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A Library Deconstructed

  • By Thomas Chatterton WIlliams
  • Issue 20
  • Shelf Life

“I am not sure that I exist, actually,” Borges observed. “I am all the writers that I have read.” That thought came to mind on a recent morning as I set off from my father’s library, some 15,000 volumes that muscle into every corner of my parent’s suburban New Jersey split-level home, including, sometimes, the bathrooms, stairs, and landings. The accumulation, over a lifetime, of so many books is one form of personal narrative—perhaps the sincerest. In my father’s case, his shelves were testimony to the distance he’d traveled out of a segregated Texas house without a book in it other than the Bible. In my case, the smaller but nonetheless hefty collection I’d amassed over the years was an outward manifestation of the degree to which I’d internalized my father’s belief in the written word.

In 2015, Princeton University acquired the entirety of Derrida’s working library, a dense collection of 13,800 books and other materials in multiple languages that originally resided on a series of floor-to-ceiling white shelves in the philosopher’s home in the Parisian suburb of Ris Orangis. When I arrived at Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the basement of Princeton’s Firestone Library, I took my visitor’s pass and descended to the immaculate glassed-in research area, where scholars were silently poring over God-knows-what treasures. I thoroughly washed my hands then, with the help of a librarian, selected a box of books to be summoned up from storage for my perusal. Derrida did more than any other writer to divorce texts themselves from their interpretations and plausible meanings, from their common-sense coherence, and here I was trying to put it all back together.

The first box I reviewed held an assortment that included a French edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, a seminal work in Derrida’s intellectual development. That text was not falling apart so much as crumbling. No matter how delicately I handled it, Kant-dust accumulated under my fingernails and larger bits flaked off from the pages. I swept them under the table, slipping the book back into its plastic sleeve before I destroyed it. I pulled out several different works on phenomenology by Husserl, as well as some that appeared to have been sent to Derrida by lesser-known colleagues seeking his affirmation. In most of the texts there was noticeable underlining and marginalia, circled words and dog-eared pages. In one there was an otherwise blank piece of paper with what looked like the beginnings of a friendly letter unfurling across it until a typo became irreparable—Dearest Rainer, It’s wonderfulhearing from you… It had been repurposed as a bookmark.

What struck me most of all about the various books I came across, however, was the frequency with which their early sections would be marked densely and then the markings would thin out towards the middle and vanish completely by the endings. The man whose method, according to the consensus-mind of Wikipedia, “consisted in demonstrating all the forms and varieties of the originary complexity of semiotics, and their multiple consequences in many fields … by conducting thorough, careful, sensitive, and yet transformational readings of philosophical and literary texts, with an ear to what in those texts runs counter to their apparent systematicity (structural unity) or intended sense (authorial genesis),” appears to have been something of a skimmer.

The personal library in this way is a lot like a mirror: not so much an extension of the self as a reflection. Yet the image could only ever be partial. Sitting there in Princeton with Derrida’s books packed up, piecemeal, in cardboard boxes, and having to ask a patient research assistant whenever I wished to go further, it felt less and less like looking over the great man’s shoulder—as the University news bulletin announcing the acquisition had phrased it—and more like sifting through a handful of scattered shards to guess the shape of a glass that was broken.

The more I sifted, though, the more the endeavor seemed fitting. There was something oddly gratifying about the very material process of handling that splintered, decontextualized and literally deconstructed mass of documents once belonging to a French Jew of Spanish descent from Algeria who made such a mark on universities like this one all over America. Perhaps the fragmented library of this wandering, inscrutable man says more that is accurate about its owner now than when it was intact, forty-five minutes outside of Paris. That’s one interpretation.

Thomas Chatterton Williams is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and the recipient of a Berlin Prize.

A view of part of Jacques Derrida's library in his home in Ris Orangis, 2001
Photograph by Andrew Bush