Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Paper Companion

The merits of books are many and seldom exaggerated. They have the capacity to entertain, educate, enrich, and exponentially enhance us. Few mediums are as versatile or as enduring. Books adapt; they have become commercial in a capitalist state and digital in a technological one. They can drive social change, or subvert it. School librarians have long touted the catchphrase “books can take you anywhere,” capturing the imaginations of young readers with the promise of exotic, hard-bound adventures, branding literature as a figurative paper airplane. I can affirm from years of experience in working with them that a librarian never lies with regard to a book, and indeed literature does have a unique gift for evoking a vast range of landscapes, both real and invented, but a trip by book and trip by booking are two very different experiences, both rich and meaningful in their own peculiar ways. There exist places on earth which are beyond the breadth of any language to describe, and images and experiences in books unmatched by the wonders of the physical world. I have found that when I see a new place I am overcome by a craving for books that will help me understand that new environment, to introduce me to unique ideas about that place that I mightn’t have had on my own. I’m referring more to fictional literature than non-fiction, but of course guide-books fit the bill as well. The reverse is equally true; when I read about a new place I invariably follow chapter one by a 45 minute booking site marathon searching for an affordable way to get there, and scouring my calendar for a moment when I might be able to see it for myself.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
This is a short list of some books that are dear to me for the meaning they brought to place I once went, or a place I one day hope to see.
  • The Shadow of the Wind (La Sombra del Viento)

The Shadow of the Wind had to be the first item on this list. Written by Spanish author Carlos Ruíz Zafón, the language of this novel is not painfully literary, but it is somehow hauntingly beautiful both in Spanish and in English. It’s a story about a young man coming of age in Barcelona during the long and difficult regime of Franco. It was once called “a love letter to books,” and in the Barcelona described by Ruíz Zafón, a little bit of magic isn’t unreasonable. It is followed by two equally beautiful, funny, and thrilling novels called The Angel’s Game (El Juego del Angel), and The Prisoner of Heaven (El Prisionero del Cielo). One of my favorite quotes from The Shadow of the Wind is as follows; “…few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in out memory.” I have it hanging on my desk at work to remind me why I work in a library.  I never made it to Barcelona on my trip to Spain, but I look forward to seeing it someday and remembering the special sort of magic realized by the author, and shared by all of the readers of this Cemetery of Forgotten Books series.
A shot of my very tidy desk.
  • The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho brings some of my favorite places in the world to life. It’s the story of a boy who sets out from Andalusía to cross the world in search of a treasure. I feel strongly about this book because it calls to mind the truth that all we travelers are children at heart searching the world for the next great treasure, be it a new friend, an incredible photograph, and irreplicable experience, or simply the best tiramisu you could ever taste (Tip: it’s at the restaurant furthest from the carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence). Santiago, a young shepherd by trade crosses Morocco and Egypt in his quest, and becomes wise along the way. “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” This quote was meaningful for me, and has a strong relationship with the drive many of us feel to travel, and see the world. 

  • Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua para Chocolate)

Someone who hasn’t been to Mexico might not realize that it is a place where magic really exists. The strong influence of Roman Catholicism which, over the course of history has absorbed aspects of many indigenous customs has resulted in a decidedly open-minded attitude towards the supernatural among Mexicans. When I say "magic" I’m referring more to a sense of possibility that might be less narrow than that of someone living in the United States. The city where I lived in Mexico was called Guanajuato–it was a colonial city built following the conquest of Mexico by Spain for the purpose of mining silver. In Guanajuato there are hundreds of “callejones,” or small alleywas that are all unique, and usually have interesting or unexpected names like “Callejón del Infierno,” or “Callejón del Beso.” Each of these alleyways has its own legend–a story that describes how it got its name, and the legends are well-known to most of the locals. Most of the stories are strongly influenced by religion, and superstition. In many cases figures like witches, or demons even appear. Tourists can tour  the alleyways with the “callejoneada,” a group of minstrals who sing, and re-enact the legends of the various callejones. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel comunicates the unique sense of wonder with which all life is imbued in Mexico. It is the story of Tita, and her personal struggle between love and tradition. I feel that it communicates a lot about Mexican culture. I liked the idea “the simple truth is that truth doesn’t exist. It all depends on one’s point of view.”

  • Life of Pi

Yann Martel's coming-of-age adventure novel is both fantastic and fantastical and spans decades and continents alike. While most of the book takes place both in Canada and India, the story emphasizes the protagonists spiritual journey over his physical one. The central plot device is the voyage by life-boat of a boy and several zoo animals through the Pacific Ocean from a sinking freight ship having embarked from India to the coast of Mexico. Over the course of the narrative Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel discovers his own personal strength explores his spirituality. Hinduism plays a prominent role, and reading about Pi's childhood in India made me long to visit it--Christianity and Islam are also visited by Pi in his effort to "love God." More than anything Life of Pi explores the narrative of life; an idea expressed eloquently by Pi when he explains “The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn't that make life a story?”

My thought here is basically, that while books have the ability to “transport” a reader anywhere, that they also have an incredible strength as a travel companion, and are likely to enrich your experience tremendously regardless of where on the globe you land. Have you ever read a book that made you want to see a new place, or been somewhere that gave you a thirst for local fiction?


Laura Adler said...

Great post, and I love that quote from The Shadow of the Wind

The books of Willa Cather make me long for the wide open spaces of Cather's Nebraska.

Linda K. said...

Years ago I had an opportunity to travel to Agatha Christie country and ride a first class train compartment across the countryside outside of London. The book "The 4:50 from Paddington" or, as the British title is known, "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw" came alive for me. Riding in the dark and seeing another train pass on the next set of rails brought the story alive to me.

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