In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “Unpacking My Library.” As the title suggests, it’s a meditation on books, but it’s not about books as works of literature or as pieces of writing. Instead it’s about books as material objects, physical things with intricate histories based on where they’ve been, histories which, so he argues, are intertwined with personal narratives, narratives of lives lived in search of volumes of volumes. In the essay Benjamin writes things like “This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions” and “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” He also connects books to space and place when he recalls “memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseltwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me.” But perhaps most poignantly, he closes the essay with this reflection: “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”
In 2002 or so, my oldest sister moved to San Francisco. She must’ve been 23 or 24, which made me about 17. Though my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut is by no means a backwater, and indeed as I got older I spent more and more time escaping home to New York and to Boston, at the time, visiting my cool older sister in California was still an exciting and novel opportunity to get away from my parents. (This is not, however, to discount the coolness of my other sister, also older, who lent me her ID to get my lip pierced when I visited her in the otherwise more mundane city of Providence, Rhode Island.) When I did finally visit, I’m sure I ate lots of delicious foods and I’m sure I saw tons of priceless art, but what I remember, indeed the only thing on my absolute-must-see list, was City Lights Bookstore.
City Lights is located at 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s historically Italian North Beach neighborhood. It was founded in 1953 by Peter D. Martin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and it rose to prominence as a “literary meetingplace” for members of the Beat Generation like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and dozens of lesser known others. Indeed it was City Lights Publishing that first put out Ginsberg’s landmark poem Howl, a work that is now commemorated not only in literary memory and cultural history but also in “Howl” t-shirts and baby onesies. Today City Lights is as much a tourist trap as it is a place where, as Ferlinghetti suggested, “the public were being invited, in person and in books, to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern,” but either way there’s no doubt that the site has an aura about it. Though independent bookstores mean something different in a post-Amazon age, as far as we have come from the 1950s this place maintains residual meanings based on what it has been. With its eclectic, often radical, selection of fiction and non, it is easily idealized, even now, as an ongoing site for those great literary and philosophical conversations.
So to me, at 17, City Lights was it. I was enamored with Kerouac, could recite from memory the famous lines from On the Road: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” And I was in love with Ginsberg, writing a college admissions essay that rewrote Keats’s “On Looking into Chapman’s Homer” as “On Looking into Ginsberg’s Howl.” To be at the place where so much of this started, where so much of it happened… I was awed, to say the least. I had chills.
One of the things I love most about City Lights is how it lives and breathes. It sells more than the black and white copies of Howl and Kaddish, sells more than reprints of On the Road or The Dharma Bums. It sells contemporary fiction and critical theory. It has a whole section devoted to historiography, and another not for music in general but for blues and r ‘n’ b specifically. It sells the cutting edge of recent scholarship as well as the history of literary forms. It constructs the legacy of the Beat Generation as both more and less political, both more and less aesthetic than the original founders.
During my visit, I bought a small pile of books—probably 4 or 5, maybe half a dozen—but my memory of what they were is hazy. I think that’s where I bought the screenplay to Apocalypse Now, one of my favorite movies at the time. But the book I know I bought there is one by Georges Perec titled Life: A User’s Manual. Though there are markings in the first few pages of the book, implying that I did at one time at least try to read the 500 page tome, I can’t remember anything about it, except that I was charmed by its title when I sat on the floor at City Lights in North Beach, San Francisco while visiting my sister. So, like Walter Benjamin, rather than the book being defined by what it says, by what is written inside, the book is defined for me by where it comes from and who I was when I bought it. I was a teenager, and a year before I’d been so incapacitatingly depressed that I’d dropped out of school. Traveling to San Francisco was no small feat, and undoubtedly part of the feat was convincing my parents to let me go in the first place. A user’s manual to life, it seemed, could be a handy thing to have as I tried to recover from everything I’d been through.
The thing is, then, that other than its provenance and its title, there’s really no reason for me to be so attached to this book. While other books have come and gone, this one has been packed and shelved, repacked and reshelved something like a dozen times. It came with me from Connecticut to Philadelphia and followed me through 4 different apartments there. Then it came to Austin, Texas and now it sits, in my Chicago apartment, between Red Stick Men, a collection of short stories by a former professor of mine, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Having never read more than the first few pages, it is clearly the object’s narrative or its place in my narrative, that I value enough to keep it moving. It’s own narrative, the one that starts “Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous way…” is largely irrelevant to mine. I like it for reasons unrelated to the words on the pages, the words written by Perec and translated by David Bellos. It is its objecthood, and my intimate possession thereof wherein lies its meaning, wherein I live.
