Packing My Library – 4/5 Stars
This short memoir/thought piece takes it cue from the Walter Benjamin essay I will write about afterward and addresses what it means to pack one’s library away, presumably for good, as one heads into the final stages of life. Alberto Manguel is rounding on 70 and after decades of moving through and all over the world, he seems to have reached a place where he’s able to give up his library. His sentiments are especially interesting if you take the time (10 minutes or so) to read Benjamin’s essay because there’s the constant inversion of Benjamin’s thesis written into Manguel’s as this text is “Packing” while Benjamin’s is “Unpacking.” So the essay here address the myriad feelings that come from a sense of libraries and the liberation of reading that Manguel especially felt as the child of a diplomat, and eventually the child of a diplomat of a country going through a fascist dictatorship (Argentina of the 60s and 70s) and this kind of statelessness or more so placelessness caused upheaval. And so the steadying hand of a permanently fixed and stable library, especially of one’s own making became a place in the world to be. He doesn’t quite get into, but implies that his own Queer identity played an important role in both the initially instability and later stability this brought. But as he go older, the statelessness transitioned into stability, but with his success as a writer and eventually administrator of libraries, there came a need to become more mobile, and so his 35,000 volume library became too much of a burden. All of this is to say that as Manguel tells these stories, he also involves himself in the project of thinking through the history and concepts of libraries. All of this in encapsulated in his own reaction to library spaces themselves. As a book collector he both avers and agrees with the paradox “These books are not yours; they belong to everyone” as a poster in one library told him.
“Unpacking My Library” by Walter Benjamin – 5/5 Stars
And so the actual essay itself that Manguel discusses in the previous book: Walter Benjamin in the throes of a divorce settlement (not present in the actual text) is thinking through the project of unpacking his large collector’s library after two years in storage. If you’ve moved, and especially if you’ve moved a lot, you might be in the same kind of situation where putting up shelves and unpacking boxes, and settling into a new place and to take a new place and make it yours. Recently we bought a house, and unpacking my books (which I get made fun of a lot, by the way, even by my girlfriend who has an English degree, reads a lot, and has written two manuscripts) and I remember someone visiting and saying “It’s neat seeing all your stuff in a new house.” And so Benjamin is sort of talking about this, but he is also talking about the kinds of mentalities that go into collecting, those who thrive off of renewing life into old artifacts, who have a penchant for possession and ownership as much as if not more so than knowledge, and those who revel in the physical objects of books. This is not just the professional and serious collectors but also those who attach deep personal feelings to specific books and specific book editions, whether from personal biography with that copy of with a sense of the fragility of those. He also talks about how private and intimate this relationship is and how there’s an edge of sadness and knowledge that most books that become part of a collection were once part of a now defunct previous collection, and how all the books in his collection (re: himself) will someday also be redistributed to new collections.
Books – 4/5 Stars
It’s funny to me because the number one complaint about this memoir according to the reviewers at Goodreads is that it’s mostly a list of bookstores, rare books, and numbers of books and prices of private collections. That’s literally what I loved about it. Because I had already been reading books about collecting and books about libraries, learning more about the actual physical trade of book dealing, about pricing, about using bibliographies and desiderata and catalogues to go find books was very interesting. I also didn’t realize that Larry McMurtry has primarily worked as a book dealer for almost 50 years and that he owned the premier bookshop in Washington DC for about 30 years. I live nearish to DC and did live there for a few years and so I have some experience with its bookstores and they’re fine, but they’re not emporiums. So it’s interesting to hear more about a kind of Golden Age of bookselling before the internet. And so the complaints of some reviewers is exactly what I wanted. I guess that’s the nature of books anyway, about finding one’s audience, and about meeting not the needs of the mass public but the specific audience for the specific book you want to write. So I then wonder what book these other reviewers wanted. McMurtry warns us several times through the book that the book is only about books in the sense that it’s about book selling, so I guess they walked right into it.
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces – 3/5 Stars
In this short series of essays about fatherhood, Michael Chabon continues his stately dominance as the world’s greatest liberal dad. It’s an interesting position, because, even though I am kind of making fun, he does have a really earnestness about him and his writing on fatherhood–and most of his books are about fatherhood in various way, and the writing is good. But like with most earnestly written things, I have a kind of desire to call bullshit. And of course, he’s headed me off at the pass, because he has a whole essay on male dickishness. And he’s got its number. He writes about the power that men have not only to be assholes and get away with it, because that’s sort of the essence of masculinity, but to cause actual harm. And so what he seems to look for, at least as a man trying to still figure out the world, but specifically to shape that world for his sons to be less assholes than he was, and for him to treat his daughters right (note: he heads you off at the pass too with a note about the concept of “as a father of daughters” in a way that I am not sure settles it, but addresses and accounts for it) and to lessen the damage he would do to them unwittingly and unintentionally. So the essay collection, like his earlier one on manhood deals with the gray space we currently live in where the structures of masculinity and patriarchy are actually being acknowledged, and slightly rattled, and how to come through that without being such a dick.