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  • Writer's picturejeffmcm

UNPACKING MY LIBRARY (with Walter Benjamin watching)



I am unpacking my library. Having retired from my university teaching position after 20 years in the Arizona desert, I sold or gave away much of my belongings and returned fulltime to my old home of New York. But I kept my library, most of which went into boxes carted away by the mover. Now the resulting merge of collections forces me to face what has been a trio of somewhat aleatory installations, a “place it where you put it” project that must now be ordered. Three chaotic jumbles; former work/home offices combine with summer/retirement home, which must now serve as one. Initially, I fantasized these boxes falling off the truck while traveling across desert, mountain and plain, and/or a non-fatal accident leading to constructive book burning. Yet now all have arrived intact to antagonize me with their abundance. Poor me.

This is not simply a literary dilemma. I include audio material in this definition of “library”; all my LP’s, cassette tapes, and cd’s. It’s a pile-up, an avalanche, an onslaught; a life. This accumulation should provide pleasure, a sense of accomplishment, but the enormity overwhelms. This is a princess problem; I have been able to purchase and retain, with adequate storage, far more than I need. Who would have thought, many years ago when all my possessions fit into a tiny NYC apartment, that such could be a problem?

I decide that I must not only merge one mountain into another, but now has come the time for a final cull of the combined collections. My back and brain ache in anticipation. I fret, I move stacks around, take unearned breaks and find unproductive distractions, all a bit too close to my process of writing. After a few days of dithering, I get to work. I consider, catalog or cull, making decisions about whether this book, this record, once mattered and will continue to matter. Such effort reminds me that the accumulation is alive, not a mummified archive but a repertory of activity, of enthusiastic listening, reading, researching. For whom? For me. Such acknowledging carries a new significance in our digital age of object disappearance. Will I read this again, listen again, pluck out at least one more time as reference or reminder? Does this object I am holding activate something in me? Does the revenant retain something left to say to me? In some cases, there is a much under the cover/case/jacket, as I was of a certain age or in a rage about a specific issue (torture, the Gulf War(s), AIDS), or deep in an aesthetic love affair (Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, James Baldwin, Davie Bowie, Elvis Costello, Nina Simone, Edith Wharton, Zadie Smith and many more; I have been productively promiscuous in my aesthetic passions)

Cull completed, the survivors must be organized. How? Alphabetizing appears the clearest way. Such a sorting announces past favorites yet not necessarily current, and how such favor has changed. There are so many more women in the recent additions to my library, far more people who do not look like me or come from where I came from (life or legacy). There are some areas of growth and others where I held on for an artist’s entire career (more apparent in music than in literature).

Do I care where these vessels came from? It depends; some are indexed in my mind to particular places, how acquired or where was I when first consumed. Unlike Walter Benjamin in his much-referenced and rather bibliophilic 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library,” I am not particularly concerned with aspects of prior provenance. Most of my books, as far as I have bothered to check, have not gained in value as objects. The LP’s are another story but I will be spinning them forever. Cassettes and CD’s? Perhaps valued as objects but no longer the standard as audio sources. I have never, since my childhood obsession with die-cast miniature cars, considered myself a “collector.” In my pre-academic life (I was not fully employed until my mid-forties), this was primarily due to limited funds and limited space. Collecting called to those with money or at least space; big houses, multiple rooms. Now I am one of those people, and must get organized, before I die and dump this on my husband, friends, family or a particularly energetic scholar (one hopes). This fatalism is realistic and self-centered; I want them to fuss and wail over my absence, not the presence of too much of me and mine.

The untidy fact that my mother became something of a hoarder sits on these shelves as well. I dread clutter because I know that untended objects, and thus lives, will fall into disorganization, confusion, stasis. I want to live in the present, the future tense, with a forward-facing attitude of: I will read/hear and not I have read/heard. But of course these volumes and “flat media” are all markers, reminders, prompts connecting past to present. They are also physical reminders, evidence of an interest retained by being shelved or added to a pile while they kept playing some way, somewhere. This thing we call literacy is an acknowledgment of that lingering, an echoing on-goingness. And I am not my mother because I am an artist and writer and all of this is material, inspiration, work-related. Or work-adjacent, work aspirational, sometimes work delusional. How can I know anything if my stuff is not here to tell me?

“Books are silent friends” read a (fake) leather bookmark my childhood friend Michael (or Michael’s mother) purchased as gift for a bookish boy. I recall the printing as somewhat unreadable, causing me to take far too long to determine whether the message marked books as “silver” or “silent.” I misread and misheard much in my youth, and still do, which is another reason to retain a library; I often need to return to the source to correct an error, a mis-remembrance, a drop-out in the accumulation of wisdom.

