Readings — From the August 2018 issue

Literary Customs

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From Not to Read, which was published in the UK in April by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Zambra is the author of five novels, as well as short stories and poems. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

I  always take books when I travel, even on short trips. When it’s time to pack, I choose them impulsively, but the decisions follow a kind of logic. For example, I tend to bring two or three novels whose company I feel I need. It’s absurd, it’s romantic, but I just feel safer with two or three novels that I’ve read many times and I always keep close by. I can forget my medicine or the cloth for cleaning my glasses, but I never forget those novels. It would be dangerous to travel without them.

I also bring a book I’ve never read, some large tome that I’m wary of but also think will captivate me once I’m on page 100, and then I won’t be able to put it down. I imagine that I’ll skip appointments and parties, that I’ll see only a couple of monuments because of how absorbed I’ll be by that book. Needless to say, this never happens, and I return home without having advanced beyond the first paragraph; it has become a sacred custom not to read that book.

It was on a plane a few months ago that I read a piece by my friend Rodrigo Olavarría in which he remembers a story from the old magazine Disneylandia that could be applicable here: Huey, Dewey, and Louie invite a cousin—a turkey or a goose—on an outing, and when they get to the countryside it turns out that the cousin’s backpack holds nothing but books.

We shouldn’t be like that turkey or goose. We shouldn’t travel with books, because they take up the space where a second pair of shoes could go, and every trip has a moment when we regret not having a second pair of shoes. We shouldn’t travel with books, moreover, because we end up accumulating more books while we’re traveling. I suspect that’s what the second bed in hotel rooms is for.

Books are more expensive in Chile than in any other country, and so every trip Chileans take becomes at some point an anxious tour of bookshops. Julio Ramón Ribeyro summarizes that kind of outing this way:

I usually leave without buying anything, because right away, at the sight of all those books, my desire to possess extends not only to several possible books but to all books in existence. And if I do happen to buy a book, I leave without any kind of contentment, because its acquisition signifies not one book more but many books less.

My experience is different but equally filled with guilt. I start by identifying titles that would be hard to find in Chile, or whose prices are double or triple in bookshops at home. The problem is that very few books escape those criteria. And so I end up buying a lot, and over it all hangs the annoying doubt of whether I’m actually going to read them.

I’m in Mexico, at the end of a four-month stay. A trip with books, of course. When I was packing I made the same mistakes as always, but at the last minute I decided to lighten my luggage. I took out the big tome, and in the end I flew with only those two or three books without which, as I said, it seems dangerous to set off on a trip.

During my first weeks in Mexico City I became again, as I was in adolescence, a prudent reader who buys only what he is able to read immediately. And I rediscovered, then, the charm of the half-empty shelf. In this sense, our first libraries are exemplary: we have barely ten books, but we know them almost by heart. Over time, though, we lose integrity: the shelves accumulate uncertain volumes, and too frequently we give in to the urge to collect, that marvelous and incurable illness that brings us to treasure first editions or bibliographic rarities or even books that catch our attention with their design, their typography, their size.

In those first days in Mexico, days when I lived with very few books, I got up early, headed out to one of the city’s great bookshops, carefully chose a novel, and went back to my room, anxious to read it right away, in one sitting. Sooner rather than later, though, the distraction returned. For years now I’ve had the habit of combining readings, of submerging myself more or less simultaneously in several books, usually of different natures, as if maliciously making them compete with one another, or as if reading were a mysterious and complex concoction that was prepared, for example, with a hundred morning pages of The Book of Disquiet, three stories by Clarice Lispector in the afternoon, and some poems by César Vallejo before drifting off.

Now, as I am writing, I look uneasily at the books on the shelf: there are four or five that I haven’t read, two I abandoned halfway through, and one immaculate tome that I acquired in a moment of weakness and haven’t even opened. The rest I’ve read, and I like to think that someday I’ll read them again.

For those of us who travel with books, the return is the worst. By the end there is no more space in the bag for trousers or shirts: it has become a small, vacuum-sealed library. The only thing to do to avoid a crisis at the airport is to get rid of a few pounds of clothes.

I like this solution, since the presence of books, for me, has always been associated with the absence of clothes. In my adolescence I would buy books with the money I was given once a year to update my closet—I would buy a couple of shirts secondhand as an alibi, then rummage around happily in the bookshops. Thus I walked around terribly dressed but draped in the very best literature.

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