Knowing that Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library” has spawned many a essay and reflection, I come to this state of melancholia well aware of the literary precedent and sit in great anticipation for the freeing of my bound progeny. I have been withdrawn from the “mild boredom of order” since early February, when my wife and I decided to quickly pack things up in order to get the hell outta Dodge. Our home had been broken into for the second time, so the restlessness of the unknown and the feelings of utter violation had driven my wife, and by extension myself, into action.
The packing took only a few hours. As I look back it was a bit unwise of me to pack up almost my entire collection. I feel the pain of the withdrawal from my wayward midnight wonderings. I am someone who reads, sometimes unsuccessfully to completion, at least a half a dozen books or so at the same time. I have always felt the ability to make simultaneous connections between various works essential to my education. Perhaps this is why I feel the ultimate pull towards being a generalist instead of a specialist.
My reading fancies might lead me to reviewing some of Lonergan or poking through an assortment of modern philosophy or medieval art. But typically I am lead to the category of “MISC.” – which includes the alluring genre of the essay. Cheap collections of essays from minds of the near distant past and even further seem to be a favorite go to. I see a genetic link between the books I take to the bathroom and the books I pick up in my midnight wonderings. It must be the desire to be entertained. Long arduous reads, when I am taking short vacations (my wife may argue about my privy time, which I like to retort with resorting to W.H. Auden’s poem “The Geography of the House”) or trying to put off the resignation that comes when finally climbing into bed, are not adequate. The essay is the perfect format for the WC vacation or late night excitement. I have my favorite authors for this purpose: Herbert McCabe, OP, Montaigne, Paul Evdokimov, Adam Zagajewski, Geoffrey Hill, Alberto Manguel, something on a particular artist that is a favorite of mine (e.g. Stanley Spencer or El Greco), and (surprisingly for his typical longwindness) Hans urs Von Balthasar. This is of course not a real catalogue, but more of my ideal go to list. I probably typically grab whatever shorter book is closer at hand, or that is currently affixed by my fancy (I tend to go in cycles of interests, as those closest to me know (probably to their chagrin)).
I am ashamed to say that I used to spend an inordinate amount of time with books from the library that would be considered introductory. Drawn from a typical stack that would be perched in various precarious positions from the local university. I averaged around 150 or so when I was in school at Indiana Univ. and a bit less when I had access to Western Kentucky’s. In some ways I have felt this kind of voyeuristic and exploratory probing (prefaces, introductions, choice chapters or essays) has given me a great overview of a lot of subjects that otherwise I would not have deigned to spend significant amounts of time. Subjects such as: liberation theology, Karl Rahner, Reformed theology, poetics, Catholic moral theology, poststructuralism, and most definitely phenomenology in all its amorphous forms.
I did keep a box or two out for the purpose of keeping my sanity on the horizon. At the time, honestly, theology and I were on break. The short of it: wrestling with whether or not pursuing theology academically has haunted me for at least the past 7 years. I have learned sustained breaks from serious reading in theology has maintained my sanity. Instead, I packed for my perusal in the interval, a ton of german lit., philosophy, and poetry. Montaigne, Böll, Bernhard, Plato, Sebald, Nietzsche, Heidegger, various biographies, and some contemporary anglo literature were to keep me company.
Of course, the pendulum swings, and now I am on track to begin graduate study of theology in the fall bringing back my desire to browse and work through some texts that are now hiding away in a storage unit in Kentucky. Perhaps some incredibly decent souls would care to donate a few texts for my edification? I am attempting to break into reviewing books in order to swell my progeny (more on that hopefully to come).
Has my collecting (which is usually progresses at a good clip) abated due to lack of shelves? Nope. “To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves” – Benjamin. Despite that drive, my budget limits my collecting, and thus my melancholia survives unabated yet sedated by my weekly sojourns in the Divinity library. I feel as if I am not alone in this state when disconnected from my extended mind?