Brian Dillon, in his book, Essayism: on Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction, introduces a term I have not heard before; “cento,” being an essay made of fragments. Yes, that’s it! Books and recorded media are themselves fragments of something larger because there is always another larger system against which we see/hear these bright spots. My shelves unite those fragments, first in chaotic, random fashion and now alphabetized, arranged not according to merit, theme, style, importance but simply the first letter of author’s last name. What does that have to do with the activity of reading or listening? And what of multiple authors, cross-genre artists? Where to put the definitely, sometimes defiantly, un-classical “classical” music? The auto-fiction that sashays from essay to poem to memoir to make-believe? And the group efforts, the chapbook, the anthology, the mixtape (this last the most unique, personal and thus most valuable)? Is this why the disinterested Dewey decimal system exists?

It becomes clear that it takes more than the alphabet to organize my silent and not so silent friends. I must identify my holdings not only by names but classifications and genres. My books, I conclude, will be shelved by fiction, non-fiction, plays and film scripts, art/theatre/performance history and theory, poetry, general history, LGBTQ history/theory, and anthologies of same. And a special shelf for my own publications, a space I hope continues to propagate; I am not a closed loop. The audio material falls into categories that brick-up what should be borderless musical waves; classical, pop/rock/folk/jazz, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, other Americas, other “World” (the broadness of that category indicative of a less than entirely worldly view). The one Indian cd gets shelved with movie/theatre scores to allow it to snuggle with Monsoon Wedding. And then those mixtapes, gifts from friends with varying tastes they wanted to share, mixes which defy my dated genre classification, my friends often more truly worldly than I.

Does my sorting assume that what we absorb from these vessels of thought, sound, story can only be remembered if it is sorted, classified, placed? My friend Taylor claims to have been told by a mentor that “comparison is violence,” yet isn’t that what we humans do, often rather peacefully? I place a book next to another and cannot help but compare the surfaces, the size, the subject, and the amount of each I remember and the much more abundant amount I forget of what is within (books, no so much with records; music lingers longer in my brain). My dull alphabetizing organizes such memories of stimulation, inspiration, and occasional awe in a most un-inspiring fashion, yet a story seeps out. Somehow that form helps to release the content, or at least make it more accessible.

And then of course there is the pedant (always lurking). I read these, all of them! Aren’t I something (especially when feeling like a nothing)? I may have left teaching and academia, may be officially old, senior, sliced into insignificance by the cutting edge I helped sharpen but…look at the evidence of all I heard, read, researched. And purchased; this matters because I put my money on it. Digital files may offer a (false) aura of indestructibility and permanence, but they just don’t deliver that sense of accumulation, a construction of something significant.

Though I resist being an archivist, with certain writers and musicians I hold on to even their works which failed to engage at the time; David Bowie’s recordings with Tin Machine, Nina Simone’s over-produced Baltimore, the only album I bought, sold, then bought again. And then the duplications. Why do I have two copies of Laurie Anderson’s Life on a String? Did I forget I already had it, or was I unable to wait to get back to NY to hear it? I have two copies of my friend David Cale’s brilliant monologues in his The Redthroats. I intended to give the second copy to a particularly promising student but didn’t. And then there are the friends whose work I bought, only to have them give me a signed copy. Put the un-personalized in the giveaway pile for someone new to discover? I imagine a scene in a film where the friend spies the discarded work and is deeply distressed, not knowing the personal copy remains.

Yet of course, as Benjamin almost gleefully reveals, much of one’s (well, his) library represents the unread, the un-accessed and put away for another day. I felt rather liberated by Geoff Dyer revealing, in his The Last Days of Roger Federer, that there are many “greats” who grated him or failed to engage and so abandoned. Do these go in the library? If I had more room, how fun to have a shelf of books I abandoned, books I disliked but kept because I wanted to like them, felt I should love them, and/or liked the cover, or records that are unlistenable now but cherished once upon an (adolescent) time? A few years ago, I created a short performance piece, “Long Playing Album,” holding up LP’s that were, at some point in my life, significant to me, with commentary prompted by their sleeves. Twenty covers in five minutes. Someone said this is the best use of an archive, as an activated repertory of rediscovery. Energy is not created but changes its form, as per the first law of thermodynamics. The heat of an initial act does not dissipate (though we may fall into a state of dissipation) but becomes another act. And another. Unto death.

And that, finally, is what all this sorting, collating, culling, alphabetizing and arranging is all about; avoiding the death of the inanimate object, along with he who animated it in the first place. Animating myself, or my memories, through contact with the objects which expanded my personal repertory of ideas, images, sounds, possibilities, narrative arcs and valleys. Here then is my life, stacked and shelved. I’ve unpacked my library, and my library unpacked me.


© 2023 Jeff McMahon





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