Unpacking my Library

One of the most poignant meditations on the intimacy that can exist between the exile and his books was written by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. After the breakup of his marriage he found himself alone in a new city and, having spent years drifting from place to place, he reflected on the way that his books evoked in him deeply personal memories. Describing the sensation of opening his crates, Benjamin writes in ‘Unpacking my Library’ that ‘Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property.’ Like a latter-day Crusoe, Benjamin the exile describes it as a magical event serving ‘to renew the old world’, invoking past times and geographies, allowing for the reconstitution of an otherwise vulnerable psyche.

Walter Benjamin

Turning to this episode, Alberto Manguel describes the way in which the act of unpacking a familiar book after a separation of time and distance can suddenly transform it into ‘a token, a keepsake, a relic, a piece of DNA from which an entire body can be rebuilt.’ Manguel, the son of a diplomat, reflecting on his own itinerant childhood, recalled how reading provided ‘a permanent home, and one I could inhabit exactly as I felt, at any time, no matter how strange the room in which I had to sleep or how unintelligible the voices outside my door’. Every book that accompanied him on his travels was ‘a world unto itself’, reflects Manuel, ‘and in it I took refuge.’

john Gielgud as Prospero

The image of the exiled reader reconstituted through books was of course familiar long before Defoe took up the theme. That famous Shakespearean castaway, Prospero, who prized his library above his dukedom, tells us that the precious books with which the faithful Gonzalo has furnished him in his island solitude is a source of magical power. A century earlier, Thomas More’s fictional envoy, Raphael Hythloday, not expecting to see home any time soon, loaded a collection of the finest classical editions on his fourth voyage. When he arrived in Utopia, he bequeathed them to his hosts along with a printing press, thereby establishing a new canon of learning far from Europe, based on the best examples of early sixteenth-century knowledge. So resilient was the idea of the library in exile that, in the 1840s, the solitary Henry Thoreau was still keeping a familiar copy of The Iliad at his bedside during his sojourn at Walden Pond. Turning to his well-worn copies of Homer and Aeschylus in an age of mass circulation, he reflected on how they seemed as ‘solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever.’

The library as a cultural carapace for the individual against the tyranny of distance is a trope that has not only repeated itself time and again in literature and visual culture but is an idea which has appealed to generations of itinerant readers.

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