"The disorder of crates wrenched open"
Albert unpacks books and revisits a classic Walter Benjamin essay; reader responses to last week's post about language wars in Taiwan; book club updates
Michelle here. We’ve been in Taiwan for exactly a month!
Many of you have written asking how we’re faring. I regret to report that Albert grows more youthful-looking by the day: his complexion has brightened, his cheeks slimmed. It must have something to do with homecoming. Turns out the West was bad for his skin. Mine, meanwhile, is blotchy from scratching at mosquito bites (they love new blood, an auntie informed me), and I look haggard, unwell, a little lost. “Pretty soon people are going to ask me if I’m your mother,” I complained, sneezing, which is my default mode these days—I’m allergic to something in the air, or maybe to the dust from the seventy-three boxes that just arrived from France.
“Objectively, I’m average-looking,” I continued. (This is just how I talk, don’t worry.) “But in the U.S. I got an extra attractiveness point for being an Asian woman. Objectively you’re good-looking but in the U.S. you lost points for being an Asian man. So we were basically equal. Here the disparity gapes before us.”
“What?” Albert said, breaking down a large box.
“You don’t listen to me anymore,” I said. “This country’s gone to your head.”
Surely there’s more to unpack about such interactions, but today we’re going to talk about a more literal kind of unpacking. Over to you, Albert, you handsome jerk!
Fifty boxes of books on the floor, fifty boxes of books
A cheerful Taiwanese man about my age rang our doorbell on Monday afternoon. “Your boxes from France have arrived,” he said. “Do you want us to take off our shoes when we bring them in?”
He handed me a clipboard with a list of seventy-three boxes to be verified. Three other men appeared with dollies and hand carts.
“Box thirty, forty-three, twenty-one, all books,” he continued. “Where should we put them?” I directed them to the study (a study! a luxury we’ve never had until now), and soon enough there were fifty boxes there. As he left, Boss Mover commented, “Wow, you have a lot of books.”
“A professional illness (職業病),” I replied. He chuckled.
Our original plan was to take it slow with the unpacking. The big mistake of our last move had been to unbox everything at once and shove books onto shelves randomly, without imposing any sort of structure. As late as this June, when we were packing up to leave Paris, we were still finding books we’d been looking for idly for two years. This time would be different, we told ourselves: we’d keep the books in the boxes for as long as possible so that each one could, like a child lifted out of an orphanage, be given a deliberate home.
Alas, the cardboard, having sat for several months in the Taiwanese heat of some warehouse or other, had developed a peculiar musk that provoked Michelle’s allergies. Whenever she entered our study (she calls it her study, watch out), she started to sneeze.
So we got to work. We began unloading books frantically. My dad joined in, helping empty thirty boxes in one go. The room looked like a very small hurricane had just passed through. Books piled all over the floor, papers scattered high, folders unbound, random wires and stuffed animals shoved into the corners. (On Wednesday I went out to run an errand and, upon returning, heard no sound of Michelle or the baby. Looking into the study, I had a sudden flash of panic: maybe the books had toppled on the baby and Michelle had had to take her to the hospital. I called Michelle. No answer. More panic. A couple minutes later, she walked in with the stroller, sipping a bubble tea.)
As we put books on shelves—randomly once again—I thought about Walter Benjamin’s classic 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library.” Revisiting it yesterday, I felt an instant collapsing of time and space. Benjamin’s study was our study: “The disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness.”* Even little asides rang true. “Now I am on the last half-emptied case and it is way past midnight,” Benjamin writes. Sure enough, on day three, unable to sleep, I found myself with the sudden urge to put books on shelves. Something about doing this in the middle of the night, everyone else asleep, seemed fundamentally restorative.
Throughout the piece, Benjamin meditates on the “dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” As we tried to organize our books, and as our books resisted our every attempt to impose coherency, this tension became apparent: fiction/nonfiction? Too binary. Subject matter? Too limiting. Alphabetical by author? Too incoherent. When we moved apartments in Paris, a friend looked at our disorganized shelves, books hanging from the walls and all, and suggested that maybe the best way would be to organize the books by color. But this seemed almost like a cop-out.
Reflecting on Benjamin’s essay, Alberto Manguel describes unpacking as “essentially an expansive and untidy activity.” While the books wait, he writes, “before the new order has been established, they exist in a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden and unexpected alliances or parting from each other incongruously.”
Lifelong enemies Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance, will sit amicably on the same expectant shelf while the many members of the Bloomsbury group will find themselves each exiled to a different “negatively charged region” (as the physicists call it), waiting for the wishful reunion of their particles…
He adds that a book’s resonance changes once it’s been assigned a place:
Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order. My copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth, read for the first time many decades ago, became in its alphabetically ordered section a stern companion of Vercors and Verlaine, ranking higher than Marguerite Yourcenar and Zola but lower than Stendhal and Nathalie Sarraute, all members of the conventional fraternity of French-language literature […] My memory retains the order and classification of my remembered library and performs the rituals as if the physical place still existed. I still keep the key to a door that I will never open again.
