Unpacking My Library
Unpacking my Library [after Walter Benjamin]
Every rage I have endured has engendered frenzied events. But a rage for and of books congeals the chaos of memories to the order of history. Nevertheless, serendipity permeates the chronologically significant as my eyes adjust to the light of disorder, of familiar confusion, of books where habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it now appears reliable and steadfast. Admittedly, I have never met the ones to whom the loss of their books has turned them legally incapacitated; or those who steal them; or those who deprive others of ever finding them through imposed disorder.
And there are indeed circumstances when a book falls upon my lap, like a wound or a stab as Kafka would say. In which case, order becomes the artifice that carefully and precariously contains all that is dangerously good; all that is dangerously proper.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a blow on the head,what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”1
1 Kafka, F. Letter to Oskar Pollak, 24 January 1904. In Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans. Richard and Clara Winston [New York: Schocken Books], 1977).