The Art of Unpacking a Library


Arts & Culture

The home library of William Randolph Hearst.


I would argue that public libraries, holding both virtual and material texts, are an essential instrument to counter loneliness. I would defend their place as society’s memory and experience. I would say that without public libraries, and without a conscious understanding of their role, a society of the written word is doomed to oblivion. I realize how petty, how egotistical it seems, this longing to own the books I borrow. I believe that theft is reprehensible, and yet countless times I’ve had to dredge up all the moral stamina I could find not to pocket a desired volume. Polonius echoed my thoughts precisely when he told his son, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” My own library carried this reminder clearly posted.

I love public libraries, and they are the first places I visit whenever I’m in a city I don’t know. But I can work happily only in my own private library, with my own books—or, rather, with the books I know to be mine. Maybe there’s a certain ancient fidelity in this, a sort of curmudgeonly domesticity, a more conservative trait in my nature than my anarchic youth would have ever admitted. My library was my tortoise shell. 

Sometime in 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote a short and now famous essay about readers’ relationship to their books. He called it “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” and he used the occasion of pulling his almost two thousand books out of their boxes to muse on the privileges and responsibilities of a reader. Benjamin was moving from the house he had shared with his wife until their acrimonious divorce the previous year to a small furnished apartment in which he would live alone, he said, for the first time in his life, “like an adult.” Benjamin was then “at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home or assets.” It might not be entirely mistaken to see his meditation on books as a counterpoise to the breakup of his marriage.

Packing and unpacking are two sides of the same impulse, and both lend meaning to moments of chaos. “Thus is the existence of the collector,” Benjamin writes, “dialectically pulled between the poles of disorder and order.” He might have added: or packing and unpacking.

Unpacking, as Benjamin realized, is essentially an expansive and untidy activity. Freed from their bounds, the books spill onto the floor or pile up in unsteady columns, waiting for the places that will later be assigned to them. In this waiting period, before the new order has been established, they exist in a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden and unexpected alliances or parting from each other incongruously. Lifelong enemies Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, will sit amicably on the same expectant shelf while the many members of the Bloomsbury group will find themselves each exiled to a different “negatively charged region” (as the physicists call it), waiting for the wishful reunion of their particles.

The unpacking of books, perhaps because it is essentially chaotic, is a creative act, and as in every creative act, the materials employed lose in the process their individual nature: they become part of something different, something that encompasses and at the same time transforms them. In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order. My copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth, read for the first time many decades ago, became in its alphabetically ordered section a stern companion of Vercors and Verlaine, ranking higher than Marguerite Yourcenar and Zola but lower than Stendhal and Nathalie Sarraute, all members of the conventional fraternity of French-language literature. No doubt Verne’s adventurous novel retained in its pages traces of my anxiety-ridden adolescence and of one long-vanished summer in which I promised myself a visit to the Sneffels volcano, but these became, once the book was placed on the shelf, secondary features, overruled by the category to which the language of its author and the initial of the surname have consigned it. My memory retains the order and classification of my remembered library and performs the rituals as if the physical place still existed. I still keep the key to a door that I will never open again.

Places that seem essential to us resist even material destruction. When in 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar set fire to the First Temple in Jerusalem, the priests gathered with the keys to the sanctuary, climbed to the burning roof, and cried out, “Master of the world, since we have not merited to be trustworthy custodians, let the keys be given back to you!” They then threw the keys toward heaven. It is told that a hand came out and caught them, after which the priests threw themselves into the all-consuming flames. After the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus in 70 A.D., the Jews continued to perform the holy rites as if the ancient walls still rose around them, and they kept on reciting the prescribed prayers at the times that their corresponding offerings had been performed in the vanished sanctuary. And ever since the destruction, a prayer for the building of a third temple has been a formal part of the thrice-daily Jewish service. Loss entails hope as well as remembrance.

Because a library is a place of memory, as Benjamin notes, the unpacking of one’s books quickly becomes a mnemonic ritual. “Not thoughts,” Benjamin writes, “but images, memories” are conjured in the process. Memories of the cities in which he found his treasures, memories of the auction rooms in which he bought several of them, memories of the past rooms in which his books were kept. The book I take out of the box to which it was consigned, in the brief moment before I give it its rightful place, turns suddenly in my hands into a token, a keepsake, a relic, a piece of DNA from which an entire body can be rebuilt.


Alberto Manguel is a writer, translator, editor, and critic but would rather define himself as a reader and a lover of books. Born in Buenos Aires, he has since resided in Israel,  Europe, the South Pacific, and Canada. He is now the director of the National Library of Argentina.

Excerpted from Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, by Alberto Manguel, to be published in March 2018. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Alberto Manguel.