by Alexander Freeling


Just as the return leg of a journey seems shorter, as if the mental energy has already been spent on the outlay, and now you are being pulled magnetically back home, unpacking feels easier than packing. The difficult decisions are already made. Did I need that second whisk, or the book about Alexander von Humboldt? Either way, it’s too late.

Moving home might be the only ironclad defense we have left against the great and small forces of accumulation. Every sweater, every book, every old record comes back like an end-of-year exam to assess your understanding of its value (and your resolve, in the case of that Humboldt biography). But for all the exasperation of packing, I find there’s a reward at the other end. At least for a couple of weeks, I know the location of every object I own. The sense of order is nearly religious. This is how I imagine the first few days in Eden.

In a brief and lovely 1931 essay, “Unpacking my library,” Walter Benjamin surveys his collection in its latent state. “The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order.” He relishes the task of re-shelving. It’s the chance to position each book in relation to the others, to reappraise, to rediscover. The meaning of a book is not only found in the text printed and bound by its publisher, but in its provenance and age, its appearance and wear. Books, like people, come to us indelibly marked by the circumstances in which we found them. The train journey when you started it, or the six months it lurked on the nightstand beneath flashier titles, still bookmarked with the train ticket. The bookshop where you found it, whether a sprawling metropolitan store that’s 75% café, or the kind you find in the countryside, smelling of damp wood and dust. The person who gave it to you a little bit too early in a relationship.

Collecting is the opposite of logical purchasing. The student with a reading list or merchant with a catalogue buys sensibly. The collector acquires objects as children receive toys: hungrily, inquisitively, and with their hands. Each new item is scrutinized, tested and analyzed. Every detail must be understood, every aspect dissected. If it survives that voracious interest, it’s ultimately sanctified. Faced with unpacking my wardrobe, I felt the same anticipation. My prayers made to the gods of moth protection, I opened the garment bags and began to hang shirts and jackets on rails. You’ve guessed the punchline, of course: the bags I opened with delight were not the wise purchases, darlings of a thousand “menswear essentials” articles, but the chances and gambles. The linen jacket bought for a trip to Italy, even though it was so hot I could barely wear it. The Neapolitan tie inexplicably found in Wales. Anything yellow. 

The collector is half-child, half-priest; his relationship to objects, Benjamin observes, does not hinge on their function or usefulness, but on the minutest details of their origin and fate. They contain his life as much as his life contains them. “Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious” in their history flashes out from them.