If you could have raised the roof of my house during my childhood, you would have found twelve people in the room, each with their nose buried in a book and not saying a word.
Sometimes when my cousin Sylvia came to visit me, she would hide me in the bathroom. I wanted to play with her, but if it came at a time when the story I was reading took a twist that makes you bite your nails nervously, I wouldn't have been able to leave her even if an angel had descended from heaven. She'd lock the bolt and I'd sit on the toilet seat, holding my breath, hoping my brothers would hold Sylvia back for a moment while I managed to get a few pages through. After three or four minutes, syncopated and thunderous blows like those of a machine gun startled me. I looked up and saw the door shaking. "Come out right now!" Sylvia demanded. "But I have to go to the bathroom." "Lie! You're reading. Why have I come then?
Sighing, she closed the book, I got up and opened the lock. Sylvia stood guard just outside the door. "You see? I already knew it!” I had to leave my book on a table, glancing at it longingly out of the corner of my eye, and spend the rest of the afternoon playing.
A Christmas without books would have been as sad as a Bethlehem without the Baby Jesus
When I went to Sylvia's house, the first place I visited was the library in the playroom. It wasn't as big or crowded as ours, with its double rows of books and worn spines, but sometimes I found a treasure yet unknown calling to me like honey to a bear. "If you keep reading I won't invite you again," Sylvia threatened, exasperated.
On Three Kings Day, my nine siblings and I received a book each, in addition to toys, costumes, and board games. A Christmas without books would have been as sad as a Bethlehem without the Baby Jesus. I couldn't wait to start mine, which used to be part of a series. The Secret Seven, The Five, Dennis the Menace, and the Karl May novels were among my favorites. Soon he would go on to classics such as Dickens, Jules Verne, El Lazarillo de Tormes or Little Women. Jo inspired me because I also wanted to be a writer.
Barcelona in the USA
The Barcelona writer Isidra Mencos settled in the US in 1992 to study for a doctorate and taught Spanish literature there at the University of California, Berkeley. She published a book of short stories and a critical bibliography by Mercè Rodoreda awarded by the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, as well as numerous articles in American magazines. Her memoir, The Conquest of Pleasure, is due out in the fall of 2022 on She Writes Press. This essay, My Books and Me, published by the Chicago Quarterly Review, was highlighted as "Notable Essay" in the Best American Essays 2019 anthology. The Spanish version is by the author.
Being the seventh of ten, she had the advantage that as she got older she could read my older brothers' books. My tastes matured at a brisk pace. During adolescence I began with the authors of the Latin American boom and my childhood fever as a collector returned. I had to read all of García Márquez's books, not just One Hundred Years of Solitude. All of Vargas Llosa, each one of those volumes of five hundred pages. All Borges, whose stories I reread dozens of times.
My favorite class was Spanish poetry with José Manuel Blecua, a respected researcher who had been a friend of the poets of the Generation of 27
In college I studied Spanish and Latin American literature, with a minor in French literature. My favorite class was an overview of Spanish poetry with Professor José Manuel Blecua, a respected researcher who had been friends with the poets of the Generation of '27. He peppered his lessons with anecdotes of the time he spent with them, like that day he , Lorca and Salinas got on a tram and hung from the door facing the street and reciting poems at the top of their voices.
Blecua was sixty-odd years old. Though he was half deaf and his hands were shaking, he hadn't lost an ounce of his youthful passion for beauty. He often interrupted his lessons to recite poems that he knew by heart or to read them. He was quite a sight, this frail man with his face lit by a dazzling smile, his whole being filled with joy at the poem he was reciting. He would sit me in the front row so I wouldn't miss a single lyric. Through him, I fell in love with the authors of the Golden Age: Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz, Garcilaso, Góngora, Quevedo.
“What kind of trees line the sidewalks of the university on Calle Aribau?” he asked us one day. When no one could answer, he scolded us: "How are you going to appreciate poetry, let alone write it, if you don't know the names of the things around you?"
The Biblioteca de Catalunya became my second home. There I spent hours copying my favorite poems of the troubadours
The Biblioteca de Catalunya became my second home. There I spent hours copying my favorite poems by the twelfth and thirteenth century troubadours onto a blank sheaf of paper. It decorated the corners with elaborate and colorful garlands, replicating a medieval manuscript. Sometimes she fell into a trance as she transformed the leaves into modest jewels. My commitment had no other purpose than to honor the work of those poets of other times who had brought a piece of heaven to palaces and squares when wars, famines and diseases raged. I wish I still had that handmade anthology. As it happened with many other precious objects, I gave it to a friend who would later disappear from my life.
When we broke up, he stayed with the British and German authors, I with the French and Italian.
