Sunday, December 30, 2018

What books tell you about your life

My joy-inducing book collection. 
After the painters got done, shortly before Christmas, I expected that putting the books back on the shelves would be a mindless task but then, as I slowed down to dust off each one— and briefly think back why I had bought it and kept it—it became an unexpected exercise in introspection. The books whispered to me about the various stages of my life, my aspirations, what I'd achieved and what didn't work out, and reminded me why I like to read. 

My library is not a large one but rather what's survived a couple of moves, including the big one from Chicago to San Miguel, when we did a lot of last-minute purging of stuff, including books. Reading in my Amazon tablet also has dramatically reduced my impulse buying of ink-and-paper books. Plus there are no bookstores in San Miguel or nearby to tempt me with a cappuccino, a cushy chair and the new-print aroma of thousands of new books and magazines  waiting to be leafed through.

One of the first books I discovered during this latest perusal of my collection was a faded copy of the "The New Cuban Reader," wrapped in a battered plastic bag, along with a tiny prayer book, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, from my First Communion.

The Reader had a lovely inscription, in flawless Palmer Method script: "Congratulations to Alfredín Lanier! His teachers, Bros. Leonardo and Miguel, congratulate him with all their hearts, for having learned to read in such short time. Santa Clara, January 26, 1953."  Seems I was hooked on reading from an early age.  

"To school!" the blonde girl says 
Some time ago, when I showed the Reader to eagle-eyed Stew, he noticed a glaring incongruity: All the children pictured are white and many are blond, as if this slim textbook had been destined for schools in Norway or Iceland.

What happened to the large population of African-Cubans, the mulattos of various hues or the sizable population of Chinese-Cubans whose forebears were brought to island as slaves? 

The answer, I suspect, lies in a sort of racial don't-ask-don't-tell on the part of the Cuban middle class. In fact, at my solidly middle-class Catholic school, I can't remember even one black classmate, and only one Asian boy, last-named Ley and forever nicknamed "El Chino Ley."

recall learning to read quite early, certainly by age five, maybe even earlier, thanks in no small part to relentless pressure from my mom, an elementary school teacher, and an early prototype of what would be called today a "tiger mom." She was determined to turbo-charge the education of her only child. I even skipped second grade, with disastrous results: I had to repeat third grade, a damaging experience that later in life provided much fodder for therapy, and still claws at my self-esteem.

Stereotypes aside, Salgari made
 for great childhood reading.
My dad was a reticent autodidact who barely finished high school, but possessed limitless knowledge, or so it seemed to me, on a myriad topics, from auto mechanics, space travel, animals, carpentry, chemistry, scientific trivia, literature and classical music.

I credit his quiet encouragement for instilling in me a love of words and books, and even teaching me the value of curiosity. He subscribed to newspapers and magazines, including the Spanish-language editions of Reader's Digest and Life magazine. There was always something new to read lying around the house.

Though he never read to me before going to sleep, as soon as he noticed I could read he discreetly began buying me books, most memorably those by the Italian adventure writer Emilio Salgari, whose homey prose took me on flights to exotic locales, inhabited by pirates, pharaohs, maharajahs, and even Indians and Mexicans duking it out in his "Las Fronteras del Far West." As soon as I finished one, a new one mysteriously appeared. I wish I'd kept one of them.

Rockets and space travel, at that time unimaginable fantasies, also were part of my reading repertoire, and I imagine my dad's imagination. By age ten or so, I remember drawing rockets, fueled by firecracker powder, a small camera and a small parachute to return the payload back to earth, a precursor to a Cuban space program that, literally, never got off the ground. 
Today, when I need to prune my book collection, I defer to the advice of Japanese decluttering madonna Marie Kondo, who urges her millions of followers—mostly Americans whose homes are choking with crap—to consider which objects, in my case books, bring "joy" to their lives. Those that do, you keep, the rest go. Silly, but it's a helpful tack.

Good books, even some college textbooks, can indeed rekindle transcendent memories of a great class taught by a great teacher. I still have, for example, the two volumes of Donald Kagan's "Problems in Ancient History." Instead of a thicket of dates and odd names soon forgotten, Kagan presents history in terms of questions and riddles some yet to be conclusively solved. This course was taught by one Bro. Austin O'Malley whose sense of humor, despite a pronounced stutter, made the material even more memorable. I doubt I'll reread Kagan—now retired from Yale—but his books are part of my permanent collection.

Another keeper college textbook is "Understanding the Old Testament," by Bernhard W. Anderson, which discusses the historical and archeological context of the first part of the Bible. Along with that, I've kept the "Oxford Annotated Bible" with lots of underlines and marginalia suggesting that, at one point in my life, I was far more interested in ol' time religion than I am now.

Other books are so beautifully written that  I often reread a line or a paragraph, in awe of the author's genius, all the while wishing I could write half as well. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of "The Namesake" and "The Interpreter of Maladies," about the Indian immigrant experience in America, falls in this category. Those books you don't dare let go. Chilean magical realist writer Isabel Allende's books are also keepers.

More recent is "Educated" a memoir by Tara Westover, which I read in the electronic version. Stew has a standard for deciding whether a book is worth reading: He has to be "hooked" by the first fifty or sixty pages of the story. "Educated" does that and much more; both her prose and her life story soar and hold your attention right up to the last page.

"Educated" also makes a case for buying "real" books, that one can keep on the shelf and leaf through periodically to remember the joy of reading them. Somehow electronic books, which anymore are not that much cheaper, and reside in Jeff Bezos' ethereal Amazon cloud, are more likely to be forgotten.

