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The last book I will ever read

For weeks I’ve been waiting for a shipment of books from the U.S. Finally, today, a notice arrived and that meant a trip down to Retiro and the international post office.

The most anticipated volume in this shipment, what I look forward to soaking in day after day, is the one thousand plus pages of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

The entire book is simply snippets of Benjamin’s readings and his thoughts, an almost blog-like composition that Benjamin crafted while sitting in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The work is a curious intersection of philosophy, urban planning, architecture, sociology, and literature.

Benjamin was fascinated by the arcades, passageways, of Paris and the ways those structures transformed Parisian society in the mid-1800s.

The Arcades Project – just like any blog – is an unfinished work. Begun in 1927, Benjamin still hadn’t completed the work by his death in 1940, a suicide at the French-Spanish border as he attempted to flee Nazi-occupied France. It’s not clear what Benjamin’s intended behind the many pages of notes that editors later comprised together to form The Arcades Project, possibly notes for another work or simply his own occupation with a variety of thoughts. Originally written in German and French, the English translation was not published until 1999.

Walter Benjamin was a great observer of urban culture. And in my own walks around Buenos Aires, I’m going to be lugging this volume (my edition is a 5 lb hardcover!) along some of my jaunts. It should make for fascinating reading and reflection while sipping coffee. I’m sure that it will not be the last book I will ever read. But, I probably could spend the remainder of my days perusing this volume.

Besides, my book shipment also included W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

An additional surprise

I bought this book used at a good price, the hardcover was no more expensive than a new paperback. But what I particularly like about buying used books is that they often come with an added surprise. And this one certainly did. I’ll blog tomorrow about that.

The blank pages of Aira

…this post continues yesterday’s odd encounters in the bookstores along Florida street…

Argentine writer César Aira never seems to struggle with the writer’s block, facing the blank page. After all, he has written more than 50 books. Despite his prolific output, I’m having a difficult time finding a wide range of his works in Spanish here in Buenos Aires. (I’m reminded of my long, desperate search last year for a particular set of books by the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano).

When I go to search for Aira I’m finding only 2 or 3 titles on the bookstore shelves. In one of the four hundred El Ateneo stores on Florida street, I pulled down a copy of Aira’s novel Embalse. I almost purchased it but as I was flipping through the pages I noticed that several pages were blank…page 62 had no ink on the page. Further examination revealed even more pages in the book that were blank…The book was published by Emecé, a fairly large publisher in Argentina. I would think that their quality control would be a lot better.

Then again, I partly wondered, considering Aira’s often eccentric style, if the blank pages were intentional. But I decided it was just a printing error. Yet, I couldn’t help to think of Italo Calvino’s wonderful story that plays with the concept of a reader buying a book with a printing error, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

How much do you want to know?

This afternoon at the café I read a book review which proceeded to tell me way more than I wanted to know about the book prior to reading it. I immediately remembered why I seldom read reviews of books that I want to read. And long ago I’ve learned never to read movie reviews. I rather approach things like this without much prior knowledge, just arming myself with only a vague notion of the story.

The amount you know about something beforehand certainly impacts your experience. But does it enhance or hinder your experience?

Likewise, what about the ways we experience a place, a city such as Buenos Aires?

Obviously the parallels are not the same. But I’m curious as to what type of reading, what type of learning experience, enhances our travels? And what type of reading actually hinders our experience?

Things to think about when walking

I’ve spent the last few weeks working with fellow Buenos Aires resident Peter Robertson to produce the latest issue of The International Literary Quarterly. I think the highlight of this issue is an interview with Gao Xingjian, whose novel Soul Mountain I’ve also been slowly reading this year.

As I’m walking around Buenos Aires, thinking about the city’s history and my own writing, these words by Gao Xingjian stay with me:

… when artists die what is left behind, literature, is the history of human beings, is the interaction between the individual and the condition of history, that trace of history left behind, that is literature. It is the witness, it is the evidence of the individual’s interaction, connection, with history, and that is the trace, that is much more important and significant than the official discourse, the official history.

That is the meaning of literature, the meaning of the writer. That is, the writer, in spite of his or her insignificance, has left that trace that reflects the relationship between the individual and the condition of being alive. That trace itself is timeless, that is the meaning of literature. And that is far more important than the official history of political discourse. That is the real meaning of literature.

Borges & Macedonio Fernández

Macedonio Fernández was an enigmatic figure shadowing over the literary scene in Buenos Aires during the early 20th century.

Macedonio Fernandez

In a new essay published in The Quarterly Conversation, Marcelo Ballvé writes about the influence of Macedonio on Argentina’s most famous writer – The Man Who Invented Borges.

