Monday, September 24, 2012

Walter Benjamin and the Meaning of a Collection

An article that referred to Walter Benjamin's piece "Unpacking My Library" caught my attention. In the essay, Benjamin (1842-1940) wrote about what being a book collector meant to him and focused on memory as well as books: each book is like a portal to a personal past (60-61).  Although it was published in Die literarische Welt in 1931 and translated by Harry Zohn, the essay could have been written yesterday. You can also find it in the 1969 book Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, which is a collection edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt, who has her own collection, The Portable Hannah Arendt. In Benjamin's description of his love for collecting and his knowledge of how he acquired each book, he seemed to imply that his collection was the most meaningful to him alone.

A book is filled with memory by nature: each time you turn the page you must remember what came before. A collection of books, then, can contain both short-term memories for the reader and long-term memories for the collector. For Benjamin, the books were connected to cities, to smells, to the weather, and other details; they preserved ("locked in") all of his sensations while traveling. For a sole reader. For him. For a time. Would he have explored a place so deeply if he hadn't been looking for his next purchase?
…one thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses it meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter (67).
The act of gathering may lose its meaning. But does the collection itself lose its meaning without the original owner? In some institutions, particularly for special collections departments,  just one librarian decides what books to add to the shelves of rare books. If the library is new, she defines the themes and scopes; if the library is older, he may be continuing a previous librarian's vision. Benjamin asserted:
 —ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them (67).
The meaning of the collection is not completely lost with a new collector. In continuing a collection started by previous generations, the current librarian is keeping alive the original collector's memory. The original collector still lives on in the books. Mills College Library, for example, has the Jane Bourne Parton Collection of books about dance because an endowment was provided; the librarian continues to add to the shelves and may actively enjoy the act. But Benjamin seemed more concerned with the "phenomenon of collecting" than the global meaning of the collection itself. His interest was how the object could be brought forward into the present, given meaning right now, activated when the collector handled it. The librarian takes on the role of the original collector, although in Benjamin's eyes, this may not be enough to keep the objects alive since the librarian may or may not know the full story of the acquisition or the decisions behind it.

In addition to books, Benjamin noted other kinds of collections. He provided an amusing reference to"booklike creations from fringe areas," which he found perfectly acceptable. Some examples:
…some people become attached to leaflets and prospectuses, others to handwriting facsimiles or typewritten copies of unobtainable books; and certainly periodicals can form the prismatic fringes of a library (66).
I do agree with his notion that each book carries a history with it, unique to the owner. I'm not sure I would glorify the act of collecting quite so much; it seems to me that using the collection more as a memory jog (or as a "rebirth", a way to recover lost youth) rather than a delight in what is written on the pages was his purpose, or at least the purpose of this essay.
A collection of other people seem to know about Benjamin's essay. Lots of other people.
As I unpacked some of the book art from my library to show students on the first day of class this semester I noticed that most of the books I had brought are also collections. 
  • Bug-eyed (1994), Mare Blocker's book of creepy things, very short stories about one particular bug or critter after another (a book I bought) 
  • Childhood Summers by the Sea (2003), a book of poems and prints by Andrea Taylor about her home and memories in Canada (was sent to me) 
  • Jim Hair Photographs, Vol. 2 (2006), mostly of different people (given to me by Jim Hair
  • Book Book. Words in Japanese that correspond to sounds in English by Seiko Tachibana (printed in my studio, 1996, which I either bought or traded for) 

Once Upon A Time/Book Six (1992), a fun and well-done book I bought that has a beginning, middle, and end, is by Carol Blinn, and it stood out because it contained one story. I wondered if, for most people, making a book of a collection was easier than laying out a narrative. More interesting? A way to put a variety of meaningful work between two covers? Or is this just what collectors prefer to collect?

Looking at book art through Walter Benjamin's glasses (if he had them, I don't know), each poem, or each bug, or each photograph is part of a whole world for the artist. The parts have much more meaning to the maker than for the viewer. How do we change that? Or do we want to change it? You can take one object, one photograph, one situation and push it deeper. Or you can skate the surface with a collection. Make one book for each piece in the collection and you have your proverbial "body of work." Either that, or you've just acquired your own library. As Benjamin wrote, "Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method" (61).

No comments: