Books are not traditionally thought of as souvenirs, but the books on my shelves have always served as intellectual souvenirs for me. They represent the journeys I have taken within their pages (and in some cases journeys I have yet to take), and their presence reminds me of my mastery of the knowledge that lies within their pages. I often say that I only know what I know by looking at my bookshelves.

As my eyes land on the design of the spine of each book, memories of the time I spent reading and thinking about what is inside jump out at me. Even more, the moment of their acquisition, the necessity of their purchase, and the life I was living at the time are attached to each book, which adds to the difficulty of getting rid of any one of them to create space for new ones. If I ever weeded a book, where would those memories go? Would I lose them forever? And what about the intellectual content? Would I forget what I learned from the book without its presence there to remind me what I know?

The associations created by the order in which I place my books on the shelves are also important for holding a sense of my own knowledge in place. In “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” Walter Benjamin sits among open boxes of his books after a move. Their disorder reveals the chaos that is inherent in the collection, but it also allows him to experience the memory of each book before it is “touched by the mild boredom of order” and the habit of seeing his books lined up on the shelf begins to create an appearance of unity among them. As both a scholar and a librarian, I have often reflected on the productive tension created by the dialectic between order and disorder that Benjamin describes as I try to impose an organized system on my own book collection.

While in graduate school studying English literature and relaxing in my rented room, I would stare at my books on literary theory and think about their order on the shelf. Then I would roll off my bed and reorder them in an attempt to create a better set of connections between them. Should my books by Julia Kristeva sit next to those by Roland Barthes since she was a student of his, or should they be grouped with my other feminist theory books? Should my books by Terry Eagleton all sit together, or should they be dispersed so that they join other books by topic? And when I thought that I had the books all lined up in a way that made perfect sense to me, a new idea or insight would emerge or I would add another book to the collection that would throw what I initially thought was an immutable order into chaos—until the next logical order for them would become apparent. 

These mental exercises of finding the just-right combination of books on the shelf added to my understanding of their content and their intellectual relationship to one another. Today, my book collection is far too large to play such games, so my books now sit in quasi-Library-of-Congress order on my shelves. But it is the extra-textual nature of books—in this case, the general impressions that pop to mind when I see the spines of my books lined up on a shelf—that allow such intellectual exercises to take place.

Tactile experiences are also tied up in the memory of reading books. The satisfying feel of a smooth matte cover and the solid paper between it, the weight of hefty volumes I had to lug around as if in penance for my personal sense of ignorance, the weak bindings where I carefully had to hold the pages together lest they become completely detached from the spine, and even the smell of the paper can all transport me back to remembering my intimate interactions with specific books. 

In my early teens, I made it a personal a mission to read all the James Bond novels available at the public library in chronological order. One volume was a collection of three novels, which included From Russia, With Love. The book had a pungent—although perhaps not entirely unpleasant—smell that I never identified and must have come from its use by a previous library patron. I returned the book to read the next novel in the chronological sequence, but when I checked the volume out again to read the next book on my list, I reencountered the smell and was immediately transported back to my time reading From Russia, With Love. In my mind I was sitting right next to Bond and Tatiana Romanova as we traveled together in the overnight train compartment of the Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris. I can almost recount the smell of the book now, and I will forever associate it with the memory of reading this novel.

The Souvenir Project will give me the opportunity to revisit some of the books on my shelves, to see if I really “know what I know,” and to add to my understanding of them and their relationship to one another. And since many of the cultural themes raised by souvenirs have also been intellectual preoccupations for me over the years, this project is as much an exercise in intellectual memory for me as it is an exploration of the cultural history of souvenirs.

Reading List:

  • Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).
  • Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love.

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