A Look Inside Hannah Arendt’s Personal Library: Download Marginalia from 90 Books (Heidegger, Kant, Marx & More)


It does seem pos­si­ble, I think, to over­val­ue the sig­nif­i­cance of a writer’s library to his or her own lit­er­ary pro­duc­tions. We all hold on to books that have long since ceased to have any pull on us, and lose track of books that have great­ly influ­enced us. What we keep or don’t keep can be as much a mat­ter of hap­pen­stance or sen­ti­ment as delib­er­ate per­son­al archiv­ing. But while we may not always be con­scious cura­tors of our lives’ effects, those effects still speak for us when we are gone in ways we may nev­er have intend­ed. In the case of famous—and famous­ly controversial—thinkers like Han­nah Arendt, what is left behind will always con­sti­tute a body of evi­dence. And in some cases—such as that of Arendt’s teacher and one­time lover Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger’s glar­ing­ly anti-Semit­ic Black Note­books—the evi­dence can be irrev­o­ca­bly damn­ing.

Heidegger Early Greek

In Arendt’s case, we have no such smok­ing gun to sub­stan­ti­ate argu­ments that, despite her own back­ground, Arendt was anti-Jew­ish and blamed the vic­tims of the Holo­caust. Dur­ing the so-called “Eich­mann wars” in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a tor­rent of crit­i­cism bom­bard­ed Arendt’s Eich­mann in Jerusalem, the com­pi­la­tion of dis­patch­es she penned as an observ­er of the Nazi arch-bureaucrat’s tri­al. These days, writes Corey Robin in The Nation, “while the con­tro­ver­sy over Eich­mann remains, the con­tro­ver­sial­ists have moved on.” The debate now seems more cen­tered on Arendt’s book itself than on her moti­va­tions. What do Arendt’s obser­va­tions reveal to us today about the log­ic of total­i­tar­i­an­ism and geno­ci­dal state actions? One way to approach the ques­tions of mean­ing in Eich­mann, and in her mon­u­men­tal The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism, is to exam­ine the sources of her thought—and her use of those sources.

Arendt Nicomachean

Arendt’s library—much of it on view online thanks to Bard col­lege—offers us a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to do just that, not only by giv­ing us access to the spe­cif­ic edi­tions and trans­la­tions that she her­self read and saved (for what­ev­er rea­son), but also by offer­ing insight into what Arendt con­sid­ered impor­tant enough in those texts to under­line and anno­tate. In Bard’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tion of “Arendt Mar­gin­a­lia”—selec­tions of her anno­tat­ed books in down­load­able PDFs—we see a polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy informed by Aris­to­tle (see a page from her copy of Nico­machean Ethics above), Pla­to, and Kant, but also by con­ser­v­a­tive Ger­man polit­i­cal the­o­rist Carl Schmitt, a mem­ber and active sup­port­er of Nazism, and of course, by Hei­deg­ger, whose work occu­pies a cen­tral place in her library: in Ger­man and Eng­lish (like his Ear­ly Greek Think­ing above, inscribed by the trans­la­tor), and in pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources.

While it may go too far to claim, as promi­nent schol­ar Bernard Wasser­stein did in 2009, that an exam­i­na­tion of Arendt’s sources shows her inter­nal­iz­ing the val­ues of Nazis and anti-Semi­tes, the pre­pon­der­ance of con­ser­v­a­tive Ger­man thinkers in her per­son­al library does give us a sense of her intel­lec­tu­al lean­ings. But we can­not draw broad con­clu­sions from a cur­so­ry sur­vey of a life­time of read­ing and re-read­ing, though we do see a par­tic­u­lar­ly Aris­totelian strain in her think­ing: that the indi­vid­ual is only as healthy as his or her polit­i­cal cul­ture. What schol­ars of Arendt will find in Bard’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tion are ample clues to the devel­op­ment and evo­lu­tion of her phi­los­o­phy over time. What lay read­ers will find is the out­line of a course on the sources of Arendt-ian thought, includ­ing not only Greeks and Ger­mans, but the Amer­i­can poet Robert Low­ell, who wrote a glow­ing pro­file of Arendt and con­tributed at least four signed books of his to her library.

I say “at least” because the Bard dig­i­tal col­lec­tion is yet incom­plete, rep­re­sent­ing only a por­tion of the phys­i­cal media in the college’s phys­i­cal archive of “approx­i­mate­ly 4,000 vol­umes, ephemera and pam­phlets that made up the library in Han­nah Arendt’s last apart­ment in New York City.” What we don’t have online are books inscribed to her by Jew­ish schol­ar and mys­tic Ger­shom Scholem, by W.H. Auden and Ran­dall Jar­rell, and many oth­ers. Nonethe­less the “Arendt Mar­gin­a­lia” gives us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to peer into a writer and scholar’s process, and see her wres­tle with the thought of her pre­de­ces­sors and con­tem­po­raries. The full Arendt col­lec­tion gives us even more to sift through, includ­ing pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence and record­ings of pub­lic speech­es. The dig­i­ti­za­tion of these sources offers many oppor­tu­ni­ties for those who can­not trav­el to New York and access the phys­i­cal archives to delve into Arendt’s intel­lec­tu­al world in ways pre­vi­ous­ly only avail­able to pro­fes­sion­al aca­d­e­mics.

Relat­ed Con­tents:

Enter the Han­nah Arendt Archives & Dis­cov­er Rare Audio Lec­tures, Man­u­scripts, Mar­gin­a­lia, Let­ters, Post­cards & More

Han­nah Arendt Dis­cuss­es Phi­los­o­phy, Pol­i­tics & Eich­mann in Rare 1964 TV Inter­view

Han­nah Arendt’s Orig­i­nal Arti­cles on “the Banal­i­ty of Evil” in the New York­er Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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