The first man I lived with, when he was in his early twenties, was just as in love with books as I was. He first caught my eye when he offered me homemade chicken soup after a night of salsa dancing. Since there were no sofas or almost any other furniture in his house, we sat on the blue and white bedspread of his bed, eating the comforting soup and talking about Carpentier until five in the morning. Then came the sex, but that was less important.
Soon we began to live together. Our library grew along with our relationship. With him I explored the classics of European and American literature. Our shelves were filled with Proust, Flaubert, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor, Calvin, Milan Kundera, Kafka, Thomas Mann.
When we broke up two and a half years later, the only possessions it was hard to leave behind were our books. We were not able to separate The Sound and the Fury from As I Lay Dying or The Aleph from Fictions. It would have been like tearing up a family. He stayed with the British and German authors, I with the French and Italians. He fought tooth and nail for Latin American writers. I stayed with the Spanish and was able to keep some boom books that had traveled with me from my childhood home.
On Sant Jordi, men were supposed to give women roses. To hell with them! They gave me books
I had to rebuild my library. Luckily he lived in Barcelona, a city dotted with small bookstores, with vendors who knew as much about literature as a doctor of Arts and Letters. The one I frequented the most was Documenta, a little shop in the heart of the Ramblas, near my house. It had a wonderful selection of foreign literature, classics, and unusual novelties. I could never resist the temptation to buy several books when I went to browse.
There was also the Diada de Sant Jordi, my favorite holiday. The streets were full of stalls with books and red roses. Men were supposed to give women roses and women were supposed to buy books for men or themselves. To hell with the roses! They gave me books.
I had a dispute with my best friend at the time, Enrique, who insisted that one should not bet on quantity but on quality. According to him, it was better to read a book a hundred times, and understand it thoroughly, than to read a hundred different books. I didn't quite agree. My thirst for new stories was insatiable. But since I held him in high esteem, his opinion weighed on me.
During the following Diada de Sant Jordi, I decided to test his theory. I went down Rambla Catalunya, carefully picking up dozens of books, reading the back cover, the author's biography, the first lines, trying to pick just one that made me fall in love. I bought Rayuela, by Julio Cortázar. It had 635 pages; so the chute would last me longer. That day I met Enrique in the afternoon and he proudly told him that he had only bought a book. He gave me approval of him. But my self-control couldn't last. He still had half a library to fill.
My books accompanied me to seven houses and outlived three other boyfriends, but when I moved to the United States, I couldn't take them with me
My books accompanied me to seven houses and outlived three other boyfriends, but when I moved to the United States, I couldn't take them with me.
My mother paid for four boxes to be shipped by ship. I chose part of my collection of Spanish and Latin American literature, because I was going to study for a doctorate on the subject. I also selected the two thick volumes of María Moliner's dictionary. I was fascinated by the quirky organization of it, with related words listed conceptually rather than alphabetically. Every time you looked for one you got lost in a delicious maze. You would emerge twenty minutes later with new ideas fluttering in your brain, and wondering where the time had gone.
Ten years later, during a visit to Spain with my baby, I faced reality. I would never go back
I packed the rest of my collection in boxes and stored them in the third-floor playroom of my parents' summer house. They formed a precarious tower five rows high, six wide and two deep. I said goodbye to them, thinking that I would come back to rescue them in a couple of years. I had no idea that a Ph.D. took six years and I couldn't foresee that I was going to get married and rebuild my life in California.
Ten years later, during a visit to Spain with my four and a half month old baby, I was faced with reality. I would never go back. I would never have a house in Barcelona, with a brand new library. I went up two floors to my parents' summer house and entered the game room I hadn't visited in years to find my friends hiding. I planned to pack some in my suitcase and ship a box of the most memorable titles. The rest I would donate. It wasn't fair to leave them buried.
When I opened the first box, a musty whiff came out of it. I picked up a book. It was Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. The pages were stiff. The back cover had brown stains. I took it to my nose. The musty smell was subtle but unmistakable. A wave of panic washed over me, but I fought it down. I took out another ten or fifteen books and put them on the floor. I started classifying them.
When I opened the first box, a musty whiff came out of it. I picked up a book. It was 'Letters to a young poet', by Rainer Maria Rilke. The pages were stiff. The back cover had brown stains
After a few minutes, my fingers were sticky and the tips were black. My nose itched. I sneezed.
I went downstairs to get a dust rag. When I went up, each step seemed twice as high. I forced myself to continue climbing.
An hour later, with only three boxes open, she was surrounded by mountains of books. Most were to my right, which was the donation group. In front of me, three piles of “send by boat, maybe” bugged me.
I had abandoned the idea of putting some in my suitcase. Its dusty pages and musty smell put me off, but the coup de grace came when a spider slithered out from between the pages of an anthology of English poetry.
