Monday, June 27, 2016
In defense of book collecting
A small selection of the nearly 1.800 books in Michael Robbins' collection. (Michael Robbins photo)
As of this writing there are 1,790 books in my apartment, some couple hundred in my campus office, and an unknown number floating about on loan to various friends and students. This represents a decrease of probably 20 percent from the height of my mania. Over the past few years, I have embarked on culling operations, boxing up hundreds of books and carting them to used bookstores. Spilling off shelves, piled in tottering stacks on every flat surface and a few angular ones, the books are snowing me under.
Please do not think I make a habit of counting my books. I just did it for this piece, it took forever and I do not intend ever to count even one book again.
Even after my latest and severest cull, I own three translations of "War and Peace," a book I read about 150 pages of in high school and never opened again. "Some day!" the sirens sing to the book collector.
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I have six different editions of John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," and three editions each of his "Rivers and Mountains," "Three Poems" and "As We Know." I have a first edition of Wallace Stevens' "Transport to Summer" previously owned by Wallace Stevens. I have a copy of Louis Zukofsky's "All" from the library of poet Robert Creeley.
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My oldest book is an original copy of the 1637 Scottish Book of Common Prayer, its pages too brittle to turn; my second oldest is a late edition of the first volume of Samuel Johnson's "Lives of the Poets," printed in 1783 and re-bound in the 19th century. (Both of these were gifts from the poet Anthony Madrid.) My newest book is Virginia Heffernan's "Magic and Loss," published this month, for which I penned a blurb that appears on the back cover.
Many of my books have been written in, by me, or previous owners, or friends who gave them to me. My hardcover of Nietzsche's "Basic Writings" cost me $6 when I bought it used for a college course in 1992. It's marked up, like the older of my two editions of "Ulysses," with inane undergraduate ejaculations and exclamation points, as well as notes taken during class ("not the simple refutation of idealism it first appears"; "all moralities heretofore have been denominational"). My copy of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's "Ecrits" dates to graduate school; its marginalia are frequently incomprehensible. Some books were written by friends of mine, who inscribed them to me in hands of diverse legibility and steadiness.
But most of my books are not particularly storied. Ordinary paperbacks, pristine, dog-eared, dusty, much-thumbed. My building manager asks, when he comes to fix something, whether I've read them all. "Not yet," I say.
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I know I have been marching up and down the ranks of my books "to pass them in review before a friendly audience," a noxious exercise to which Walter Benjamin, in "Unpacking My Library," promises he will not subject his readers. "Would it not be presumptuous of me," he asks, if "I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library — if I presented you with their history, or even their usefulness to a writer?" He says he's interested in how one collects books, in how they become part of a collection, not in which books one collects.
But in the course of describing the art of acquisition, Benjamin enumerates quite a few prize pieces of his library, and presents their history.
To this day, Balzac's Peau de chagrin stands out from long rows of French volumes in my library as a memento of my exciting experience at an auction. This happened in 1915 at the Rumann auction put up by Emil Hirsh, one of the greatest of book experts and most distinguished of dealers. The edition in question appeared in 1838 in Paris, place de la Bourse. As I pick up my copy, I see not only its number in the Rumann Collection, but even the label of the shop in which the first owner bought the book more than ninety years ago, for one-eightieth of today's price. "Papeterie I. Flanneau," it says. A fine age in which it was still possible to buy such a deluxe edition at a stationery dealer's!
A fine age, indeed (except for all the political horrors Benjamin analyzed elsewhere with such ferocity). I can't remember where or when I bought most of my books, especially now that I order most of them online.
Benjamin cheerfully admits the bourgeois drift of his passion. It would be pointless to dodge: book-collecting is self-evidently based in acquisitiveness, the desire to possess, to own. It was on the way out, even in 1931. He declines to mourn the passing of the figure he has so lovingly limned in his own person, but he refuses to condemn him. (And this is where I decline to construct some phony argument for or against e-books.)
When I ask myself why I collect books, I think of a review Benjamin published in 1930 in which he imagines the writer as "a ragpicker, at daybreak, picking up rags of speech and verbal scraps with his stick and tossing them, grumbling and growling, a little drunk, into his cart." It is always daybreak somewhere along my shelves.
Since I began writing this, I have obtained a copy of Silvia Federici's "Caliban and the Witch," and Madrid, in some mania of generosity, has sent me the two volumes of the eighth edition of Samuel Johnson's "Dictionary of the English Language," printed in 1799, which he purchased at a book sale in New York City several years ago for far less than their listed price of $1,100.
That's 1,793 — and not counting.