“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops,” wrote Doris Lessing in the introduction to The Golden Notebook (1962). That post-modernist novel famously pieces a life back together through multiple, juxtaposed experiences in and outside time and consciousness, through and because of writing, as it seeks to create a single coherent narrative out of the individual and sociohistorical fragments that are our contemporary world.
In a similar way, Jorge Carrión in his gorgeously ambitious ‘biblio-topographical’ survey Bookshops seeks to trace the relationship between memory and reading, at the same time that he offers almost tactile evidence of the transformative power of books and bookshops when they acquire a human voice, a temporality beyond their time, living form through human enterprise and interaction. Carrión’s global community of shops selling books (among other things) becomes a mappa mundi not only of his own cosmos and life, but of a world that depends on them for the material satisfaction of its spiritual needs, for reassurance that commerce of words and exchange of ideas is still possible, that crossroads of people, cultures, moments of being still vitally exist.
Bookshops is a rich anecdotal inventory of the past and the present, from the Library of Alexandria and medieval peddlers to the New York Strand, and to the almost ubiquitous Fnac, to Hatchards, Shakespeare and Company. and John Sandoe Books. It is an essayistic journal intime (iconically in iPad or Moleskin form) of sentiment and reason, imagination and order, freedom and a world with a sense of its own identity. Free association and meditative philosophising on culture, aesthetics, history, the book as object and as vessel, are anchored on august stepping stones such as Zweig, Borges, Pirandello or Danilo Kĭs. Bowles, Bolaño, Diderot or Baudelaire also define the mood of this self-reflexively Foucauldian periplous, where poetry and the enchantment of travel, the quest for the transcendental topos of all books and all readers become the ultimate goal.
Bookshops emerge in his account as ways of bringing humanity and nations together… with a clear hint that the reading and writing of books, the book trade itself, are the underlying identity uniting Europe.”
“A bookshop can regenerate the social and economic fibre of an area,” according to José Pinho, a Lisbon bookseller, and Carrión’s mission is not only to charter seminal points on an imaginative compass of books, but also to sound a note of alarm and despair with regard to the values and the direction of our world. Places of mesmerising enchantment or simply hubs of community life glow in his pages, often to become extinguished with an anticlimactic internet obituary, as Carrión discovers the disappearance or closure of yet another readers’ haven. Bookshops emerge in his account as ways of bringing humanity and nations together, “there are bookshops that hold out a hand to create human chains”, with a clear hint that the reading and writing of books, the book trade itself, are the underlying identity uniting Europe (more than any other place on the globe) even at its direst moments of crisis. Although not limited to or circumscribed by Europe, Bookshops is about the European project and vision in its most idealised, i.e. simplest, most vital form: interaction, coexistence, intellectual exchange, cultural dialogue and enrichment.
Carrión’s genealogy has sharp lines and rigorous method, as well as twinkling humour and a delight in uncovering innocent astonishment and crushing irony in anecdotal commentaries and discoveries. We learn that Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company “was part of the American Express circuit, and a tourist-laden coach would stop for a few minutes on rue de l’Odéon so photographs could be taken” or that the success of Mein Kampf in Germany “made [Hitler] think of himself as an author, which is how he describes himself in the corresponding section of his income tax returns for 1935.” The stories of the persecution of Flaubert, Wilde or Baudelaire for indecency evolve into a complex reflection on the responsibility and effect of bookshops as regards our attitude to reading, the depth or lack of it. Bookshops can shape literary canons or bolster a particular regime, provide Goethe’s mächtiges Überaschung (the mighty astonishment towards the wonder of life) or stem a community’s creative flow: they are monumental giants or fat spiders crouching in a corner.
This is a polymath book for polyglot minds, for Odysseus-like spirits curious to see the cities of other men and learn the ways of their thought – and then go back to roots one has always travelled with. The crisply titled, diligently footnoted sections were clearly written at different moments, in different countries and historical realities, which is both the charm and the practical handicap of a magnum opus: the inevitable clash between atemporality and the heavily charged, fleeting moment. Bookshops is an exuberant, unabashedly contemplative, engrossingly rich and self-assured survey of history through the act of reading and the dissemination of books, of the history and the felt presence of civilisation, a palpable topography of thought, intellectual experience, and lived textuality. It is both the chronicle of a real world where books are physical entities and catalysts of the imagination, and a mythography – the creation of an epic of legendary bookshops, inhabited by as legendary real or imaginary figures.
