Collecting My Thoughts

This time last year we moved house, and I found myself re-reading a well-known essay by Walter Benjamin called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It’s a lovely piece for anyone with an unhealthy attachment, of some sort, to books, of whatever kind, as artefacts. The essay is about the prosthetics of thought and memory, which is a common enough theme I guess, but what is really distinctive about Benjamin’s essay is how he captures the active sense of ‘collecting’ books as a habitual mode of thinking, rather than fixating on the contents of a fixed collection once acquired.

Benjamin’s essay is really quite funny in exposing the nerdiness involved in acquiring books as a process of thought, but in a serious sort of way. The aspect of the essay that rings most true for me is the sense of chance and coincidence that book-buying and book-browsing implies about how one’s own engagement with ‘Theory’ works. He articulates this around the idea of book collecting as a way  of investigating new cities: “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” Unpacking the library is packed-full of memories, and regrets – for books half-finished, writing-projects never even begun.

The places which are evoked by unpacking my books were often more prosaic than those with which Benjamin was most familiar, although I do have favourite bookshop memories from cities like Paris, Stockholm, Cape Town, or Chicago. More often, though, the places my books evoke are towns like East Grinstead or Cirencester (the town where I can first remember buying a book for myself, in a now defunct Woolworths; You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, it cost 50p, new). Of course, unpacking books, or just rearranging them, also evokes memories of bookshops which are no more, like Oxford Books in Atlanta, my first experience of a real American bookstore (books and coffee, what a smell!), or Compendium Books in Camden Town, a bookshop so important in shaping the thoughts of an entire generation of British Theory-heads that is was obituarised in Radical Philosophy when it closed.

Our house move last year involved relocating to the weird and not-so-wonderful town of Swindon, and one of the things that was reconciling me to this was the knowledge that at least there was a big Borders on the outskirts of town. The week we moved, it was announced that it was going to close (much to the anger of local residents, many of whom really appreciated the Starbucks upstairs – there are not so many places in that part of town for new mums to hang-out with prams; the Starbucks has survived, only now it is upstairs in a shiny new branch of New Look). Earlier this year, just to make me feel even better, the Oxfam book and record store in town also closed down. Swindon now has fewer bookstores than East Grinstead, the town I grew up in, with dreams of leaving for more bookish places.

Oxfam bookstores sell second-hand books, but they are run along the lines of commercial second-hand bookshops (not a little controversially). Where we lived before moving to Swindon, in what one of our friends and fellow residents once described to us as the ‘Guardian-and Tofu-Ghetto’ of Bishopston, in Bristol, we were a five minute walk up the hill from an Amnesty bookshop. Amnesty bookshops get all their books from donations, so unlike Oxfam shops, their books are dead cheap. I’ve come to realise that this bookshop has had a powerful influence in shaping how I think as an academic over the last decade. It’s located on the Gloucester Road, the faintly alternative heart of independent retailing in North Bristol, equidistant from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England – Bishopston is, according to census data, the most educated ward in the whole country (containing a high proportion of geography professors prolific in theorising about neoliberalism too). All of which means the Amnesty shop has this high turnover of lots of academic books of a particular vintage. This shop is a veritable repository of the ‘long-tail’ of a certain sort of British left-sociological culture of the 1970s through the 1990s. It is never without a copy of Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, or Richard Hoggart’s The Use of Literary. There is also a regular supply of complete sets of OU Social Science or Humanities courses books, as students finish one year’s study before moving on to the next level (at least, that’s what we all hope if we work at the OU). Sometimes, books with the names of an academic with whose work you are actually familiar appear – books owned by Jean Grimshaw, the feminist philosopher, or Peter Haggett, the geographer.

I have come to cherish this bookshop like no other I know, primarily because of the promise of stumbling across something I didn’t even know I might want to read which will only cost £1.50, at most. I once bought a box full of volumes of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works, not the whole set mind, the Progress Publishers editions from Moscow published by Lawrence and Wishart, for £15, which worked out at about 90p a volume (I turned up the chance of buying the box of Lenin as well). Most of these are not volumes you would want to read, unless you are inclined to do a PhD on Engels’ fascination with military strategy and hardware (and it turns out that, like some of us cheap academic hacks these days, Marx and Engels both helped make ends meet by writing entries for Encyclopedias – my favourite is Engels little piece on ‘The Camp’, pre-dating Agamben on that topic by more than a century; although even he doesn’t mention that this is actually the name of a small hamlet in the Costwolds, as you drive out of the Stroud valley towards Cheltenham and Gloucester).

This is the only academic bookstore I know of where you can buy classics of modern social thought for 50p, often with the added value of someone else already having annotated the best bits for you; I have never spent more than £4 on a book here. Sometimes, you do come across a recent, up-to-date volume. I bought a copy of Twenty Theses on Politics here a few months ago (I still go back to visit), by Enrique Dussel, the leading political philosopher and theorist of contemporary Latin American politics (See I had heard of him before, never read anything by him, but there it was, a couple of quid, almost new. But mostly, the books I buy in this shop are older ones, maybe collections of political writings by Weber, old editions of Goffman, that sort of thing. But it is not just the age of the books you find in the Amnesty shop that accounts for their odd combination of intellectual appeal and cheapness – these are not antique volumes, or first editions of any value. These are the books that other academics, teachers, former students or educated lay readers have decided not worth keeping any more. By arriving here, on these shelves, they attest in their own way to their own lack of contemporary resonance, or at least this estimation by those who have chosen to give them away. It’s not just the unlikely student of Engels’ later works who might find an archive of materials here, but anyone who wants to reconstruct the debates on the left of the early and mid-1980s around Thatcherism, often Marxism Today-led conversations which still assumed that Labour might win an election in 1987 or 1988; or the excitement which Glasnost and Perestroika provoked for a reorientation of left-thinking; or the infusion of Marxist ideas into social work or education theory in the 1970s; or the literature of the anti-psychiatry movement (but not Foucault – nobody seems to donate Foucault books for free; he still resonates, clearly). The pamphlets and little magazines out of which New Labour emerged, or the extensive, theoretically sophisticated historiographical anthropological analyses of Southern African politics generated by and around the anti-apartheid movement – all of this can be gathered up from this shop, if you are willing to bide your time.

I haven’t invested my pennies (it wouldn’t be much more) in acquiring any of these archives, although each one would make for an intellectually challenging and valuable project. But I have certainly back-filled some of the holes left by own education-in-Theory over the last decade by buying a book every week or so from this shop, although I’m not to admit which holes. Returning to Benjamin, then, I like to think of this little shop as providing a twist to his tactical image of book collecting – here, collecting other people’s cast-offs is a way of travelling back into recent intellectual pasts, of measuring the unacknowledged distance between then and now, of getting a glimpse of what once seemed possible or plausible yet now seems nothing more than embarrassing, but also, perhaps a little more optimistically, of noticing the little advances or shifts in culture that have rendered certain sorts of critical, theoretical elucidation slightly less pressing.

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