The key to a door I will never open again: in other words, to the private life summoned and then suppressed once the books leave our hands to rejoin their “correct” places. Perhaps we’re delaying closing that door: at the moment we have Our Babies, Ourselves next to a book of French verbs next to the Phillips County Historical Review. Each evokes the time and place of its acquisition—a rural library in Arkansas, a gathering with the new father who loaned us the book. (We’ll send it back one of these days, we swear.) As Benjamin writes, “Once you have approached the mountains of cases in order to mine the books from them and bring them to the light of day—or, rather, of night—what memories crowd in upon you.”
As I was revisiting his essay, though, I also became increasingly aware of how different Benjamin’s world seemed from ours. In particular, he writes about the “profound enchantment” of acquiring books. As Marie Kondo would say, they spark joy. Of course we have books like that: they’re the ones that transformed us, alerted us to the world of letters back when we stood firmly on the outside, back when we would never have had the arrogance to imagine ever writing a book ourselves. The books that were mysterious and dangerous and beautiful. Michelle’s Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which she’s lugged across oceans and ten or so apartments. Her poetry, too. My E. P. Thompson, my Natalie Zemon Davis.
But this time around we feel old and grouchy. For the first time in our lives, unpacking books is not a joy. As we tried to find a place for each title, we heard ourselves voicing disappointments. Why did we ship this book across an ocean? Why didn’t we give this one away? There were the overhyped hardbacks we’d bought when they came out, the books we now feel we’ve outgrown. “I’m going to get really into the Taiwan library scene and buy fewer books,” Michelle vowed. Heard that one before, I muttered to myself. “What?” she snapped.
Instead of enchantment, my mind turned to the failures. Books acquired in abortive teaching experiments. My first year teaching in Paris, I assigned Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, thinking the students would connect to the city scenes, and the discussion was a total dud. Nobody connected with his catty observations about F. Scott Fitzgerald. What would it look like, I began to wonder, to organize shelves according to our successes and failures? Beginner’s Arabic—we took lessons with a tutor for about a week: failure. The Good Birth Companion: success? The baby was born! But it was clear that the failures would quickly overwhelm the successes—too many aspirations; don’t even ask Michelle about her Latin grammar books—so I closed off that avenue of thinking.
The dominant category that emerged in its place, one that Benjamin never mentions, is how many books we’ve acquired because of work. Books purchased in arid hotel rooms hosting the book fairs of academic conferences, an attempt to dull the pain of an awful job interview; books received for reviews never published; books for courses I inherited… Work is inevitably tied to dread, anxiety about productivity, sacrifices made (Michelle’s career, for one), and I realized how difficult it is to disentangle a pure love for knowledge with the dread of the professional.
I think Benjamin’s essay is beloved, particularly among academics, not just because it interrogates the profound relationship between order and disorder, but also because it awakens in us nostalgia for another age. Evoking the German romantic tradition of the wanderer searching for truth in the forest, here is Benjamin the scholar trekking through the major cities of Europe, the worldly flâneur in search of books. He acknowledges that this is a privileged existence, easily caricatured as stuffy and disconnected from the “real world.” At the end of his essay, he writes,
O bliss of the collector, bliss of the man of leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the man who has been able to carry on his disreputable existence in the mask of Spitzweg’s “Bookworm.”
How not to recall a time when scholarship and learning were not weighed down by committee meetings, activity reports, and budget requests? But perhaps even then Benjamin was playing on tropes, trying to conjure an image of the solitary writer, responsible only to himself and to Truth. We know from Gershom Scholem’s account of their friendship that Benjamin was embedded in a complex web of friends and foes, riven by political and personal conflicts. Yet he barely mentions his own writerly jealousies or competitiveness, his professional anxieties and conflicts. The only time he talks about his dissatisfaction with the book scene around him is in a single tantalizing line: “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”
When he writes of collecting, Benjamin doesn’t mention works by friends. But most scholars and writers understand that this omission is a myth. If any moment still overwhelmingly sparks joy in our unpacking, it’s coming across books by the friends and teachers who have shaped and changed us. “We need to have a shelf called friend books,” Michelle said, and I immediately nodded. Books, like knowledge itself, spring from communal life—from the exchange of ideas, from encouragement and meals shared, from editors who read our work and archivists who preserve correspondence over time. Placing our friend books side by side, I think of the generosity of the people around us, the labor and doubt and sacrifices they’ve made, and—for the time being—this is the only shelf of ours that makes sense.
