#GetLit: Una Vida con Libros (A Life with Books)

#GetLit

To you — my dear readers — an apology is in order: the blog has been quiet as of late, but I haven’t forgotten. It’s been a week since I last wrote (another #GetLit post nonetheless) and here I am, about to publish another one. I have a good excuse, I promise.

Over the weekend, I flew to Mexico City / Ciudad de México and explored the Latin American metropolis, in awe of its people, its culture, its art, its architecture. I brought three important literary pieces with me: Rosario Castellanos, Octavio Paz and Audre Lorde. I’ll save the stories for another post, but here is something that I know you’ll appreciate:

 

Biblioteca Vasconcelos

The photo I took above is none other than Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City’s megalibrary. The floating bookshelves are no joke, and I marveled at the architectural prowess of Mexican architects Alberto Kalach and Juan Palomar. The five-on-one library is dedicated to José Vasconcelos, a Mexican philosopher and figure.

I have more stories and photos to share from my too-short of a trip to CDMX, so hang tight. In the meantime, here are a few things that to #GetLit about:

On the 100th birth anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks, a “Chicago as hell” video of the making of We Real Cool:

Gwendolyn Brooks is immortal because she impacts and influences other poets and writers and others who influence poets and writers and others. Her genius and personality increase exponentially. Teachers taught students who in turn taught students about her work. Often anthologized, “We Real Cool” became one of the most well-known American poems. It is a part of the American heart, or should be, because it is so often taught. (Lithub)

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I love me some Roxane Gay, but I also love me some Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. 

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Trumpacolypse is still upon us. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about saving the National Endowment for Arts (#SavetheNEA) to try to gather support for the arts. Specially for the work of women artists. Question: What does abolishing the NEA mean for women artists? Read on.

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A timely poem about martial law from poet Jose Lacaba titled Prometheus Unbound:

Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of the just?

Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Emancipation’s breath,
Reeks of death, death, death.

Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind, and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of the grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.

Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.

 

To Libraries, With Love

Sunday Spotlight

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

Book Reviews

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.

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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.