I took Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. I had to make another decision. A thousand more were waiting for me. I felt exhausted.
The face of the friend Siddhartha had given me appeared in my mind. Every time I went to Barcelona I met him, and all my other friends from childhood onwards. My vacation had turned into a frantic bumper car ride, one quick collision after another, trying to hit as many people as possible before the bell rang.
During this trip, he had decided not to call some old friends. It was a relief. These loyalty visits were a quickie without an orgasm, like when you mechanically make love to confirm that your relationship is still working and drag a marriage past its prime.
The truth is that I had changed, but these friends were still the same and we no longer had much in common. Like Siddhartha, underlined, reread and appreciated in my youth, they languished in a box; occasionally, when dusting them off, he caught their scent, but he would never read them thoroughly again.
What really affected me was the slow process of unearthing my past. Accept that a part of me had been left behind forever. that hurt
Still, I felt guilty. I was scared to run into them by chance on my one or two day visits to Barcelona. How was I going to justify myself?
Suddenly I realized that what I was doing was pointless. Sending books by ship would cost me more than buying them again on the other side. But what really affected me was the slow process of unearthing my past. Accept that a part of me had been left behind forever. That hurt.
I picked up the books from the floor and stuffed them into the boxes. I left out a stack of photo albums that had also been hibernating for a decade. I flipped through the pages quickly, picking out a handful of images, a cursory imprint of each person who had meant something in my life. The rest went into the recycling bin a block from my house. All those places and times annihilated in just five minutes. Anything important would be etched in my memory, I told myself. I did not know then how treacherous memory is and how ruthless time is.
When I got back from throwing away half a life, I climbed up to the playroom to pick up the dust rag and restack the boxes. Just looking at them was heartbreaking. They stood accusingly, like a stern governess, dressed from head to toe in black, wagging her index finger and shaking their heads disapprovingly. I ran out of the room and down the stairs two at a time. I burst into the living room and announced to my nephews that my books were there, ready to be looted.
Although the memory of my old books sometimes haunts me, I am very busy getting to know the new ones.
Back in California, my library continued to grow. Contemporary literature stuck to my hands like hot wax. I became a member of a book club focused on Caribbean voices that opened up virgin territory for me, the cadence and rhythm of prose flowing alongside my feet when I danced salsa.
I amassed again an entire wall of shelves loaded with books, which traveled with me through five houses, the last one, this one where I find myself writing about them. But our comfortable arrangement could not last.
A few months ago, I rented my office to a lady. Writing took up more space in my life and making less money. I needed another source of income. The rest of the house, with its open floor plan, had no room for my bookshelves.
I had just finished 'The Magic of Order' by Marie Kondo, the latest in a series of books about simplifying your life that I obsess over from time to time.
I had just finished The Magic of Order by Marie Kondo, the latest in a series of books about simplifying your life that I obsess over from time to time. I'd already had the experience of getting rid of my bookcase twice—the first time when my first boyfriend took half of it and the second time when I had to abandon my books in a neglected playroom. He knew he could survive another Inquisition.
I went through my books one by one, wondering if I was going to read them again. I was ruthless. If any of them hadn't made a great impression on me on first reading, get out. The required books for my Ph.D. that I hadn't loved, discarded. Literary theory, now that he was reading for pleasure again, destined for second-hand bookstores. How-to manuals and travel books couldn't compete with the internet.
I got rid of three quarters and the rest I kept in my 3.5 square meter walk-in closet, which now, after applying the same method to all my possessions, contains my clothes, shoes, hats, jewelry, files, photo albums, memorabilia. of family and about two hundred books.
Can't say I don't miss my old friends. Sometimes I catch myself looking for one and regret it when I realize it's gone, but I've usually made my peace with the loss of it.
His absence reminds me of the boyfriend who loved to read and whom I adored for years. I thought we would always have a close friendship, but little by little it moved away
His absence reminds me of that boyfriend who loved reading so much and whom I adored for years. I thought we would always have a close friendship, but little by little it drifted away, like a well-loved ship sailing towards the horizon. If I close my eyes, the smell of vinyl from the seats and the salty aroma of the sea wash over me. I admire the skylights and gleaming cherry cabinets. I savor the freshly caught grilled trout, its firm sheets of white meat separated by a marker of onion, parsley, and lemon. But when I open them again, I only catch a glimpse of a tiny white triangle, bobbing on the waves in the distance.
Although the memory of my old books sometimes haunts me, I am very busy getting to know the new ones. The accumulated batteries under my desk, on top of my nightstand and on the table in the living room betray me. Even if I substitute formal boyfriends for recent whims, we are destined to love each other forever, me and my books.