The Libraries of My Life

From The Paris Review:

I was thirteen and wanted to work. Someone told me that you could get paid to referee basketball games and where to go to find out about such weekend employment. I needed income to bolster my collections of stamps and Sherlock Holmes novels. I vaguely remember going to an office full of adolescents queueing in front of a young man who looked every inch an administrator. When my turn came, he asked me if I had any experience and I lied. I left that place with details of a game that would be played two days later, and the promise of 700 pesetas in cash. Nowadays, if a thirteen-year-old wants to research something he’s ignorant about, he’ll go to YouTube. That same afternoon I bought a whistle in a sports shop and went to the library.

I wasn’t at all enlightened by the two books I found about the rules of basketball, one of which had illustrations, despite my notes and little diagrams, and my Friday afternoon study sessions; but I was very lucky, and on Saturday morning the local coach explained from the sidelines the rudiments of a sport that, up to that point, I had practiced with very little knowledge of its theory.

My practical training came from the street and the school playground. My other knowledge, the abstract kind, stood on the shelves of the Biblioteca Popular de la Caixa Laietana, the only library I had access to at the time in Mataró, the small city where I was brought up. I must have started going to its reading rooms at the start of primary school, in sixth or seventh grade. That’s when I began to read systematically. I had the entire collection of The Happy Hollisters at home, and Tintin, The Extraordinary Adventures of MassagranAsterix and Obelix, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators at the library. Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were devoured in both places. When my father began to work for the Readers’ Circle in the afternoons, the first thing I did was buy the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels I hadn’t yet read. That’s probably when my desire to own books began.

The Biblioteca Popular de la Caixa Laietana acted as a surrogate nursery. I don’t think children today have to write as much as we did in the eighties. Long, typed-out projects on Japan and the French Revolution, on bees and the different parts of flowers, projects that were a perfect excuse to research in the shelves of a library that seemed, then, infinite and boundless; much greater than my imagination, then anchored in my neighborhood and still restricted to three television channels and the twenty-five books in my parents’ tiny library. I did my homework, researched for a while, and still had time to read a whole comic or a couple of chapters of a novel in whatever detective series I happened to be enjoying. Some children behaved badly; I didn’t. The twenty-five-year-old librarian, a pleasant, rather custodial type, who was tall, though not overly so, kept an eye on them, but not on me. I’d go to him when I needed to find a book I couldn’t track down. I also began to hassle Carme, the other young librarian, who saved us from her older, pricklier colleagues with clever bibliographical questions: “Any book on pollen that doesn’t just repeat what all the encyclopedias say?”

I mentioned my parents’ micro-library. “Twenty-five books,” I said. I should explain that Spain’s transition from dictatorship was led by the savings banks. Municipal governments, busy with speculation and urban development, delegated culture and social services to the banks. Mataró was a textbook case: most exhibitions, museums, and senior centers, as well as the only library in a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, depended on the Laietana Savings Bank. At the beginning of this century, during my (now real) research into Bishop Josep Benet Serra for my book Australia: A Journey, Carme, who has since become an exceptional librarian in Mataró, opened the doors of the Mataró holdings to me. I wasn’t then aware of that defining metaphor, the 2008 economic crisis hadn’t yet revealed the emperor’s nakedness: Mataró’s document holdings, its historical memory, wasn’t in the municipal archive, wasn’t in the public library, but in the heart of the Laietana Saving Bank’s People’s Library. During the Spanish transition to democracy, the so-called duty to look after culture was assumed by the savings banks without anyone ever challenging them; it only became evident when one of them published a book, which they sent to all their customers as a free gift. I have one in my library that I inherited or purloined from my parents’ house, Alexandre Cirici’s Picasso: His Life and Work. The title page says: “A gift from the savings bank of Catalonia.” It is the only institutional message. Although it’s hard to credit, there is no prologue by a politician or banker. There was no need to justify a gesture that was seen as natural. Over half of my parents’ books were gifts from banks.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review