Under the guise of a poetics of reading, Carrión evinces powerful skills for socio-political analysis, for virtuosic, corollary writing, lyrically nuanced and resolutely focused. Steely convictions flirt with liberal philosophic and aesthetic theorems, pugnacious proclamations and masterly absolutes acquire fluidity thanks to a chatty style, a kaleidoscopic perspective and expression. Books for Carrión possess real being, they are vessels for thought, ideas, human experience, as well as a space and an object of multiple dynamics and potential. They are fetishes and erotic objects, epiphanies, ways of survival, one of the few remaining possible worlds. The bookshop in turn emerges as both a primary and a secondary container, a definer and editor, a liberator, a home as well as a place of exile.
Carrión subtly implies that more and more we no longer visit bookshops in order to find books to read, but rather in order to satisfy a craving for luxury or for an alternative status symbol, to be seen buying them and feel their cultural possessors. Too often a bookshop “has no meaning beyond its glamorous context”, a glamour that flatters even hypocritically our sense that humility and the intellect are higher values than flamboyance. We convince ourselves to live large through books and bookshops, aligning them with the achievement of the Seven Summits challenge, seeking ‘megalomaniac’ bookshops just as we feel a certain supremacy in the conquest of impossible altitudes. The consequence, according to Alessandro Barrico, whom Carrión cites crucially in Bookshops, is “surface rather than depth, speed rather than reflection, sequences rather than analysis, surfing rather than penetration, communication rather than expression, multitasking rather than specialisation, pleasure, rather than effort.”
It is thrilling to follow the many threads Carrión weaves together… The richness of sources, tales, geographic locations, voices echoing throughout, will satisfy the keenest reader and bibliophile.”
Bookshops sometimes sags under the weight of its deconstructionist rhetoric, buckles under totalising affirmations and a tone that occasionally oscillates between the worship of too oft-cited authors or places and a strained didacticism or even Orientalism. There is a perplexing demonisation of libraries as compared to bookshops. And Zweig would have kept better company perhaps with Kierkegaard or Blixen, one would have wished for more Sebald, and Borges does inevitably call to mind Shakespeare’s Prospero. Some of the most evocative bookshops are not even mentioned, such as Brentano’s, Gagliani, Lutyens & Rubinstein or the recent Albertine in New York, some cities on the book map have too many examples, some only a cursory selection, if that. At the same time, it is thrilling to follow the many threads Carrión weaves together into what is ultimately a thoroughly fascinating story. The richness of sources, tales, geographic locations, voices echoing throughout, will satisfy the keenest reader and bibliophile, especially when one comes across cherished, and much overlooked book lovers like Valery Larbaud, whose own library was a specially constructed ‘maisonette’, La Thébaide, now housed in the Fonds V. Larbaud in Vichy (although his name is emphatically Valery, as the author himself jokingly lamented, and not Valéry, as many, including Carrión, insist).
In the end, Carrión abandons both Moleskin and iPad, renounces the photographic record of places visited and icons created: instead of notes and pictures, “you just see: what matters in the end is the will to remember.” Bookshops are the dwellings of permanence or they are the stages on life’s journey, they reflect our own definition of meaning and substance, existing as they do, and at the same time, on the boundaries between spirituality and gross materiality; they represent our investment in the enterprise of knowledge and our commitment to a transcendent act and art of living, and to all this, Carrión certainly composes a powerful, resonant elegy, translated with gusto and skill by Peter Bush.
Jorge Carrion is a writer and literary critic. He studied at the University of Pompeu Fabra, where he now teaches literature and creative writing. His published works include essays, novellas, novels and travel writing, and his articles have appeared in National Geographic and Lonely Planet Traveller. Bookshops was a finalist in the Premio Anagrama de Ensayo, 2013, and is now published by MacLehose Press. Read more.
Peter Bush is an award-winning literary translator who was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, and now lives in Barcelona. His translations from Spanish, Catalan, French and Portuguese, include works by Josep Pla, Merce Rodoreda, Fernando de Rojas and Joan Sales.
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.