Hotel Oloffson, the gingerbread grande dame at
 the center Graham Greene's "The Comedians", and
which survived the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. 
As a former reporter, I cherish Graham Greene's novels, most of which are a mix of fiction, foreign reporting and travelogue. I have eleven of his books plus a collection of short stories, and they brought me back to some of my travels.

Reading Greene is a double kick. His writing and characters are memorable but I also get the  vicarious, I-wish-I'd-been-there thrill, as in "The Comedians" (Haiti); "Our Man in Havana"; "The Power and the Glory" (Mexico); and "The Quiet American" (Vietnam).

When visiting Haiti, some twenty years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the gingerbread Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene stayed and whose swimming pool plays a role in the opening chapters of "The Comedians." Greene's books are not throwaways.

A large portion of my book collection, I found, falls in the category of voyeurism. Two shelves-plus hold gardening books, most of which I drooled over when I first got them but seldom actually read, cover-to-cover. Many I still leaf through occasionally, to rev up my limited horticultural vision.

So are the three-dozen photography books on another shelf. I go through them occasionally, and ooh and ahh about the beautiful shots I could get if I were a National Geographic photographer with $10,000 dollars worth of equipment and the talent to properly use it.

If you're wondering how Stew figures in our book collection, let me say he probably reads more than I, but goes for the murder-mysteries-suspense-and-general-mayhem genre. This sustains his annoying habit of picking out the culprit in mystery films and TV programs about fifteen minutes after the opening credits, while I'm still scratching my head at the end.

He mostly avoids non-fiction about current events and politics, insisting that reading for him is an escape from reality, and a morning's worth of The New York Times and Washington Post provides far more than his daily requirement of really alarming news. And when Stew finishes a mystery paperback, he doesn't get sentimental about tossing it or donating to the shelf full of English-language hand-me-downs outside the office of our mail service.

By contrast, my collection is jammed with non-fiction about politics, history and travel guides, including, naturally, about twenty or thirty books about Cuba. Some of these supposedly "non-fiction" books  should more properly be filed under "premature prognostication": "Castro's Final Hour: The Secret Story Behind the Coming Downfall of Communist Cuba" by Andres Oppenheimer, published 26 years ago, and "After Fidel," by Brian Latell, published in 2005. I can imagine the Bearded One giggling in his grave at the mention of these and many other premature obits.

Ikebana: beautiful but
incomprehensible. 
A few other books in my collection illustrate my insatiable curiosity, which a psychiatrist probably would rather describe it as either Attention Deficit Disorder or Acute Tendency to Piss Away Money at Bookstores.

How else would one explain my having copies of "Ikebana: Japanese Flower Arrangement" and "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies"?

Let me try.

The Ikebana book brings back the joyful memory of a course I took at an Asian tchotchkes store, near my home in Chicago, owned by of Iva Toguri D'Aquino, known during World War II as Tokyo Rose, and who was falsely accused and convicted of treason, and stripped of her American citizenship. Toguri was formally pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977 and the story of  her indomitable fight to put her life and reputation back together remains gripping, especially since I remember her as a small and shy person who so much seemed to be hiding in her store.

Iva Toguri's shop on Belmont Avenue in Chicago
The flower-arranging course was inspirational too, albeit quite mystifying. The teacher—an elegant, middle-aged Japanese woman, as delicate and beautiful as her minimalist floral creations—could not speak a word of English. She mostly pointed at her arrangements, said something in Japanese and giggled nervously. Her classes, though, were entrancing as we watched her pick out a flower, a piece of straw and a leaf and magically transform it into something that was pure art.

The memory of that course, and the Toguri story, are worth keeping. I'm hanging on to the book, and the two ikebana vases I bought along with it.

My interest in chicken coops arose from reading about the hellish conditions in which chickens are raised in factory farms, and also from Stew's complaints about the puny size of eggs sold here. In the States you might get to choose from medium, large, extra-large and Jumbo-sized eggs but in Mexico they come only in one size: Mexican-size.

So I bought two books, about nine years ago, one about building coops, the other on raising chickens, to start our own egg production. Stew sighed and rolled his eyes, but our gardener Félix was ready to go at it. We never figured out, though, where to find the fancy breeds of big-ass American chickens capable of laying such enormous eggs. This idea didn't prosper, but it might. Meanwhile we'll buy organic eggs that are still puny, but supposedly laid by happy hens roaming around somewhere in Mexico. I'm keeping the books, just in case. 

The compulsion to buy books one may never fully read, or read at all, has a name: tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that one has purchased but not yet read. I found this out by reading, of course. It sounds a bit like a compulsion or mental affliction, like collecting stray cats, but it's not. It's a good intellectual exercise, and nothing to be ashamed of, according to partakers of the hobby. I have a friend in Chicago who must have four hundred cookbooks, most of which he hasn't read, but he is still a great cook. The books must telepathically inspire him in the kitchen. 

I can't say I'll ever reach the point of acquiring books by the thousands. But I'm keeping the chicken and ikebana books, along with another surprising find in my bookshelf: a copy of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"—in Spanish, no less—that someone gave me as a gift during one of my trips to Cuba.

Holding this dog-eared book, in a plastic bag, brought me a strange joy, though I must tell you a secret: This late in life, I'm far more likely to raise chickens or practice ikebana than tackle Joyce's impenetrable prose, in Spanish.

***

Bonus reading about books:

Donald Trump's and Barack Obama's favorite books. Alarming but hardly surprising, as told to Fortune magazine:  http://fortune.com/2018/12/24/trump-obama-book-recommendations/


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