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Unpacking My Library

The University of Virginia's Alderman Library in early January 2024, after renovation but before the books had been replaced. Photo by Peter Dreyer.

“ . . . what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

A single warbler

sings easily in the oak,

that has lost its leaves.

—"Clear Dew” Ibuse

When as a boy I charmed my mind

with books, I took what came to hand.

I can recall a bunch . . . let’s see,

both Alice's (necessarily),

H. G Wells's Science of Life,

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dumas père,

Olive Schreiner, Louÿs's Aphrodite,

Dickens, Melville, Woolf, Simenon,

and many another—Proust, too,

I'd note—from cover to cover!

Sterne, John Cowper Powys, Gibbon,

Dostoyevsky were all fodder

for the band, first in proper order

sainted, then handily enshrined.

I also read the poets, true,

who left me still the fool I was

(who hopefully should not renew);

seventy years on, as time goes,

romances proffer less direction

than nostalgic homage prose

purporting, well, to be “nonfiction.”

The Brothers Karamazov there

(translation edited myself)

I might never read again,

Caro's bio Lyndon Johnson,

burgeoning bigly on the shelf.

Among this recollected feast

of all the petty sins agreed,

but venial and not yet ceased,

indulging in no light of sun

but libraries with books to read,

has been—I bet!—the very least.

Note: Walter Benjamin’s essay was originally published in Literarische Welt in 1931. The quoted translation by Harry Zohn above is from Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (1969; rpt. 1999).

“Clear Dew” Ibuse's haiku is quoted from Wise Words with Bruce Wise, Preceding a defining relative clause, the comma would be an error, but a caesura is needed there in this case and it's the lightest.


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