viernes, enero 09, 2009
The Guardian convierte texto de Báez en cita obligada sobre el tema
Como he insistido, el éxito de Báez ha llegado a Inglaterra, donde su libro es una referencia para todos los periodistas en sus reflexiones. Basta leer:
Read on... it's good for the soul
At a time when bibliophiles are an endangered species, these books about books tell us why it's reading that makes us human
The Observer, Sunday 19 October 2008
The title of Margaret Willes's book about bibliophiles, Reading Matters (Yale £19.99), is both a slick pun and a stern admonition: reading matters because it is in danger of becoming a lost art, like calligraphy or stenography. We live, as Henry Hitchings says in How To Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read (John Murray £12.99), a book which he ironically addresses to non-readers, in a period not so much of illiteracy as of alliteracy. We surf, browse, scavenge information from cybernetic sources and gut words to send curt txt msgs, but we lack the time and patience to retire into books, adjusting to their steady, sedentary tempo and burying ourselves in the remembered experience they store and guard.
Willes extols this imperilled activity in a study of the book trade that begins in the benighted medieval days when only one book existed - the so-called 'good book', with its store of commandments and pre-emptive parables. Luckily, later readers and collectors refused to accept the Bible's monopoly of truth, and treasured books for defiantly secular reasons. Samuel Pepys loitered in bookshops to flirt with nubile fellow-customers; Jane Austen's heroines joined libraries to acquire and assert an intellectual freedom that was otherwise forbidden.
For Willes's most obsessive collectors, books do more than furnish rooms: they change the nature of those rooms, turning a house into a multi-cameral head. Thomas Jefferson - whose personal collection became the basis of the global Library of Congress - installed modular, portable shelves in his home at Monticello, mobilising his books to match the associative leaps of thought. In Lincoln's Inn Fields, the architect John Soane lined his breakfast room with glazed bookshelves, piling spare volumes on tables or under windows. Social activities like eating or conversing were edged into corners: like a book, Soane's house was the retreat of a solitary, preoccupied thinker.
The grand consummation of Willes's narrative arrives in the 1930s, when Penguin democratised ownership of books. Consumerism, which ended by glutting the world with pulp fiction, began with high, idealistic hopes. Allen Lane shocked stuffy booksellers by dispensing paperbacks from a 'Penguincubator', a slot-machine which disgorged volumes by Shaw or HG Wells when you fed it a sixpence.
Lane's warehouse was the crypt of a Marylebone church (designed, as it happens, by Soane). Petty cash was stuffed into tombs with metal doors, and 'books were hurled down chutes from the churchyard, packed in brown paper parcels and sent upwards in an ancient lift formerly used for bodies'. Reading here did more than brighten life; it overcame death, briskly quickening cadavers.
In their books of what used to be known as bookchat, Henry Hitchings and John Sutherland deal with less noble uses of literature. Hitchings treats it as a social accessory, a bluffer's currency that can help you win the competitive games that yuppies play at dinner parties. In Sutherland's often touching memoir about his adolescent reading during the 1950s, Magic Moments (Profile £10.99), literature's value is as a vault of smut. Sutherland spends hours locating a missing, unreadably filthy page of Ulysses in Colchester Reference Library; he and his schoolmates obtain a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover and frenetically read it, one-handed, in their dormitory.
Hitchings, of course, has read all the books that his anti-intellectual cronies can't be bothered with. He is an efficient crammer, who even teaches his dopey pupils how to pronounce the tricky names of foreign fellows like Proust and Flaubert. But the irony of Hitchings' enterprise misfires. Why does a serious scholar, the author of a superb account of Samuel Johnson's compilation of his dictionary, bother pretending to be as much of a philistine as his oafish, affluent friends? Because no publisher these days would pay for a book in praise of great books, Hitchings is compelled to adopt a subtler, sneakier tactic, mocking what he actually holds dear.
At his best, he drops his blokey persona and writes like the enthusiast for literature that he truly and a little shamefacedly is. He has a fine line in appreciative fervour, and is fond of calling literary flourishes 'gorgeous': he applies the adjective to Dante's 'fortunate isles laden with golden fruit' and to the rollicking obscenity of Molly Bloom in Ulysses. He also finds some 'gorgeously expressive passages' in the Bible, which would have scandalised the medieval clerics who refused to view that sacred book as a work of art. His real concern isn't arming people to talk about books they haven't read; secretly he aims to turn them into readers. But too often an edgy, evasive jocularity returns to make light of this mission. In England, Hitchings says, it's not done to talk about feelings, and it's equally poor form to have feelings about books.
John Sutherland has fewer compunctions about describing his delight. But whereas Hitchings sings the praises of Homer and Virgil, Sutherland can only recall his callow affection for the patriotic blather of Nicholas Monsarrat and the sleazy violence of James Hadley Chase. He writes well, however, about the tedium of adolescence in the days before electronic entertainment, when boredom made readers of us all. 'Books,' he says, 'filled the yawning chasms between the young person's daily reveille and lights out.' I, too, was grateful for the 'vastly long' volumes published by Penguin Classics: empty aeons of idle time could now be filled in by toiling through Cervantes or Rabelais. It's not an unworthy motive for loving books.
The frivolity of Hitchings and the nostalgia of Sutherland seem trivial when set against the urgent, even desperate anthems for books written by the Venezuelan librarian Fernando Báez. In his deprived childhood, reading helped Báez to forget his hunger, fear and misery; he was inconsolable when the flooded Orinoco river carried off the cheap volumes he treasured. His A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (Atlas £14.99) grieves over such calamities and assails the vandals who have deliberately ransacked libraries - Calvinist iconoclasts, Nazi book-burners, and the crass American generals who allowed looters to pillage the museums and galleries of Baghdad. For Báez, books cannot be reduced to adjuncts of social and sexual display, as they are by a 'hedge-fund guru' known to Hitchings who bones up on 'the latest cool fiction so he can impress women at parties'. Books encapsulate our collective memory: if they are destroyed, how will we know what it means to be human?
A great book, in Milton's estimation, was 'the precious life-blood of a master spirit', and nourished the soul of whoever read it. Sam Savage's fable Firmin (Weidenfeld £10.99), about a bibliophilic rat who eats his way through a Boston second-hand bookshop, literalises Milton's metaphor. Firmin chews paper because there is no other food available. Absorbing his diet of words, he somehow learns how to read, which enables him to roam the world without leaving home: he travels up an African river with Marlow in quest of Kurtz and cheekily fondles Tolstoy's Natasha as he waltzes with her. Despite his mawkish cuteness, Firmin has a sharply critical bite. He dislikes 'rat literature' on principle, despises Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, and contemptuously pisses on Stuart Little.
As paper becomes obsolete and printed words disappear into digits flickering on a screen, literature needs such cultists. Báez quotes a grateful tribute to the profession they shared by his fellow librarian Borges, who described the book as the most astonishing of all the instruments invented by man. Other technologies augment our limbs or organs: the plough fortifies our arm, the microscope and telephone extend our eyes and ears. But the book is a tool that allows us to exercise the imagination. As Firmin discovers when he hops across oceans and abridges centuries, reading multiplies life.