4: Essay excerpt, “Unpacking My library,” by Walter Benjamin, 1931.
This is a brief excerpt from the beginning of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “Unpacking My Library,” written in 1931. Benjamin wrote the essay after divorcing his wife, and on the occasion of moving out of their house into his own apartment.
In Flying Couch, Amy Kurzweil traces her grandmother’s traumatic history, including the story of having to leave her family and home behind carrying only a single extra pair of underpants. Kurzweil also traces her own journey from childhood to college to young adulthood. In these various settings, Amy and her family have the luxury of owning, displaying, and carrying what would have been an extravagance for her grandmother’s family during the war and the Nazi occupation: books. Books often adorn the background of the contemporary storyline in Flying Couch, sometimes as anonymous rectangular shapes but later, increasingly, as labeled works that clearly influenced the author/artist on her journey. Throughout Flying Couch, books represent everything from the search for one’s Jewish identity to the preservation of a family history.
Suggested Activities: Read the excerpt from Benjamin. Ask students if they can pinpoint the tone of the piece: is it nostalgic? Optimistic? A mix of these? Why might Walter Benjamin have felt compelled to write about the process of unpacking his library at this moment in his life? Do you think he had a particular audience in mind for this piece?
Invite students to create a list of three to four pieces of media (these can include books, films, or television shows) that have played a significant role in their lives, for any reason at all. Ask them to write down those that immediately come to mind, without worrying too much about the reasons why. Once they have each come up with a list, have them write the associations they have with each. They should focus, as Benjamin does, mainly on memories, images, and feelings. Have them share their “media libraries” in pairs or small groups, and compare and contrast their different associations. What do these lists say about the roles that books, film, and television have had on their lives, both individually and as a classroom community?
You can also have students search for scenes in Flying Couch where books are visible. Have them look up the books, if they can read the titles and author names. Why might Kurzweil have chosen to include so many images of books in her book? Why these books?
Source: Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (Boston: Mariner Books, 2019) 1.