“The books that call out to us”

An interesting-sounding op-ed piece by [the Portuguese politician] José Pacheco Pereira: “Os livros que nos chamam” [The books that call us]:

There is a peculiar kind of books that call out to us in bookstores. This is one of the major arguments in favor of bookstores .

Without them it would be impossible to listen to that voice that makes us buy books we never thought to find, or seek, let alone buy.  If  I “enter ” an electronic bookstore such as Amazon, I know what I seek and through the search engines I find books that are similar to those which I seek, but I get no real surprises there.  I can buy with contentment, but not discover anything.

I discover in bookstores , though unfortunately less and less in Portuguese bookshops; they look almost all the same, full of painted paper with the same graphics, the same cover style, and with (few) the reasonable and good books drowned by hundreds of titles that do not last a week of exposure, and that are, as a rule, little more than fads. On the other hand, my proximity to Portugues publishing, the knowledge of what will come, removes much of the surprise factor, and therefore the books that will speak to me are written in English and mostly purchased in foreign bookstores .

For a compulsive bookstore-goer this book voice is not strange, but I had never asked about the reasons and, in each case, there are reasons. As almost everything interesting in life is driven by curiosity, the ever great intellectual engine. I am surprised by the little that has been written about curiosity, given the role it has in the way we move the head and the body. You can attend dozens of seminars and debates on knowledge, innovation, learning, school, business, art, literature, and although there are references to curiosity, in general it is undervalued. I could be wrong, but without curiosity one is little more than a specialized idiot, with an emphasis on idiot.

How does it work, how does it work on me? It works by the consciousness of ignorance, a desire to learn, but it also works by fragments of what is already known and the “pull”, or it works by a certain playful game with a phrase, or an image or an idea. Often it is a purely irrational manifestation of obscure mechanisms of taste, at other times it is the result of intelligent marketing. Yes, also. The flesh is weak.

Which books did I buy that I had no intention of buying? Let me start by saying that of the books that talked to me, I did not read more than the title and back-cover, and one or two pages I thumbed through in the bookstore. Thumbed more than read, and thumbing continues to be an activity that can only be done with printed paper books. With electronic books it might be in demand, but the act of thumbing is much more effective in paper, more in line with our senses and the associative way we think, the ” fuzzy logic” of people’s heads.

I suspect that it is highly likely that many of these books are ultimately not read. Sometimes the interest that motivated me to buy them has passed by the time when I finally try to read them. It remains for them to stay in the giant limbo of books to read, although I am always reluctant to keep them permanently. The mark of their unexpected entry into my library, lets them always in the air as “interesting.” Curiosity is very fickle, very prowling, and its “market” very competitive. There are always appearing new reasons and others are left behind. It changes over time and with other readings, films, images and interests. It is very much self-taught, a species with a bad reputation among the technocrats , but of which I enjoy the amateur side. The self-taught are not always to get along with; ​​and there are some particularly unbearable, those who think they can compete with the professionals in the field, i.e. those who forget that they are amateurs. But the amateurs are curious people and devoted to their curiosity.

Let me give you some recent examples of these unexpected books. I bought The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean,  in a bookstore in Lisbon,  one of those that are close to Largo da Misericordia, probably as a second hand book. I know why I bought it; the fault is with Professor Poliakoff and his videos of Periodic Table of Videos made ​​by the University of Nottingham. I do not know if I’ll read it, but when I bought it I already knew the famous trick of gallium that gives the book its title. In fact, of the series that is a bit chaotic, and amateur in the best sense of the word, what has interested me most is to see, I insist to see, an overwhelming majority of elements that I knew by name but had no idea how they were. Gallium, Cesium, Strontium, Molybdenum, Plutonium, Iridium, Neodymium, etc. etc.  And watch them burn, explode, behave bizarrely in contact with air, poisonous, dangerous, “interesting” or innocuous, “noble”, or just “bored”. And to see some of the chemicals that passing through with curiosity most of the elements of the periodic table, we would have never even seen. The murky Fluoride for example. In my high school laboratory, there were a Bunsen burner, a pipette, a vial with hydrochloric acid, a sodium bottle and little else. I always felt sorry that there wasn’t more. There is in the books.

In New York I bought in the habitual Barnes and Noble, a book by Thomas Healy, entitled The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind – and Changed the History of Free Speech in America. Here it was the back cover that made me buy the book, although the title helped also. The laudatory quote in the description is not very original: “an intellectual detective  story,” but the flaps are going farther, and the author explained his interest in understanding why a judge traditionally contemptuous of individual rights defended in 1919 a position on freedom of opinion, “free speech”, that would shape American legal thought until the present day. Of Holmes, I knew the name and was reminded of a stamp with his portrait, nothing more. But as these “changes of mind” are interesting and I am interested in freedom, in these days of subjugation, and as Americans are better than any others in doing these stories of intellectual daring, I bought the book. Let’s see if I will read it.

In the same place I bought a book of essays by Sloane Crosley, entitled I Was Told Ther’d Be Cake, influenced by the indication that it was a “New York Times Bestseller”. It doesn’t seem like it, but the lists count. Also I bought a “Pulitzer Prize”, the book by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, but it seems to me to be another championship. The young author, much like our minister [of agriculture, Maria] Cristas, writes in those places where in general it is written well, Salon, Village Voice, Playboy, but without being more than that. I read a few lines of the text first, but I doubt that my reading will go much further. It seems to me, maybe bold to say after having read just a few lines, a kind of light writing that today is very successful, funny and trivial, that a multitude of disciples of Miguel Esteves Cardoso practice, but that I do not have the time to read. We’ll see.

Finally, one more example that still fits into the article, Douglas Egerton’s book  The Wars of Reconstruction. The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era. In this case I have gone farther, having read almost a complete chapter, and I am pretty sure that I will continue. For professional reasons and out of curiosity I buy a lot of history books, but … [unclear]… and much of it can now be seen on television and the iPad. Series, for example, a television revolution. Or classes of American universities that I watch on the iPad. In this case, it was a series of lectures by David Blight, given at Yale, about the American Civil War and the period known as “reconstruction,” one of the most violent moments ever in American history, when the Ku Klux Klan was born and when newly freed blacks ruled many cities and villages of the South, until they were expelled with collective serial killings.

While there are books to be read, I know I will not have a single dull moment in life. This alone is enough to owe them a lot.

[This has been an unauthorized, Google assisted exercise in translation. If the blogger had seen from the very beginning that the author was a politician, he might not have done it, though he thinks that the text is not bad…]


Source: Público, March 22, 2014





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