Unfolding the Screen: A Destiny for Books

Looking at my screen I see the photographs of Hogarth Press’ first ever printed book, Two Stories. The meticulously framed pages present in clear and minute detail every faded stain, ragged needle-hole and frayed piece of thread. By pressing the ‘Zoom in’ button located at the top-right of the viewer I feel like I can almost see the acidic fingerprints of all the book’s previous owners. All the way back to Virginia Woolf. A weird opposition exists in this digital viewing of the book. The extreme tactility presented by the photo on the one hand and the simultaneous distance of the screen on the other. Between the book as a unique physical object and as a reproduction that can be viewed on infinite screens simultaneously. Furthermore, it is, to me, also a question of what place the book, as a physical object, holds in the world. Is its destiny to remain behind lock and key, venerated like a sacred artifact, only to be brought forth when called upon by bibliographic academics? Or should we celebrate its materiality, tangibility and physical appearance?

In a broadcast titled “Unpacking My Library – A Talk about Collecting,” which was initially given on the radio in 1931, Walter Benjamin talks about the virtues of collecting books, especially old, antique books. Benjamin seems to vie for a material relationship with books, one that has as its base the notion of ownership. This is, however, not an ownership that establishes a clear hierarchy, but rather “the very deepest relationship a person can have with things: not that they [the books] live inside him; it is he who lives in them”. There seems to be a connection based on the owner’s memories surrounding the book – where it was bought, how it was acquired, who it’s previous owners were, how long it has been with someone, what it feels like – that “merge in each one of his possessions into a magical encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object”. And it is not just this deep biblio-mental relation that drives the collector to collect, it is also a sense of providing a new destiny for his ancient books. Reinterpreting the famous phrase habent sua fata libelli, Benjamin explains that for the collector it is not just books that have their fate, but also the specific copies of a book.[1] In the collision of one book with the collector’s library it is born again; “making the old world new again – that is the deepest drive in the collector’s desire to acquire new things”. The act of collecting is a process of renewal that is performed solely by the collector. A new destiny is found within the collector’s library, coming into existence between the different ancient copies as they speak to each other, but also in the relation with the book’s owner. For this is a relationship that, rather than highlighting “their [the books] functional value (the benefits they bring, the purposes they serve), studies and loves them as the scene and showplace of their destiny”. Keeping the first copy of Woolf’s Two Stories in a dark archive, gathering dust whilst the climate control softly hums along, almost seems like an imprisonment of the book as an object. Of course its appearance and its content have been made publicly available, but the book itself is denied the reinvigoration offered by the true book collector. The (digital) archive mainly highlights the book’s functional value and seems to ignore the inspired and loving relation that can come to exist between a collector and his book, and among the books themselves. In an original copy of Woolf’s Kew Garden, viewed on the British Library website, the pages are kept in place by plastic clamps. Thinking of captivity, they start to resemble the pins used to keep butterflies in place and on display. With the pages spread out like wings, the book becomes a dead object, held down for our viewing pleasure.


Pauw Vos


[1] Adapted from the North-African Latin poet Terentianus Maurus, this translates as “books have their destiny”.

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