To Libraries, With Love

From time to time [Abdel Kader Haidara] consulted books about Islamic jurisprudence, the fikh, in his own collection when confronted with thorny problems in his marriage and his work. But religion did not play a major role in his life. What drove him most was a belief in the power of the written word — the rich variety of human experience and ideas contained between the covers of a book.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of TimbuktuJoshua Hammer

I still have a literary hangover from Haidara and Touré, bad-ass librarians from Timbuktu who saved and preserved manuscripts amidst a civil war in Mali. The term librarian these days brings to mind an image of a stern, bookish woman, complete with glasses and a cardigan — just like Jane (Marcia Gay Harden) in the movie After Words (2015). Sure, it casts Harden as the most stereotypical librarian ever (she lives with her cat) but there was a rhythm of hers that I enjoyed: the quiet stack of books next to bed, the solitude, the worlds that lay after each page. But she was lonely. She was alone. She flies to Costa Rica on a one-way ticket after being laid off and in typical Eat, Pray, Love fashion she finds herself (along with adventure and romance).

Sure, we can roll our eyes in unison with the antiquated portrayal of our most beloved librarians in this movie. What’s important to me though was her losing her job. In this time and age, do we still need librarians? And what’s the future of libraries?

For centuries, the librarian’s job was providing scarce information to dependent patrons. Now, the job is helping patrons navigate superabundant information of wildly varying quality and uncertain provenance.

For better or worse, the digital age forces experts to make the case that a Google search doesn’t replace the librarian, and WebMD doesn’t replace the doctor.

–Robert Graboyes, PBS

I came across a discussion about libraries and its influence on a group of writers: Tessa Hadley, C.E. Morgan and Jerry Pinto with John Donatich. The discussion had so many points I resonated with: libraries as sacred temples, a place for initiation, the toss-up between borrowing books vs. owning them, books as work spaces, access and mobility…

I was thinking how when I used to—and I still go to the library—take a book out. At first, you’re a little shy and a little squeamish, but then as you get into the book, the presence of previous readers in that book, with the way the spine cracks, and the way that’s something sticky on page 147 that you’re not going to question too carefully, and the way the pages wrinkle, and the smells of other people’s homes . . . you realize that the book is such an intimate thing. It’s something you befriend. It’s something you live with.

–John Donatich, Lithub

When I was in Puerto Rico over the summer, I passed by Libros Libres on Calle Loiza. It was a free library complete on what seemed to be an abandoned building smack dab on a busy street. I browsed through its makeshift shelves: there were encyclopedias, old textbooks, a few American paperbacks and a particular title by Mitch Albom that my partner found. I was absolutely elated.

A little research revealed that the following bad-ass folks were behind the project: Edward Benson, Nina Coll and Zevio Schnitzer.

I think exchanging books and reading is another way to make [a] country, another way of relating and disconnect some of the Internet to connect to the walls of this wall and interact with books.

–Nina Coll, El Nuevo Dia


Bad-Ass Librarians from Timbuktu: Haidara & Touré

51glekvbdvl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I’m going to be honest: I was initially drawn to this book because of the title. Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu had me at “bad-ass librarians” and from the first page to the last, I was thrust in a world of unearthed manuscripts dating back to the 1500s, Al Qaeda commanders and a certain Abdel Kader Haidara who dedicated his life to preserving the written word.

I empathized with Haidara, fast. I thought about my modest collection of books, as opposed to life-threatening feats that he often endured to acquire and preserve original texts. Not knowing when I could make a trip to the bookstore or fearing being stranded somewhere or having to wait for a long time without a book suddenly seemed frivolous. Haidara’s pursuits across the Sahara desert and along the Niger River to find manuscripts as he growing up, and then having to run a smuggling operation to save them from Al Qaeda in recent years were no small feats.

I never really thought about the history of the written word but Haidara’s story prompted me to dig a little deeper. A Google search reveals that the first book ever made was the Epic of Gilgamesh prior to the eighteenth century B.C. in Sumer, the southernmost point of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) which was an epic poem engraved on clay tablets. This made immediate sense to me. It wasn’t surprising then that literature was already rampant in areas of the Middle East and in Africa, contrary to Eurocentric history.


