Sunday, 27 October 2013

Unpacking My Library

I have started a new project. I am going to read the books I own. Yes, I am admitting to the almost blasphemous: I have not read all my books. I have flagrantly put on display knowledge that I actually do not yet possess. In my defence, buying a book is my tribute to the idea of a future. I have bought it today, and someday I shall read it. For the present, there are always books borrowed from the library.
This resolution came about when a visitor looked at my gleaming bookshelves admiringly. "So you have read all of these books?" he asked. The guilt that I am ready to feel at just about anything immediately floated to the front of my consciousness. "Erm... Most of them" I said. A knowing grin came to his face, and this of course compelled me to keep explaining "The ones that I have read were things I was either studying, teaching or researching. And I have read almost all the detective fiction and fantasy that I own.... and a few random ones here and there". I gave up the attempt, and I am sure that he now thinks that I never read. Sigh. It is true. My likelihood of reading a book increases drastically when I have borrowed it from the library rather than purchased it.
I know some of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs. Brought up in a middle-class household, book-buying was reserved for the 'best books', the ones that one 'should' have read. And the frivolous stuff was meant to be issued from the library. I have read all of Agatha Christie's books, but never bought one through my childhood. Similarly for P. G. Wodehouse and a myriad of detective and fantasy fiction. As I began to earn my own money, I always bought books that I felt that I should read, mostly literary masterpieces or theory. I have nothing against them and have come to enjoy reading philosophy and history more than most other things I read, but it has created a large bank of 'someday' books that I bought willingly, almost dutifully, but resisted picking up as I was unconsciously prejudiced against them.
My book buying really took off after I came to Australia. For one, books are more easily available here than in India, and the second hand stores are endless sources of treasures. The joyless Puritan in me still bought two kinds of books: 'those that I will to keep forever' and 'those that I will read and then donate'. The latter were, of course, variations on the library theme, but mercifully without a deadline. So I kept reading and recycling books like the Game of Thrones series. Once in a while, I liked an author so much that I decided to keep the book (Raymond Chandler, I will never say farewell to the lovely you!) I also kept adding to my collection of someday books.
Not any longer. I have already started reading some of my own books and find them fascinating, and wonder at myself for holding on to my fear of uncharted waters for so long. I have come to terms with what I like, while also accepting that I may like something else, but will never know that until I try it. I think I am in for an exciting time. The title of this post is a homage to/plagiarism of an essay by Walter Benjamin from Illuminations, available on this link as pdf. The essay is a delightful read. Naturally, I especially enjoyed the idea that the non-reading of books is the characteristic of all true collectors. Of late, I have been reading quite a few books, blogs and articles around simplifying one's life. Most of them have resonated with me. At the same time, as Benjamin says "Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects". How does one reconcile the wish for simplicity with a love for objects, books in his case? For me right now, the answer is to keep what I love and consciously choose to keep. I am unpacking my library in two ways: by reading it and then by giving away that which I do not love or do not choose to keep. Knowing myself, this is most probably not going to result in a substantial reduction. But then that is not my aim anyway. What I wish to do is far more ambitious: to know myself by getting to know my library.