14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 31 December 2023 – In a freezing bookshop in Burgos; with an antiques dealer in Salamanca; talking to a bookseller in Seville; awaiting the post from a miserly bookseller from La Rioja; rooting through a hundred stalls at the Madrid fair; unpacking packages that arrive from Cuba: to narrate my year is to narrate my books. In each case I know how much they cost, where I bought them, and what they brought to me that was new to my life and to my library.
A sporting spirit brings a reader to make lists – not only of the books they’ve read but also the ones they’ve acquired, the ones they’ve lost and the ones most wanted. My list – which contains all of the above – is divided into months, and it resembles a list of diary entries of where I found each book, as well as any notes or reflections that seemed worth jotting down at the time. It’s not a bad habit to have if you’re going to want some content for future use in novels or in columns.
In my diary – a lovely little Moleskine – I also describe meals, or the weather, people I’ve met and places visited. Observations from a bewildered point of view, because, for someone who has left their native country, although they might have a bed and a roof over their head, beyond that, everything appears exotic. The reader’s diary is not short of heroes and villains, unexpected luxuries and moments of extreme hardship. (In interviews, Borges said that he had known extreme poverty. “When, Borges?”, Soler Serrano asked him in 1980. “The poverty of not getting to the end of the month”, the blind man replied.)
People who read, they get up every day with an impulse that asks them “to save Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, Havana cigars, penicillin, the iPhone and the Kalashnikov”
People who read, they get up every day with the sense of responsibility described by María Stepánova: it’s an impulse that asks them “to save Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, Havana cigars, penicillin, the iPhone and the Kalashnikov”. Stepánova wanted the same thing as Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald and George Steiner – all stateless people whom I have read with some attention this year.
I discovered Sebald via his book Austerlitz, (published by Anagrama) in Burgos, just after hitting my head on a ceiling beam: I was on the second floor [third floor, to Americans] of a bookshop, and I’d just had to climb a narrow staircase in order to reach it. When I recovered, I saw the spine of the book. Pain and illnesses also form part of memory’s arsenal. A simple example is a strip of esomeprazol, a pill with literary prestige – Arturo Belano and Roberto Bolaño took them – which marks the rhythm of my own week.
But if anything has defined my ups and downs this year it has been the hunt for the catalogue of a publisher which doesn’t exist: The Kingdom of Redonda. There are 40 coloured volumes, published by Javier Marías, with a sharpened arrow on the cover, by little known but always exceptional authors. These are cult books, other-worldly objects, which are disappearing from the bookshops. The quest for them and for reading them has shaped even my travel.
I travelled through Castilla y León by train whilst reading Los Recuerdos de este fusilero (Memories of this Fusilier), the tale of a British soldier who made this same journey on foot during the Napoleonic Wars. I travelled to Seville in search of The Religion of a Physician – the classic essay by Sir Thomas Browne – but I couldn’t find it. I eventually ended up haggling in a raised voice over the price of a copy, with a bookshop owner in Logroño. I discovered, in The Fall of Constantinople (which inspired more than a few passages from The Lord of the Rings), that the Ottomans were planning to do what Cortés actually did, shortly after, on the other side of the ocean – he dragged his ships overland, because the sea was closed by a “thick chain”, similar to the one that blocked the way of English ships during the Siege of Havana in 1762. As I’ve already said, other-worldly books, for readers from another world.
Like an inquisitive dog, a reader will always try to see what book a potential ’partner in crime’ has under his arm
Reading has become like a secret sect: its members recognise one another in trains and cafés, they show kinship for one another through the simple fact of each having the same book in their hands. Like an inquisitive dog, a reader will always try to see what book a potential ’partner in crime’ has under his arm. And if he recognises it, at the risk of appearing indiscreet, he can’t avoid breaking the ice (or at least enjoy the coincidence in silence if he’s too timid).
Winter, of endearing and indifferent books like Lolita; Spring, of Simic, Paz and Abilio Estévez; tropical August, with Divine Bodies by Cabrera Infante and The Colour of Summer by Arenas; Autumn, of classics – Jenofonte, Seneca, Homer and of obsession with Steiner, the “lay rabbi” whose books offer so much calm and optimism. Tonight, that which awaits me is The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence, the unforgettable Lawrence of Arabia; and for desserts an English edition of King Solomon’s Mines.
I’ll spend the close of the year reading, or talking about books. Or, at least surrounded by them, which – in these times of people being wrapped up in radicalism or poverty, political correctness or intellectual destitution – continue to be the best of company. And, obviously, with a cigar and a glass of something to hand. No need to overdo it.
Translated by Ricardo Recluso
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