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.

Welcome to Crusoe’s Books

After I had been there about Ten or Twelve days, it came into my Thoughts that I should lose my Reckoning of Time for want of Books and Pen and Ink, and should even forget the Sabbath Days from the working Days; but to prevent this, I cut it with my Knife upon a large Post, in Capital Letters; and making it into a great Cross, I set it up on the Shore where I first landed, viz., I came on Shore here the 30th of Sept. 1659 . . . .  among the many things which I brought out of the Ship in the several Voyages, which, as above mentioned, I made to it, I got several things of less Value, but not all less useful to me, which I omitted setting down before; as in particular, Pens, Ink, and Paper, several parcels in the Captain’s, Mate’s, Gunner’s, and Carpenter’s keeping, three or four Compasses, some Mathematical Instruments, Dials, Perspectives, Charts, and Books of Navigation, all of which I huddel’d together, whether I might want them or no. Also I found three very good Bibles, which came to me in my Cargo from England and which I had packed up among my things; some Portugueze Books, also, and among them two or three Popish prayer-books, and several other Books, all of which I carefully secured.

Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

This is a blog about the history readers on the move. Thematically, it is located somewhere between travel writing and book history, two fields in which I’ve long had an interest. More specifically it is somewhere to think about the important place that travelling libraries have held in the lives of itinerant readers. What do people read on planes, trains, and space ships? Why do they read on the road? Where do they read and what are the consequences? These questions are what this blog is all about.

When Daniel Defoe shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on his island, he allowed him to rescue from the ship before it went down a catalogue of belongings that would help his castaway survive throughout the coming years. As well as pens, ink, and paper, Crusoe makes sure to rescue a neat little library. Together, the instruments of reading and writing serve to preserve his story as well as his sanity. In the three centuries since Crusoe first turned to his Bible far from home at moments of existential crisis, readers under strange skies have use their libraries as a means of sustenance, hope, and recreation. Emigrants to the New World, prisoners to Australian penal colonies, explorers in Antarctica, troops in the trenches of the First World War, are among those who have shared Crusoe’s devotion to reading in extreme circumstances.

This blog also happens to share a title with a book that is to appear in 2021 from Oxford University Press. It’s a topic on which I have been thinking and writing almost as long as Crusoe’s three decade sojourn on his island. This blog is a place where I propose to go on thinking about hermeneutic castaways beyond the appearance of that book later this year. If anyone happens to find this message in a bottle, do please let me know by leaving your responses in the comment box.