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Unpacking My Un-Library

Natasha Japanwala

The second original piece for Taha Kehar's curation for our website (September, 2022) reflects on how libraries bear a resonance of life and loss.

We’re soaked from the rain and piled by the window, in Austin for the weekend, drinking wine out of ceramic bowls we are cupping in our hands. I’m lying on my stomach, flicking through the books stacked on A’s nightstand, now and again reading a poem aloud. The others listen in earnest. I crack open Linda Gregg’s All of it Singing, a book I haven’t encountered before, and am arrested by a poem titled Summer in a Small Town that describes, with uncanny precision, a landmark moment from my own life at the start of the summer that is now ending.

“When the men leave me/they leave me in a beautiful place”

The poem goes on to describe walking back from the public pool on a humid, overcast evening, loving the smell of freshly cut grass “so completely it leaves my heart empty”.

“This is exactly what I felt!” I exclaim to my friends, recalling the time when I took up swimming just as summer was coming around again, and the worst of my heartache seemed like it was lifting along with the last of winter.

The next afternoon, I walked down the street to Malvern Books, cavernous, carpeted, and shelved with row after row of poetry, translation, experimental memoir —the sort of books that aren’t easily available elsewhere. I grabbed my own copy of All of it Singing with urgency. I spotted Forough Farrokhzad’s Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Seasonnearby and scooped it up too, based on its title alone.

The six texts I hauled to the checkout that day brought my tally of books purchased for this year up to 84—an acquisition rate of 10.5 new titles a month, far more than I am able to actually read within the same timespan.

“The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1931 essay 'Unpacking My Library', surrounded by his crates, dust, paper, piles. It’s an essay I have a zine-like copy of, tucked between thicker paperbacks on the shelves of the bedroom I grew up in, rows of neglected spines catching the light that spills through the grilles in the windows. Now I enlarge the same words on my phone, saved in a document offline so that I can access them in airplane mode flying back to Washington D.C., home for now, Karachi half a world away.

I puzzle over my penchant for acquisition: I have never had a crate to unpack, just crates that I have given away, left behind, or tried to hold onto before inevitably losing them. I left home for the first time at 18. In the 12 years since, I have lived in nine cities, spread across five countries on three continents. My library is filled with the ghosts of books I once possessed: the books I amassed as an undergraduate and stored in a friend’s basement and never retrieved; the books I bought during my on-again off-again London years and gave to a colleague in Sainsbury bags when I finally departed; the books I couldn’t fit in the two suitcases I packed when I cleared out my things from the house I shared with a once-great love.

My library will be filled with ghosts for a long time yet, because I am alone and enamoured and unable to determine where to lay roots, in this world where gardens are never simply there for our taking. I long less for the tangible books I once owned, and more for the path that led me to them; less for a library, than for the full story of that lost library. I want to flip through a book of days: all the days of desire propelling me to acquire books I knew I would not be able to keep.

“A place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there,” Rebecca Solnit writes in the opening of The Faraway Nearby, a braided meditation on why we are attracted to stories, why we make stories, why stories matter.

There are two collectors in me, perhaps in us all: one who gathers the materials, the other who charts the justifications for those materials. Every time I start my library over, I meet a version of myself who is still searching for an answer, who filled her arms with voices and histories and places and people, clung to them, thinking she had the time to make them all fit together.

Memory is a constant exercise of imagination: there is never a clear arc, just a handful of fragments that form a different picture each time.

Some books have endured over the past twelve years of my life: I rescued them, carted them, stored them, resuscitated them. At first glance, these titles confound me, but slowly patterns emerge. I’ve held onto books about place that are often winding in form: Open City by Teju Cole, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, Outline by Rachel Cusk, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. I’ve held onto books I read when I needed books to hold onto: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry and We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan, which I read in the weeks after my Nani died, searching for comfort in stories at the nexus of aging and illness or stories that allowed me to travel to a place in time that would have been familiar to her. I hang onto both those books as if they contain those weeks themselves, weeks when I couldn’t sleep at all and was exhausted and alive at the same time in a way that I had never been before.

But these are just dozens yanked out from a library of hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books. Desperate for a way of knowing what I bought and when, why I was attracted to certain books over others, what I was hoping to learn from them and then either did or didn’t. I started, two years ago, cataloguing in exhaustive detail. The books I wanted and why; the books I bought, where from and on what date; the genre, number of pages, year of publication, whether the author was a woman or a person of colour, whether the book was in translation; the date I started reading (if I started reading) and the date I finished reading (if I finished reading). Having found a way to immortalise, at least in part, my library of desire, I’ve stopped buying as many books as I used to, and have become a member of my local library. I collect, instead of books, a series of experiences: sought out, had, returned. All documented, searchable, knowable.

The most recent of these was Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, checked out swiftly after M. recited the novel’s first sentence to me: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” I devoured it, dog-eared almost every other page, even though it wasn’t my copy to tamper with. It’s a brutal novel, and yet I found it at the right time: in the most extreme way I can conceive, it’s a story of acceptance: how to accept a life that is not turning out the way you hope; how to accept the decisions of those you love even if you disagree with them; how to accept the quiet, hard, sad, ugly, horrifying things that are everywhere once you start noticing them. There is a gorgeous scene towards the end, where the protagonist is sitting in the yard outside a clinic where dogs are put down, strumming a banjo and trying to work on a libretto he’s been tinkering with for much of the novel.

“Would he dare to do that: bring a dog into the piece, allow it to lose its own lament to the heavens between the strophes of lovelorn Teresa’s?

Why not? Surely, in a work that will never be performed, all things are permitted?”

I am running out of times I can renew this copy, my copy, where the dog-ears mark not just the sentences that struck me, but also why I may have been drawn to those particular sentences in a particular moment in time.

A library (like a life) is a commingling of all the intangible things that swirl around the book itself: the desire to acquire a book, the times and places where the book was read, and all the thoughts and feelings that slip in and out of a mind as it travels through the book. Scenes on scenes on scenes.


Natasha Japanwala is a writer and educator from Karachi, currently based in Washington D.C. She loves traveling, swimming, and cooking elaborate dinners for her friends.

Photo credit: Free-to-use image by Engin Akyurt


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