After that first trip, I visited San Francisco at least once more when I came for my sister’s wedding when I was 22. Then, this month, at 29, I came back to visit my four year old niece and one year old nephew. Though I stopped in at City Lights, my North Beach destination this time was a site around the corner, the Beat Museum at 540 Broadway.
Not everyone likes museums like this one. Here the whole collection is on display—things piled in display cases and photos plastered on walls—regardless of how well it makes any overarching argument or how convincingly it tells a coherent narrative. Here there are few spectacular items. There are no original manuscripts or confidential correspondence; the artifacts on display did not, by and large, play a pivotal part in History with a capital H. Here descriptive labels sometimes ramble on, other times are absent altogether. Here display cases are mixed and matched, perhaps relics of abandoned department stores, perhaps leftovers from a dying museum.
But personally I like these museums best and I like them because of their apparent amateurism. Indeed, in a Benjaminian sense, I like them because I can see the curator and the collector in the way he writes about his objects and, of course, in the objects themselves. I’m not interested in the illusion of objectivity supplied by professionally trained curators and vast teams of exhibit designers, but prefer a fragmented, subjective narrative, a narrative as much of Jerry Cimino, the founder and curator, as of the Beat Generation. Indeed these splintered narratives are, I think, more faithful to how we as individuals access the past than any coherent timeline can be, and thus I like seeing the historiographic and curatorial seams. I like large, professional institutions too, but I’m not drawn into them they way I am to sites like Beat Museum where we find a unique intimacy with the creator/curator/librarian and his objects.
In one corner of the first floor there is a panel titled “Beat Bookshelves.” It’s not an actual bookshelf, but is an index of influences on Kerouac, Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs enumerated and alphabetized as a booklist. It tells us “Kerouac was reading Marcel Proust and James Joyce when he developed ‘spontaneous prose’—and so inspired was Burroughs by Jack Black’s You Can’t Win that he used it as a blueprint for his first novel, Junky. The contents of a writer’s bookshelf speaks volumes about his influences and creative process.” The lists are primarily classics. Conrad, Melville, Joyce for Kerouac. Blake, Keats, Whitman for Ginsberg. But regardless of who is featured, the argument, a very Benjaminian argument, remains: books can tell you about people as much as people can tell you about books.
Beyond these bookshelves, The Beat Museum is the product of decades of collection and though it includes artifacts like Jack Kerouac’s coat and Allen Ginsberg’s typewriter, the core of the collection is Cimino’s books. There are first, second and third editions of Howl. There are mass market paperbacks of The Dharma Bums. There are, and these are my favorites, pulp novels from The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman to North Beach Girl by John Trinian and The Beat Generation by Albert Zugsmith. The cover of North Beach Girl asks “Where did she belong, this girl called Erin? What did she want?” while The Beat Generation declares itself “the shocking and revealing novel of a generation gone wild.” Though we aren’t privy to the stories behind these volumes and their accumulation by Cimino and the museum, we are, I think, encouraged to imagine their former lives and their former owners from point of purchase, perhaps at City Lights, to being resold at auctions and bookstands, ebay and Amazon. These are books that you look at and wonder where they’ve been.
We are, in other words, encouraged to unpack this library both in a Benjaminian sense and in the sense of unraveling meaning. How, we might ask, are these objects reawakened, reanimated by both Cimino the collector, and this, the institution, the museum? They are now more than Benjamin’s library but are declared meaningful in a broader sense, in the sense of embodying our collective memory and preserving our communal heritage. What’s more, the museum’s mission is “to promote the values of tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live an authentic life.” Lofty goals for such a small museum, and yet that’s what museums, at their best, do. They propose that material objects can tell us, can teach us, something about the world, about how we see the world. This museum, like so many museums, tells us as much about how Cimino wants us to see the world than it does about how we already see it.
Like any good museum, the flow of the Beat Museum ultimately leaves us in a gift shop (it actually starts there too.) This one offers many of the same tomes as City Lights including multiple editions of On the Road and the familiar 5 inch pocket poets edition of Howl, but unlike City Lights, alongside brand new books the Beat Museum sells vintage volumes too. The shop invites the collector in and the books ask to be packed and unpacked, possessed and handled, read and owned.
Mabel Rosenheck is a doctoral candidate in media studies at Northwestern University. Her research blog can be found at This Is Your Museum Speaking.