The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Travelling With Books: From Alejandro Zambra's Not To Read
The Quietus , May 12th, 2018 07:53

In an exclusive extract from Alejandro Zambra's new book for Fitzcarraldo Editions, Not To Read, "Latin America's new literary Star" (New York Times) ponders the travails of travelling with a library

Alejandro Zambra, credit: Mabel Maldonado

I always take books when I travel, even on short trips. When it’s time to pack, I choose them fairly impulsively, but the decisions do 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 can’t help it: I just feel safer with those two or three novels that I’ve read many times and that I always keep close by. I can forget my favourite medicine or the cloth for cleaning eyeglasses, but I never forget those novels. I feel 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 that I also think will captivate me once I’m on page one hundred, and I won’t be able to put it down. I have the feeling I’ll skip appointments and parties, that I’ll only see a few plazas and a couple of monuments because of how absorbed I’ll be by that book I hadn’t believed in and that has now utterly engrossed me. Needless to say, of course, this never happens, and I return home without having gotten beyond the first paragraph, because it has also become a sacred custom not to read it.

I often bring books by friends on trips, almost always single-spaced typescripts, in small print, that I read or devour on the plane to wherever I’m going, hunkered down in my second-class seat, pretty uncomfortable but wrapped in the wonder those books tend to arouse in me. Because although I write books, it always astonishes me that people write books. It’s strange to imagine the people one loves laboriously gathering words together, absent from the world for such a long time.

It was, come to think of it, on a plane a few months ago that I read a piece by my friend Rodrigo Olavarría in which he remembers an episode from the old magazine Disneylandia that could be applicable here: Huey, Dewey and Louie invite a cousin – a turkey or a goose, accord- ing to Rodrigo – 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 Rodrigo Olavarría talks about. 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 hugely regret not having a second pair of shoes. We shouldn’t travel with books, moreover, because we always end up accumulating more books when we’re travelling. I suspect that’s what the second bed is for. I used to find it confusing: I’d arrive at those small, dark hotels, and when I entered the room I thought that instead of those two narrow beds, I could have used a single, more spacious one. But then I understood that the second bed must be for storing all the new books that keep adding up.

I don’t think there is any other country where books are as expensive as they are in Chile, and so every trip we 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 guilty. I start out focusing on 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 almost always do, in any case, even if it takes me months or years.

There are also the books received as gifts, usually from their authors. Some writers give away their books as though they were business cards: along with their name and email we find ourselves, suddenly, with thirty- something poems or fifteen stories or a very long novel, and there arises a strange impression of abundance or excess: we’ve just met this person, and already we have a generous entry into their obsessions, their desires and fears.

Then there are those who give you their books hoping that you’ll reciprocate with one of your own, which is certainly awkward, and there are also those who don’t give you anything, but somehow manage to insinuate that they have a few copies left and could sell them to you at a reasonable price. But my favourites are those modest souls who refuse to give you their books, seemingly resolved that no one should ever read them. I have a fond memory of a Peruvian author whom I asked where I could find his books, and he told me not to bother, because they were terrible; instead he gave me publications by other poets he considered to be good.

Alejandro Zambra, credit: Mabel Maldonado

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, quite reasonably, I decided to lighten my luggage. I even took out the big tome, and in the end I flew only with 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 only buys 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 marvellous 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.

One terrible variation of this illness comes when we buy books knowing not only that we’re not going to read them, but that we wouldn’t know how to read them because they are written in languages that are mostly unknown to us. But it’s hard to resist the beauty of an edition of Kawabata in Japanese, for example. Many years ago now a friend gave me a copy in German of The Clown, Heinrich Böll’s beautiful novel, which I carefully filed on a shelf where it has slept since then, although sometimes I look at the spine just to give myself the satisfaction of recognising the only words I understand in German: Ansichten eines Clowns.

But I was going to talk about those first days in Mexico, days when I lived, again, with very few books. I got up early, headed out to one of the city’s great book- shops, 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 each other, or as if reading were a mysterious and complex concoction that was pre- pared, for example, with one 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. I won’t commit the offence of confessing the number of books I’ve collected on this trip. Suffice to say that there are a lot, and I sincerely wonder how I’m going to get them home. Sometimes I catch myself looking for some criteria that would allow me to leave some of them in Mexico. But I don’t want to. I’m sure that I will bring the whole inventory. I don’t want to give any of them up, I think, with warm-hearted greed.

Should I put them all on the computer, modernize these habits, turn cunning and portable? It does not escape me that this is the article of an old person, shamelessly bourgeois. And I am impressed that readers can move about with files now instead of books. But it shouldn’t impress me. I grew up reading photocopies, and although my eyes hurt when I read on a screen, the truth is that my eyes always hurt. Really, it seems miraculous that readers can search online for .zip or .rar files that contain rare books, expensive books, books they otherwise wouldn’t be able to read. And I’m still astonished that all those books can travel discreetly in a laptop or on those devices that are so light and well- designed. But what can I do: I travel with books.

Without a doubt, for those of us who travel with books, the return is the worst. In the end there is no more space for trousers or shirts: the bag has become a small, vacuum-sealed library.

A few days ago a friend told me that he used to get rid of a few kilos of clothes so as to avoid any crises at the airport, and this confession really surprised me because I do exactly the same thing.

I like this solution, since the presence of books, for me, has always been associated with the absence of clothes. In my adolescence I got used to buying books with the money I was given once a year to update my closet; I bought a couple of shirts second-hand as an alibi, and then I threw myself happily into rummaging around in the bookshops, so that I always walked around terribly dressed but contentedly draped in the very best literature.

December 2010

Alejandro Zambra, Not To Read, is available from Fitzcarraldo Editions