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FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2007

The thinker

December 09, 2007|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

In the last decade, Harvard University Press has issued, in a series of massive tomes, the collected works of the German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, a process that reached some sort of dizzy apotheosis in 1999 with the 1,000-plus-page edition of notes and fragments for "The Arcades Project," one of the most famous books never written.

This year, Schocken has repackaged "Illuminations: Essays and Reflections" and "Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings," the two collections that in 1968 and 1978 -- through the auspices of Hannah Arendt -- introduced this infinitely suggestive writer to readers in English. Here are the famous essays on book collecting, storytelling, Kafka, Proust and surrealism -- and the sentences that ring with aphoristic power. "Every passion borders on the chaotic." "Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience." "Every epoch appears to itself inescapably modern." "To a true collector the acquisition of a book is its rebirth." "He who has once begun to open the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments." And so on and so on.

Benjamin is as quotable as William Blake; his belief that everything in the world carries a hidden message, and his obsessive quest to delve deep into the kernel of those meanings, turns him into a poet as much as a critic. The corkscrew twist of his thought process is sometimes impossible to follow, but so many sections are illuminated by brilliant lightning that he feels constantly inspiring. And his themes -- impermanence, the chaos of memory, the impoverishment of experience, the impossibility of communicating any emotion and the necessity to try to do so -- seem prescient, more relevant now than when he wrote of them.

Benjamin died in southern France in 1940, taking a despairing overdose of morphine after failing to cross the Spanish border. During the rise of the Nazis, he had ignored his friend Gerhard Scholem's pleas that he move to Palestine. Had he made it out of Europe and to America, the kaleidoscopic identities and erased memories of L.A. would surely have drawn him like a bear to a honey pot, as Norman Klein beautifully suggests in a section of his book "The History of Forgetting."

I was riding the bus the other day reading "Illuminations" when the homeboy sitting behind me leaned over and squinted at the cover, a brilliant design by Peter Mendelsund that features a magnified section of some fictional city's map in white, black and glowing orange. "Cool-looking book," the kid said, a moment that Benjamin, the scholar of the streets of Berlin, Paris and Marseilles, might have appreciated. A connection was made, and an unexpected window opened for a few seconds on Lincoln Boulevard. "Not only books but copies of books have their fates," Benjamin wrote in "Unpacking My Library," one of the pieces in "Illuminations."

The fate of his books is that they are now enveloped in ever-denser layers of anecdote, legend and meaning. He's felt essential for a long time; now he's wrapped in hip design too.

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