A week ago, I browsed a used bookstore at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Artist Pablo Helguera had hauled shelves, armchairs, table lamps, rugs, and thousands of pounds of old books into the gallery space. Called “Librería Donceles,” the installation conjures the experience of wandering through a used bookstore, but because all the books are in Spanish, it felt for me both familiar and strange.
When I was an adolescent, one of my favorite places was Shorey’s Bookstore in downtown Seattle. As I’ve described in The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, it occupied multiple rooms over several floors of an old building, and the rooms were always hot, the radiators steaming, the windows cracked open to the Seattle rain. Meandering through the stacks, I felt alone and unknown — a good feeling. No one knew exactly where I was and that meant I was free.
I still have some record albums from Shorey’s — one is Ralph McTell’s “You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here” — and my copy of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America may have come from there as well; the pencilled price of $1.25 on the first page has been crossed out and “1.00” written below.
At Librería Donceles, I scanned the shelves, some of which indicated they held novels or poetry, some of which had funny labels, like “aburridos,” the boring ones, and “Marxism trasnochado,” which seems to mean something like Marxism for sleepless nights. The dim lighting, the jumble of books on shelves and tables, and the sense of rummaging through castoffs in search of one amazing tome made the experience familiar. But I felt off-kilter as well. On many Spanish books, the title on the spine is written in the opposite direction of titles on English books. Perusing a shelf, I had to tilt my head left instead of right to read the spines. My intermediate Spanish helped me understand only about half the titles. I recognized translations of books originally published in English, and sometimes cognates helped; Relaciones Mexicano-Sovieticas on the aburridos shelf is not hard to figure out.
My visit to the bookstore was part of an afternoon event called Books Bridge Our Senses/Los Libros Conectan Nuestros Sentidos. Poets Claudia Castro Luna, Catalina Marie Cantú, and Raúl Sánchez read poems and essays inspired by books. The readings kept me off-kilter as well, reminding me of both connections and disconnections between my experiences and those of the writers on stage. Castro Luna, for example, told the story of her family’s emigration from El Salvador in 1981. Most of what they packed were her father’s books. At that moment in El Salvador, books were dangerous; they attracted the attention of the death squads. Avoiding violence, her father had previously hid his books in the ceiling and buried them in the backyard.
My family, too, had many books, and as we moved from house to house, which we did many times until I was thirteen, we were always packing them up in boxes, unpacking them, and arranging them again on shelves. But we feared no one coming to our door to see what we were reading. We did not need to protect ourselves by hiding them. In fact, my mother told me I could check out any book from the library that I wanted; no books were off limits.
Still, it would not be fair to say that in the United States we are free to read whatever we wish. Parents challenge books assigned in schools, and school districts back them up. At my college, an instructor assigned Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and one student’s parent took a black magic marker and obliterated sentence after sentence. At a systemic level, editors choose not to publish certain books, so we never get a chance to read them. Reviewers are more likely to evaluate books by men than women, so we may not hear about books we would want to read. In that sense, it might be argued that books by women, by people of color, by queer poets like Ginsberg, are dangerous, if by dangerous we mean upsetting our dominant mythologies of whose ideas, stories, and words matter.
At the gallery event, we each got an index card to exchange for one book in the store. I started by perusing the novels, but they looked too hard for me to read. None of the children’s books appealed. Finally, under a table, I found a guide to Panama, Arline’s home country. Here’s me reading the first sentence: The privileged geostrategic something of Panama, the singular relationships of its geology, something, ecology, history, and socioeconomics have made this nation one of the grand crossroads of the world and a vital American center. Not bad, huh?
Arline and I have one of those old library bookcases with glass doors. It holds our most treasured books: old volumes by Tennyson and Longfellow, wrapped in soft leather, that belonged to my grandparents; books of poetry by Guillén and Machado; signed copies of works by our friends; favorite books from our college and graduate school years. Sorted by size to fit the shelves, the titles don’t scan easily. I have to tilt my head right, then left, then right and left again. Nevertheless, our books connect us. Arline gave me García Lorca, and I gave her Martín Espada. We pilgrimaged to Neruda’s house in Isla Negra and to Brautigan’s camp site near Stanley, Idaho. This December we will make a pilgrimage down the Florida coast to honor Zora Neale Hurston.
Books bridge our senses. They do. In the moment of reading, I am living in the world the writer has made on the page, smelling, tasting, hearing what she feels. They can also disturb, sending a rumble of earthquake beneath my understanding of the world. Connection and disconnection; the familiar and the strange; the bridge and the abyss. We sit in that dusty armchair in the corner of Librería Donceles, crack the spine, and wonder where this book will take us.
“Librería Donceles” is open through January 3.