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Reflections on Collecting

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In the course of my aimless internet nomadism, I stumbled across a reference to an essay written by Walter Benjamin on book collecting, titled “Unpacking my Library”. It’s a profound and moving piece written by someone who clearly loves books, and loves the act of collecting books even more.

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood – it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation – which these books arouse in a genuine collector.

Even better is this point:

On the other hand, one of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned on the market place and bought it to give it its freedom – the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.

You see the same is absolutely true about those who collect music. There’s something beautiful about seeing albums on your shelves, but there’s something almost equally poetic about sitting among the piles. About being surrounded by the clutter of music and liner notes and amazing cover art. About finding something in the dollar bin, or a record at a garage sale, or as an mp3 on some now-defunct message board, posted by a hopeful young musician to whom no one ever replied. The true freedom of all music is somewhere in our collections.

I’ve had it both ways. I’m fastidious about organizing my collection. I want to be able to find my music, most of the time. At one time my CD binder (yes, I had one of those massive zippered binders, and yes, I had a CD collection) was alphabetized and organized by genre. Same with my LPs. In fact, my mp3 collection is still that way. And yet many times the biggest joy I get is just setting my player on shuffle. I like the surprise. Although less tactile than what Walter Benjamin experienced, it never fails to make me smile on the subway when a song is suddenly seeing daylight again after years of darkness.