To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.
—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,”
Does the order of books determine the order of things?
—Homi Bhabha, “Unpacking My Library Again,”
Rinaldo Walcott introduced me to Austin Clarke during the early stages of my PhD studies at York University. I visited Austin Clarke in order to help me think about Black geographies. At that time, I was imagining the tensions between Black Diasporic geographies (globally scattered populations not necessarily visible through diagrammatic representation; the Black Atlantic) and colonial or Eurocentric geographies (diagrammatic representation; positivist cartographies). Working in the fields of Human Geography and Black Studies, I explored how traditional mapping practices, such as documenting where Black people are, often erased, misrepresented, or watered down the complex spaces and places inhabited by Black Diasporic communities; I looked to the work of Black intellectuals and cultural producers drew attention to how they challenged these misrepresentations. Early in the research program, I ambitiously wanted to “map” the Black Diaspora. I wanted to provide a kind of diagrammatic representation without the mandate for conquest. This, I soon learned, was not a helpful orienting frame for my project—although it was a frame that required an attempt and failure.
While visiting Austin Clarke I fell in love with his bookshelves. I took photographs of the bookshelves. The bookshelves consisted of built-ins, smaller cabinets, some with glass, bookracks; coffee tables and the floor also served as book storage. The books on the built-ins were mostly hardcover, mostly first editions. There were hundreds of them. Some of Austin Clarke’s own first edition texts were in one of the smaller bookracks—The Prime Minister, Proud Empires. There were doubles: two copies of Cambridge, by Caryl Phillips, for example. There were photographs within the shelves as well as paintings and sketches and drawings. Photographs of family and friends. His daughter’s university degree hung beside the built-ins on the east side. Norman Mailer, D’Janet Sears, Michael Ondaatje, a sign reading “Austin’s Archives.” Leroi Jones. The History of East Africa. Voices of a Black Nation. The collected book series on Bernard Montgomery. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 by Winthrop Jordan. Eight Men. Zora Neale Hurston. Pushkin. CLR James, Cricket. Tutu by Miles Davis…just one visible vinyl record cover, facing forward: Tutu.
I asked Austin Clarke how he organized his bookshelves. He told me he tried to organize the books by genre and according to the geographic location of the author. So poetry from the USA would go here, and British histories would go there, and novels from Canada would be beside that. A biography of Margaret Laurence is one shelf above the biographies of Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin. Poetry from Canada might be, though, way over there, on the other side of the room.
Following Austin Clarke’s coordinates—genre and geography—I studied the shelves. There were patterns: V.S. Naipaul was shelved and collected alongside other texts that held the coordinates: Trinidad, novel. Winston Churchill, too; his coordinates were: England, biography. T.S. Elliot was in multiple places: US, UK, poetry, biography, plays/drama. T.S. Elliot moves. Richard Wright moves, too. I saw (what I thought were) inconsistencies: Fidel and Religion beside Pushkin beside Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile beside Juneteenth. The coordinates—genre and geography—were imperfect. Then: the spines of Wilson Harris. The ornate dust jackets. The Four Banks of the River of Space.
In his essay on book collecting, “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin tells us that books invite a mood, “not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation.” A few paragraphs later Benjamin writes that we have a relationship to books, books as objects, “which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.” If we think Benjamin’s insights on books (as objects of unhinged anticipation and love scene) alongside Austin Clarke’s coordinates (genre and geography) modernity unfurls. Flâneur. Plantation. Auction. Baruch Spinoza. North Africa. Vladimir Lenin. Jamaica. Poet. Cuba. Novel. Plot. Read. Read for more than words.
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison teaches us to notice that our narrative worlds are “wholly racialized.” She teaches us that plot-making is tied to meditations on a freedom that is enacted as racial terror. She shows us how to read and come to know the novel outside of itself. Toni Morrison allows us to think about how the novel rests on other (black) worlds without necessarily naming or humanizing those worlds. Her instruction asks us, I think, to see and read Austin Clarke’s bookshelves outside of themselves. The coordinates, because they are imperfect, open up a way to also read vertically down, instead of across and in frame. Diagonal. Naipaul’s island is undone, Churchill’s too. Glass encasings are no longer suffocating. Visiting Austin Clarke I learned that bookshelves are coordinates for what we cannot see but need to notice. I learned to read for unruly diasporic collaborations rather than comfortable diagrammatic patterns. I learned that books, as Dionne Brand put it in A Map to the Door of No Return, “leave much more than words.” I learned that our books, and book collections, are sites of ambivalence, and that the books—the spines, the dust jackets, the pages, the volumes shelved imperfectly—are beautiful texts of anticipation. Genre and geography, buckling.
Katherine McKittrick is Associate Professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her research is interdisciplinary attends to the links between theories of race, liberation, and creative texts. Katherine authored Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press), co-edited (with Clyde Woods) Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (Between the Lines), and edited Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Duke University Press). Katherine is also editor of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography.