Reading and Hunting

Johnny Depp as Lucas Corso, the ’book detective’, in The Dumas Club – Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel adapted for the screen [as The Ninth Gate] by Roman Polanski. (Captura)
14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 1 January 2023 — Long before I changed countries, I had become a more or less civilised vagabond. Like a frenzied dog, I would scour the streets of my city in search of books, smuggle in a cigarette and find a quiet corner to devour them. This kind of habit doesn’t leave you, it gets worse over the years. At the moment however, it’s cold, and in order to find my books I have to put on a raincoat, a la Humphrey Bogart, grab an umbrella and sniff out the bookshops of my new city.

I continue to use my old tricks and keep sharpening my instincts.I enjoy haggling as if it were a hunt, an intellectual sport, and if the bookseller is a cultured type, courteous, and if he knows what he has, and what he’s talking about, then this promises to be the most stimulating of duels. Any respectable bibliophile knows that if he finds what he’s looking for, he has to contain the tension that runs down his spine — that childish joy he feels at every new discovery — and prepare for combat.

The bookseller, old pirate, comes up to you immediately. “Ah”, you declare casually, “I see you’ve got this copy”. “Indeed”, he replies, manipulatively, “yesterday we cleared out the library of a deceased person and found this, and this”. You don’t counter-attack straight away, you leave the book where it is, but half-hidden — there’s always someone ready to come sniffing around the books that you’ve left alone — and continue to prowl the bookshelves.

“Are you going to take it then?”, the bookseller insists suddenly, from behind your back. “Best not”, you reply, “look at it, the cover’s broken and at least four pages are creased”. “Let me have a look”, he says, taking the book in his hands, weighing it up as he turn its pages, which rustle at his touch. “No it’s a good book! Take it! Go on!” “Another time”, you say. “Another time it may not still be here”, he reasons.

You have to smile: that old ruse is an ancient and effective one. The enemy – as the bookseller knows well – is time, or, more specifically, that anonymous other potential reader who knows the book’s value as well as we do. The threat of this possibility troubles us for a moment and our adversary has taken us for defeated. He throws us an ultimatum: “You can pay me later”.

Protocol establishes a certain struggle, but he negotiates a few alternatives — delayed payment, a deposit, guarantee, even a curse — until finally you accept, you put the book under your raincoat and you go out, trying to dodge the downpour with your umbrella.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I owe my bookseller thirty euros. I’ve yet to pay for my yellowing Lumen edition of Ulysses, in two volumes, and Ship of Fools, by Cristina Peri Rossi — which I don’t even like. I maintain that all this compulsive and innocent buying, pathological at times, would have been just the same in any other country or in any other currency, be it in pesos, dollars, drachmas or rupees.

The habit of hunting for books and haggling on the price over a coffee with my bookseller is a behaviour for which there’s no cure. The game is addictive: I read in order to write, I write in order to earn a living, and when I do earn something — apart from the money I need just to survive — I spend it all on books. In today’s cynical and fast-paced world this ritual stops me from getting old.

Besides, the reason behind the book-mania is so personal and deep that it justifies any and every excess. Someone who is obliged to be on the move, to keep changing their bed and their city, keeps their books in boxes, either somewhere else far away, or turns themself — rucksack on shoulder — into a portable library. I always have to keep certain titles, certain authors, close to me, because if I don’t, I’m lost.

Available in a mental space, in an order which is known only to myself, in each country I recreate the library that I lost on the journey. I have always lived like this, fully aware that any attachment towards books — towards any object — is useless. Once a nomad, always a nomad.

Despite the warnings, I am surrounded and protected by a sea of books. In just one year their number has multiplied to a level of fanaticism, I’ve read them, thumbed through them and protected them, knowing that one day — the day I die, or long before — someone will disperse and overturn what I have created. This thought — the true end of a world — obsesses everyone who has made reading their religion.

We gamble this secret mythology, which reminds us that we are still young, irreducible and doglike, in each duel with our bookseller. It doesn’t matter who wins. What we keep under our raincoat, to shelter it from the drizzle… is a time-machine.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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