Both men were enamored of speculative philosophy, and arguably it was Macedonio who was responsible for making a metaphysician out of Borges. Both writers were incessant explorers of a handful of themes: the inexistence of the individual personality, the elastic nature of time, the permeability of waking life to dreams and vice-versa; one might say: the instability of reality in general. In both writers’ work the supposedly bedrock concepts by which we live are revealed to be unstable isotopes, slippery and layered, none being in essence what they appear to be and all of course eminently moldable, especially within the pages of a story, poem, or essay.

Reporting on books & editing

Chad W. Post of the Three Percent blog, an excellent source of information on literature in translation, is in Buenos Aires for the annual book fair and a meeting of foreign editors.

Our schedule is packed”“starting tomorrow morning at 9:30, we have meetings from 10am till 7pm (or later) every day of the week. And no scheduled tango dancing”“all literary meetings.

You can follow his updates.

Legendary figures

Who are the legendary figures of Buenos Aires? Obviously, Eva Peron is the most known (along with hubby Juan). Among those who read, Borges is legendary. Among those who dance tango, there’s Gardel.

Buenos Aires has great old architecture but are any of the architects of Buenos Aires really legendary, the likes of Louis Sullivan or Gaudí?

Actually, this really isn’t about Buenos Aires. The main reason behind this post is to provide an opportunity to quote a passage from a novel by James Salter that I’m reading. Light Years (recently reissued by Penguin and with an introduction by Richard Ford) is about the marriage of Viri and Nedra. Viri is a New York architect:

He could not be Sullivan, he could not be Gaudí. Well, perhaps Gaudí, who lived to that old age which is sainthood, an ascetic old age, frail, slight, wandering the streets of Barcelona, unknown to its many inhabitants. In the end he was struck by a streetcar and left unattended. In the bareness and odor of the charity ward amid the children and poor relations a single eccentric life was ending, a life that was more clamorous than the sea, an everlasting life, a life which was easy to abandon since it was only a husk; it had already metamorphosed, escaped into buildings, cathedrals, legend.

Literary walking tour of Buenos Aires

I don’t know if anyone offers a literary walking tour of Buenos Aires, but if you read Spanish then you can grab a copy of Al pie de la letra: guía literaria de Buenos Aires by Alvaro Abós and create your own walking tour.

guía literaria de buenos aires

I bought this book a few years ago and have enjoyed it, dipping back into it time and time again. The book also has a wonderful design with many little line drawings.

Yesterday when I was browsing the bookstores on Corrientes, I noticed that Librería Libertador has copies of this book for just 10 pesos.

I was quite surprised to see this book there. This type of book should continue to sell and I noticed by checking online that it’s still sold for 32 pesos elsewhere, so I’m not sure how it got into the discount bookstores unless this is an old edition. My edition is from 2005 but the material in this type of book doesn’t really get dated. Anyway, if you’re in town, like Argentine literature, & don’t already have a copy, then you might want to swing by Corrientes. While you’re there you will undoubtedly find other bargains. I left Librería Libertador with 7 books and 54 fewer pesos.

International literary journals

I’ve been working recently with part-time Buenos Aires resident Peter Robertson to help get Issue 2 of the International Literary Quarterly ready. There is some really wonderful writing in this issue, so if you’re into literature then you must check it out.

While I’m on the topic of international literature and journals, I want to point out an e-journal that I had an instrumental role in launching in 2003 when I ran the digital library initiatives at the University of Miami – Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal.

English language bookstores in Buenos Aires

Searching for that perfect book in English during your stay in Buenos Aires? The good folks over at Argentina’s Travel brings you “Buenos Aires’ Brilliant Bookstores: Finding BA’s Best English-language Book Selections.”

As a literary type I spend way too much on books. Even when I was a librarian and had access to a library of millions of books, I still spent about us$50 a week on my own books and magazines. (My book budget is now a lot lower, down to around 50 pesos a month).

The guide to English-language bookstores, written by Natalie Gourvitch, starts off with my favorite: Walrus Books, which has the best selection of English-language literary fiction in Buenos Aires.

My criteria of quality for evaluating articles about bookstores in Buenos Aires includes examining what is said about El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Yep, it’s a beautiful place but it’s actual inventory isn’t great. Natalie writes, “While El Ateneo, as is true for chain
stores like Cuspide and Distal, is great for finding popular romance/thriller novels with a spattering of Shakespeare thrown in for good measure, it lacks a large selection of classics and quality modern fiction titles.” I assume that she’s talking about the English-language books but I never been very pleased with El Ateneo’s selection of Spanish-language titles, either. I go there all the time to browse around but rarely do I buy anything there.

I’m reminded of my quest last year: Searching for Galeano in the bookstores of Buenos Aires, a odd tale in which it was actually easier to find books in English translations than in the original Spanish.

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