Max Fattal / Sun Associate Editor

June 10, 2024

FATTAL | Let’s Unpack My Library: An Ode to the Books Unread

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Every good library needs a Bible — 

so here’s yours. 


Except, there’s a problem. This otherwise untouched copy of East of Eden isn’t in my library — that is, not on my bookshelves. Instead, it’s in a pile atop my dresser: a graveyard of books I own, and know I must one day read, but cannot envision myself ever starting. Some too traumatic, others knowably difficult; some that just never seem to catch my eye, others perpetually planted atop my reading list. I’m back at home, surrounded by artifacts of a person I struggle to recognize, and I’m digging through ground zero, my “library.”  

As I examine, I’ve entered a sort of new “mirror stage” for pretentious adults. After all, what is a collection if not a projection of self? And there are few demographics with a worse conception thereof than 21-year-olds (I, for one, am on my third attempt at reinvention this year). So, then, observing my library — reexamining the detritus of shopping sprees and events of consumption and analysis, along with classes and gifts and inheritances — may aid me in rediscovering an “Ideal-I.”

For the most part, the library functions well as (auto)biography. One can watch the progression from model congress pre-politician twerp into obnoxious would-be English major. You can trace the semester I spent furiously devouring Russian literature; the one where I was obsessed with Yugoslavia. You can find books acquired while visiting family in London, and others passed down from cousins at home. These books, mostly read, form a clear image of a person, even if the projection is imperfect. But what to do about the graveyard, the death pile? Those books can’t be me, can they? I haven’t read them or internalized them. I didn’t even purchase many of them and the ones that I did get often found themselves bought as an afterthought, the second or third thing in my cart. My unread books, though undoubtedly significant of something, are what of me? 

At Cornell, I don’t tend to buy many books — typically I opt to check them out rather than ordering online or trying my luck at Autumn Leaves. The death pile is temporary, even if there’s something deeply embarrassing about returning a book unread. In the end, they’ll all end up back in the stacks, and most unremembered. There’s also the virtual death pile. A friend who uses Apple Books sent me a screenshot of her digitized library last week: Her death pile includes not just books unstarted, but those unfinished — in many ways it is a perfect reflection of self in that it offers progress bars with every item. But e-books are again low stakes. Deletion is easier and less psychologically consuming than the process of selling, donating or throwing away a hard copy of a book. For all intents and purposes, the physical library (mine at least) does not shrink. 

In the eyes of Walter Benjamin, the unread section of the library is not simply alright, but necessary for the proper collector. He writes of an attempt to fill his collection only with unread books; for him, acquiring and then not reading books “is the oldest thing in the world.” Ask Benjamin. I have no problem. In fact, the death pile that so troubles me may be the purest part of my collection.  

Yet, I cannot help but find Benjamin’s explanation somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s the lack of a collector’s instinct, but even Benjamin identifies that the relation between book and owner is intimate — that the books define self. And the collection is extrinsic: It is not just how I see myself, but how I am seen. I tend to notice the books people own and display; it carries some significance in my understanding of a person. No, if the collection is the self, then an unread collection is something of a funhouse mirror, deliberately distorting that projection out of recognizability. 

In my last act as a temporary New Yorker, at least for the week, I went to the Regal Union Square to watch Hit Man. To some extent, emphasizing the pop-psychoanalysis of Richard Linklater’s brilliant, dark and sexy screwball sendoff would be to misstate the film’s appeal. Its interrogation of selfhood gets largely relegated to a classic romcom format — can people change? Well, as long as Adria Arjona and Glen Powell are involved. At the same time, there’s something desperately true in Powell’s turn as the chameleonic undercover Hit Manin gliding seamlessly from archetype to archetype to conform to the imaginations of his would-be clients, his sense of immutable self begins to disintegrate.

 In a stage of reinvention, fruitlessly attempting hyper-awareness of each and every event in which I am perceived, I find the constant code-switches to individual conformities understandable. Powell, though disbelieving in his ability to “change” (whatever that means), remains confident that he can exist as needed for others. And by the end, he becomes a synthesis of his most popular characters; a popularity defined internally and externally.

I think the false Powell — the ones he doesn’t see as him — are like the library. Unfinished books and all, the collection represents that idealized self of all things to all people: the canonical books an “educated” person reads for class; the recommendations felt so strongly that they were purchased and gifted (even noted, as above) by friends and intimates; the books passed down that tie a person to their family; and — of course — the books a person purchased out of a sense of should, left unread out of a lack of want. Thus, I find my Ideal-I as the projected self that has read and internalized each and every page contained in my collection. One might aspire to that ability to attribute Biblical status not to one novel, but to any piece of the library. Would that I could simply say that the library is me.  

I will not be reading East of Eden this week: My list of unread Barbara Johnson books (not to mention the thus inspired Baudelaires) is too long for that. And the idea of taking an anti-Benjamin approach, that is purchasing only books that I have read, is an absurdity. That said, I still find the library as an aspirational collection, a possibility of self, to be beautiful. Just as with the mirror stage, no one fully achieves their Ideal-I, but the pursuit becomes the human condition. I can and should keep collecting, keep chipping away and keep examining for some vain pursuit of identification.

Max Fattal is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They* can be reached at [email protected].

Let’s Unpack That is an arts column that traverses autocriticism and borderline psychotic hyperfixation through the lenses of pseudo-intellectualism and film analysis. It runs occasionally throughout the year.