* All quotes from Benjamin’s essay come from Harry Zohn’s 1968 translation, included in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, a collection of Benjamin’s essays, edited by Hannah Arendt.
Reader responses to the Taiwan language wars
A dissent from an old friend of Albert’s, a Taiwan native, to last week’s post about language wars in Taiwan. We know many of our readers will disagree with him; we welcome all opinions, so long as they’re voiced respectfully.
So, Albert and I definitely had some heated KMT/DPP arguments back in the day—I guess I’ve moderated somewhat since then. But I'm not here to argue—it's more like I’m taking a second chance to say what I should have said, knowing what I know now.
Currently, I’m constantly worried about the ability of my children to acquire a robust fluency of Mandarin Chinese, and with it a robust identity. I believe language and identity to be inseparable, and therefore, these language wars are existential—it is about cultural survival.
I understand that language is part of identity, and if the project is building a Taiwanese state, then building a Taiwanese identity will require a revival of native dialects as its foundation. It makes perfect sense.
However, coming to my argument—all local languages and cultures are under attack from the dissolving forces of global capitalism. Standardization is simply a competitive advantage. Just as the Qin Shi Huang [the first emperor of a unified China] standardized weights and measures and the written language to better serve the needs of the imperial state, just as the Hellenistic traders of the Eastern Mediterranean spoke Greek for commerce, just as we all define the current time and date based on relative location of the sun to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. It is not ultimately the rearguard KMT you are fighting, but the instrumentalization and flattening of humanity in service of capitalism.
Cultural survival, then, requires holding the ravenous jaws of globalism at arm’s length. And this is where I think Taiwanese nationalists have made a strategic mistake. The wholesale embrace of the leftist Western meme-plex by the Taiwanese left will not result in Taiwanese cultural survival, but, ironically, colonization and permanent second-class citizenship, subordinate to both to their Western sponsors and their Mandarin-culture adversarial foils. A culture defined in opposition to an external entity will forever be subordinate to it. Literally sub-ordinate.
What to do then? An authentic, autonomous culture stands as its own coordinate system. It should cultivate intrinsic attractiveness, value, and depth, and inspire people to join it. Sure, a middle finger to KMT boomers feels good, but the real struggle is the other part. And the real enemy is the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) internet—whose dazzling delights can be yours for the low-low price of losing your children’s cultural identity. Have I already taken the deal? I’m not sure. I hope not.
Albert notes: I’m still working on a response to my friend’s letter, but for now I’d just say that the Taiwanese critique of Mandarin isn’t a recent “embrace of the leftist Western meme-plex.” It has a longer history, rooted in the democracy struggles of the 1970s and 80s. Not all leaders in the “native tongue movement” were Taiwanese nationalists: some were KMT, waishengren who had themselves felt disconnected from their mother tongues, such as Hakka, Shanghainese, or Hunanese. By the 1990s, the multilingual movement gained fairly bipartisan support among a younger generation of legislators.
From our friend Nikka Landau, who taught English in Nan’Ao, a village in the mountains of the beautiful eastern coast of Taiwan:
Teaching English in Nan’Ao it was so clear what a colonizing force I was; if you ever want to see something really creepy, visit the “English Village” in Yilan. But it was also spectacular to be in a community where the elementary school kids I taught spoke Atayal, Taiwanese, Mandarin and were learning English. Talk about multilingual.
On Twitter, Jenna Lynn Cody replies to our piece. She points out that people implementing the “Bilingual 2030” program are acutely aware of Taiwan’s multilingual context. Hear her make a compelling case for the importance of English-language learning on Taiwan Context, a podcast hosted by Courtney Donovan Smith:
And another reader wrote to say that she is soon teaching English in an elementary school as part of the new bilingual policy. We’re excited to hear how it goes!
Book Club: An Ideal Presence in October and Girl, Woman, Other in November
We’ve been so delighted to hear from people interested in the October and November book clubs! Hooray. Please write us if at email@example.com (or just reply to this message) for the zoom link. All are welcome. We shall close the November doodle in a few days and will let you know the date.
October’s pick is An Ideal Presence, written by Argentinian author Eduardo Berti, translated from French by the brilliant Daniel Levin Becker, and published by our favorite independent press, Fern Books. The book is structured as a series of brief accounts from people who work or volunteer in a palliative care unit in Rouen, France. This includes nurses and doctors, as well as aides, porters, a volunteer musician, a volunteer reader, and custodial staff. I know the material might sound depressing—it’s about those who care for the dying, after all—but the straightforward dignity of these caretakers (who also happen to be mostly women) is mesmerizing.
We’re holding two book club dates in October to accommodate readers and create more intimate discussions. The first is Thursday, October 28th, 9 PM EST and the second is Friday, October 29th, 8 PM EST. See you soon!