Book review: ‘Illuminations’ by Walter Benjamin

An eclectic collection of high-brow essays.

‘Illuminations’ by Walter Benjamin

I’d been meaning to read some Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) for a few years, and finally decided to get round to it having read a little more about him in Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence. Not knowing which book to go for, I went for this essay collection.

I found Illuminations a bit of a curate’s egg. Some of the essays were wonderful. Some—primarily ones about literary figures I either don’t know, or don’t appreciate—did little for me. And one essay completely lost me, although I mean to have another go at it some time as it concerned an interesting subject, the philosophy of history, and I think reading it more than once will help.

Among the essays I really enjoyed, was an excellent piece about being an incorrigible book collector. I empathised with this one. There was also a thoughtful essay on literary translation—a subject that has begun to interest me, as I found myself over the last year or so reading a surprisingly large number of books by or about German authors (including this one).

The other standout essay was Benjamin’s famous The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, written long before the digital era, which seems even more relevant these days.

Despite finding this collection something of a mixed bag, the essays I enjoyed I enjoyed very much indeed. So I’ll probably give Walter Benjamin a second shot in future.

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By Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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