Packing My Library

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Vincent van Gogh, Piles of French Novels, 1887, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum.

I guess I’ve packed and unpacked the books in my office about a dozen times. This is the last time.

They aren’t rare or precious books, simply the tools of my trade as a professor of art history. So, I usually pack them in a desultory manner, without wrapping in brown paper, or worrying if they get dented. As physical objects, books – especially paperbacks — are amazingly tough. You can put heavy weights on them, release them from heights, spill coffee, beer, or whiskey on them, use them as weapons, drop them in a swimming pool, and leave them in a freezer — I’ve done all these things — and they are still usable, if somewhat the worse for wear. Ray Bradbury said books ignite at Fahrenheit 451, but research has shown that’s only the outer pages; the meat of most books remains intact and readable up to 500 degrees!

My library contains monographs on artists, exhibition catalogues, anthologies, books of letters, and lots of volumes generally called “theory”: an ill-defined genre that includes philosophy, literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and politics. (A cynic would say you know it’s a book of theory if it’s particularly badly written.) I don’t use most of my books, but still dutifully pack and move them whenever I change offices. Even the most abstruse writing, I always believed, might someday be beneficial to me or my students. “Have you read all these books?” someone once asked the French poet and novelist Anatole France. “Not one tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day!” The anecdote is found in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library,” his account of book collecting as a kind of erotic and intellectual rapture.

Against Benjamin, I have fallen out of love with my books. First, because I’m retiring, and their usefulness has diminished. No more pulling down a book and handing it to an eager student or diffident colleague; no more class preparations where I need to quickly grab a fact or an idea from off the shelf; no more Zoom meetings where books provide the necessary backdrop. Second, because of the Law of Diminishing Returns. The value of a book, I’ve always thought, is inversely related to the distance it must be shipped and the amount of space it occupies. From Evanston to Micanopy, Florida is 1,056 miles; many of my books are large and thick, and my bookshelves at home are already groaning. (Those antiquarian volumes are another story.) So, I’m giving away nearly all the books in my office to graduate students, undergrads, and anybody else who wants them. I have few regrets.

That doesn’t mean, however, the process of sorting and disposing of my books isn’t emotional. A small, tattered pamphlet of Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto reminds me of an elementary school acquaintance named Mark Samuels. He was a slight, pallid boy who refused to participate in sports. My classmates and I teased him for his bookishness and claim to be a communist. (Evidently, his parents were communists – not an uncommon pedigree in Jewish Forest Hills in the 1960s.) He was the first person I knew who died – age 10, of kidney disease.

A copy of the pianist Charles Rosen’s book, The Classical Style: Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven (1971) called to mind my college girlfriend who studied to be a concert pianist. She regularly practiced eight hours a day but during performances fought off terrible stage-fright. I was unfaithful to her with the woman who became my first wife. I still feel bad about that. Happily, she went on to have a fulfilling life of music and family. None of that is found on the pages of Rosen’s classic study of the evolution of a musical form, but it’s still in the book.

Julius Held’s two-volume The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens brought up very different memories. Held was a professor at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown when I was an MA student there more than four decades ago. Already 75 years old, the German-born (Jewish) scholar was, despite his diminutive size, a formidable presence. He expected American pupils to plow through scholarship in any European language, (no Google Translate in those days), and was known to cut off students in the middle of their seminar reports to deliver scornful judgment. Sometimes, he cloaked displeasure with irony. I remember him summarizing a student’s well-illustrated but superficial presentation by saying: “Das war eine Augenfest!” (“That was a feast for the eyes!”) To the consternation of my fellows, Held liked me, and what’s worse, showed it. Twenty years later, when he was 94, I brought him my copy of the Rubens monograph to sign, which he did with some difficulty. Held died three years later. I never had a great interest in Rubens, but I’ll keep the books in case I want to glance again at my former teacher’s palsied signature.

The Marx and Engels, Rosen and Held volumes — and many others — don’t only summon up remembrance of things past. They also make me contemplate the future, but not in a good way. In 18 years, I’ll be dead (that’s the average life expectancy of a 65-year-old man in the U.S.) and my wife Harriet (may she long outlive me) will have an even harder time disposing of the books. How can I be so inconsiderate? And here’s another reason I should fully dispose the contents of my office library: Just looking at the books this morning caused me to conjoin in my mind past, present, and future, when every bit of retirement advice I have gotten – from Harriet, friends, and Headspace – is to remain intensely focused on the present, to make each successive moment vivid. Unlike Anatole France, I have little use for “Sevres china,” so why hold on to books that make me dwell on the past and worry about future?

But just when I was thinking those thoughts, I had an epiphany. It wasn’t anything major; not like the one felt by my namesake on Dollymount Beach. That was the time Stephen Dedalus saw a young girl staring out to sea, “like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird.” Stephen then apprehended “the vast indifferent dome and the calm processes of the heavenly bodies.” I saw nothing before me except cardboard boxes and a growing pile of books, one of which was Joyce’s A Portrait of the Art as a Young Man. I realized at that moment however, that in thinking about my past and future – people I had known, places I had been, what I still hoped to do — I was experiencing the very vividness of life that everybody told me I should seek in retirement. In fact, I wanted those moments of insight and sweet melancholy to last much longer than they did. When they ended, I sat back down on the floor, took a deep breath, and resumed my sorting and packing. And I pulled Portrait of the Artist out of the pile of discards and packed it carefully in a cardboard box.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: