boredom of Order

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.

Book Shelves #6

Biblioklept posted the sixth in the series of book shelf photographs, featuring a stash of comic books.

My sixth post takes us onto the first floor hallway, where mostly eighteenth and nineteenth century classics gather. This is one of the few areas where S. and my reading tastes coincide, though I rarely read much from these shelves. I have insufficient patience for Henry James, though S. adores his work, and that of Wilkie Collins, who I have not read.

In addition to the classic fiction, the lower shelf is home to our old “how-to” baby books. I’ve always turned to books when needing guidance. Why those old Dr. Christopher Green books are still in the house I’ve no idea; S. and I are both guilty of following the old fraud’s counsel on controlled crying, though Green has long since renounced such advice.

Book Shelves #5

Before I roam any further around those places where books gather in my home, I must return briefly to my study to capture a small Alvar Aalto designed unit. It used to house a small collection of green Penguins, but no longer. It now holds a disparate set of oddities: literary journals, a Bible I use for reference purposes and a couple of oversized books.

One of the oversized books is Richard Misrach’s monograph On the Beach. After seeing the photographs featured in Aperture, it was at least six years before I was able to acquire my own copy.

Misrach really is my favourite photographer, and, of all his monographs, this the one I love most.

Book Shelves #4

Biblioklept has posted the fourth of his bookshelves. For my fourth post on places where books gather in my home we exit the study and drift around the corner to the principle bathroom.


Books tend to linger here, for years in some cases. I can discern no overarching logic to the collection. Several of these belong to S., so I shall offer no commentary on those.

Schultz’s 1000 Places to See Before You Die speaks to the gypsy in me, who would happily roam the cities and mountain tracks of the world in perpetuity. Cathcart and Klein offer second-rate philosophy but curate some wonderful philosophical jokes. Kate Fox’s Watching the English is the definitive guide to this strange island race. I am always rereading The Art of Eating, which collects all the best writing of M. F. K. Fisher. Edgar Allan Poe and I have had a troubled relationship; I can never quite decide if I enjoy or despise his stories.

Book Shelves #3

In participation with Bibliklept’s project I’m displaying the various places in my home that books gather, by design or for convenience. Tonight I’m showing the second set of shelves that sit in front of my study desk.

Together with the shelf I displayed last week, this pair of shelves demonstrate mess entropy, expressed mathematically as dE=dM/t (“where E is the mess entropy, M is the actual amount of mess, and t is a given time interval”.) I’m not going to dwell on the top two shelves of CDs right now.

Here are the Art of the Novella series, subjects of Frances’s 2011 reading challenge, some collectible magazines I haven’t sold yet, a shelf of natural history books (including my much loved Roger Deakin titles) and a few oddities that don’t fit anywhere else.

Moving further down is my history section, though the term is used pretty loosely. I’ve culled so many history books over the years. It’s not a field I have much patience for, and tend to read deeply in bursts on certain themes, usually when a piece of fiction helps identify a period I know little about.

The bottom two shelves have little consistency: a rucksack of electronic odds-on-ends, a few remaining photography books (this section used to be three times the size) and those art books I am reading on and off at the moment (we’ll get to the art and photography monograph shelves in another post). The notables on these shelves are a couple of books of Sempé’s cartoons (which I love), the edition of Bodywatching I’ve had since a teenager and Julian Bells’ magisterial Mirror of the World: A New History of Art.