The book begins with a young Haidara’s search for manuscripts throughout the Sahara desert and along the Niger River, sometimes going on week-long journeys. Hired by the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, he would visit the homes of people known to keep manuscripts and traded them with money, livestock or anything that he can barter with. In about a year, he was able to recover some thousand manuscripts and placed them at the institute.

I’ve barely heard of Timbuktu — probably in cartoons I’ve watched as a kid — a magical, exotic place but other than that, I had nary an idea on its geographical nor political significance. But to understand Haidara is to also understand the capital of Mali.

People hid manuscripts all over Mali. They placed them inside leather bags and buried them in holes in their courtyards and grades, stashed them in abandoned caves in the desert, and sealed the doors of their libraries with mud to hide the treasures inside. Under the new colonial rulers, French became the primary language taught in Mali’s schools. As a result, several generations in Timbuktu and other towns in the region grew up without learning to speak Arabic, which doomed the works to irrelevance.

Continue reading “Bad-Ass Librarians from Timbuktu: Haidara & Touré”

An Ode to the Books We Love

I’ve been immersed in Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu this past week, learning about manuscripts found in West Africa and across the Sahara desert as Abdel Haidara, the main character, pursues their preservation and restoration.

His search for scrolls in homes — whether they are lavish family estates or mud huts in tribal areas of Mali — continue to elicit a deep well of tenderness within me for the written word.

Some weekends ago, my mom asked me if I should throw away books I don’t read anymore; books that weren’t being read anymore, seemingly unloved should not take up physical space. I gave her a deranged look as I ran my fingers over spines of well-loved books: Zami by Audre Lorde, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, This Bridge Called My Back by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Sula by Toni Morrison.

If there’s anything that running this blog has taught me, it’s that there is a unique, multilayered experience that one goes through while reading a particular book, one that is almost spiritual. It is the same sentiment I had while reading books I’ve written about:

In this video from The School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton (my favorite!) lends insight into why we love certain books — and why certain books seem to know more about us than we do, our own selves:

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My review for Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu comes out in two days — don’t miss it and sign up for Libromance (click the “Follow” button on the bottom right corner of this site)!

Sunday Spotlight: End-of-Summer Reads

I think I read too many “beach reads” posts, came across “summer reads” lists that it deterred me from creating my own in this blog. I even had a somewhat contentious relationship with the term itself that I wanted to explore but as fall wonderfully sets in, I’ll save that for 2017.

These past few weeks have been slow-moving for me, with my writing and reading pace down to a snail’s speed. Having come back from trip in Puerto Rico and jumping right into community organizing, nourishing the bookworm in me has taken a back seat. (I did take two books with me in PR: Teju Cole’s books of essays Known and Strange Things and Juan Miguel Severo’s book of (love) poems Habang Wala Pa Sila).

As I finish both books, there are a number of books I want to read and finish as fall brings in a new wave of literature. I can almost guarantee that I’ll get every book on this list from Huffington Post, which features new work from Zadie Smith and Rabih Alameddine.

Source: Huffington Post

Literary Hub also came out with titles to read this September and although the only author I’m familiar with is Jeff Chang, reading about new books gives me tender-hearted feelings.

So before I get in on fall’s new titles, here are books that I want to read throughout this month:

Esmeralda Santiago’s Conquistadora | This came out of my own travel experience and research of the history of Puerto Rico. After Cole and Severo’s book, this one is next on my list.

Coulson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad | I first heard of this book after seeing Saeed Jones talk about it on Twitter. It went on to become the new Oprah’s Book Club 2016 selection and I can’t wait to immerse myself in this novel.

Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu | The title of the book alone is enough for a bibliophile’s eyes to widen. We all know that librarians rule.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet | This one’s a classic — I read about it in Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. The protagonist constantly referred to Pessoa, her favorite writer, and I couldn’t help but be curious about him.

Considering my reading speed as of late, it’ll be quite a challenge to get through this so wish me luck! If you have end-of-summer reads that you’re looking at, do share in the comments below!