Bookshelf fever

When I had the café-bookshop I would often notice that if I stood in front of the bookshelf, some of the customers would have difficulty in maintaining eye contact. Their vision would invariably wander around the books lined up behind me, or they would absentmindedly pick up books that were stacked in various corners of the shop (the organisation of books was inconsistent at best, sporadic at worst) while they ordered coffee or discussed the weather. Recently, I noticed myself do the same thing: I could not help but examine the collection of books displayed behind my fellow conversationalist, recognising ones I had read, that I would like to read and ones that I will most probably never read. I foolishly believed I was continuing the conversation as was expected, until I suddenly realised I was alone in the room.

What is it about a few books together that immediately draws your attention? Over time I realised that it had to be at least three books piled up (maybe two books were easy enough to glance over surrepticiously) and that the conversation could more or less continue in the same way while the books were registered, investigated and judged. The judgement of books (and of their owners) is another weakness I must confess to – countless times I have changed my opinion of a human person because of the book they were reading. I remember someone (a fellow book fever sufferer) tell me that books would regularly recommend the reader to them, and not the other way around. I must admit I have thought the same while coming across someone reading a beloved book – they have instantly gone up in my estimation.

When it comes to books I suffer from the same kind of proprietorial behaviour that I quickly condemn other people for when it comes to their possesions. I’m sure Marie Kondo is a nice person, but she would not be allowed anywhere near my bookshelves. What is it about a physical book? Is there a difference between avid readers of books and avid readers of Kindle? Probably not, but the allure of a collection of multicoloured spines sitting on a bookshelf goes beyond those devoted few. The aesthetic value in the creation of a cozy café is undeniable too – many customers would remark on how nice the decoration was before realising that the books were actually for sale. And each section had its own style: English books were bright and colourful; most of the books in our French section were in black and white; and most titles in other languages would read from the bottom up, in contrast to English ones. (Personally I crane my neck to the right when reading English titles, and to the left for Spanish and Catalan.)

Of course in the current age of Zoom we can engage in book-judging espionage on much larger scale, now that we can peep at everyone’s home bookshelves. How many times I have been distracted from what a politician or a scientist is saying by the titles stacked up behind them? What appraisal can I make of their inner lives by how they arrange their reading material? This led to an online survey about how people arranged their bookshelves, and 2% of the population confessed that they arranged them by colour. (As does J.K. Rowling, apparently.) I’m afraid that is not a pastime I will ever take part in. I have a shelf/pile of books I am intending to read next (which varies in size, according to the day) and another one of books that I wish I didn’t have but haven’t gotten around to giving away yet either. Everything in between is in just the right place, whether the title reads bottom up or top down.

What is it about a shelf of books?

In praise of Roget’s Thesaurus

“The present work is intended to supply… a collection of the words… arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.”

– Peter Mark Roget, 1852

A recent translation exam, where only paper reference materials were allowed under the watchful digital eye of the invigilator behind my webcam, brought me back to Roget’s thesaurus. Having grown accustomed to the myriad possibilities of synonym lists on the internet, I had not opened it in years. The very things that had frustrated me the first time I opened were those that charmed me this time.

Roget’s intention was not to create a list of synonyms, but an anthology of words that could express every aspect of an idea. The 990 headings (down from the 1,000 in the 1852 original) are not arranged alphabetically, but according to a system loosely based on Aristotle’s categories of the world. A quick look at the plan of classification and you will see that the world as we know it is divided into six classes: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition and emotion. These in turn are divided into sections (existence, relation, quantity, etc.) and then once again into headings. Each heading is an initial idea that then opens up and leads the reader down a winding path of abstract notions. Existence becomes being, entity, subsistence, life, eternity, perpetuity, realisation, evolution, creation… and so on.

Peter Mark Roget was obsessed with symmetry, being a man of his age and a subscriber to the Victorian desire for order and harmony. By the age of 8 he was already an adept list maker, and it would later act as a refuge for him from the chaos and ill mental health that would plague his family.

Of course there is the reliable index in a more traditional dictionary style, but the book also constructs a framework of words and related meanings that spread outwards in ever increasing patterns, one half of the spiderweb in synonyms and the other in antonyms. While I frequently scrambled through the index during my pressurised exam time, I did find myself being enticed down different paths and notions by a list of words that seem to sprout from the page and trail off in different directions. Its design nudges you to detach yourself from the language you know so well and observe it from a distance. This new perspective gives you a greater sensitivity to the nuance of meaning. This not just a very useful tool for a linguist, but an essential skill for anyone.

Recently the book was named in The Guardian’s 100 best non-fiction books. One perceptive commentator made the point that the fact that Roget had been particularly concerned about accuracy in the use of language and how “false logic might sway the unthinking multitude”, was more relevant now more than ever in our present political discourse. If he had only known that it is far more than the “unthinking multitude” that is swayed by calculated distortions of language.

Reading Roget’s thesaurus reminds me of browsing in a secondhand bookshop

Febre de Carrer

Street fever is a collection of eight stories by the Catalan author Mercé Ibarz about individuals who observe their present lives though the prism of the past. From a childlike view of the world that belies a more sophisticated understanding of human nature to a history of the defiant working class construction of a city neighbourhood, she constructs an understanding of the present through a transverse vision of layers of history.

Each story portrays some kind of transformation of the character as they look back on their lives to find meaning. Each of them feels a distance between their selves (and in some cases within themselves) and the rest of the world. They feel they must show themselves in some way. All of them make some kind of journey (on foot, bus, car, train) that activates their memories.

Una modesta proposició (A modest proposal) is a story about three women, Catalan, Argentinean and Serbian, who decide to drive to the beach outside the city one day. They are forced to divert from the usual route because of roadworks, and while they drive around getting lost, the reminisces of each one takes them on a different journey into their pasts. They end the day by celebrating the common story they now share.

Ibarz’s characters are protective and defensive about their own internal spaces but at the same time yearn to be part of the city they inhabit. The weight of history bears heavily on them, and they sift through it in order to find their place in the present. Ibarz herself has spoken of that “…uncomfortable feeling that comes from the sensation that history moves so quickly that the past doesn’t exist”.

El Carrer (The street) brings us back to the Barcelona of the 1960s when newly arrived immigrants, most of them tradesmen, built their own houses from leftover materials. They created their own neighbourhood at the foot of the mountain, at the time outside the boundary of the city. The narrator in the story visits one of their descendants, still living on the same street of little houses, each one built in their own style over time. The woman decides it is her job to educate her visitor about the working class pride of the neighbourhood, and they leave the city on a day trip to visit another row of houses, built in the same manner on the beachfront in a little town in the south, where those same people would go to spend their weekends in the summer. These immigrants built their communities from nothing outside official city boundaries, but the neighbourhoods are now part of the city’s history. References to cinema, history and culture are all discussed, and the woman succeeds in highlighting the narrator’s narrow sense of about what it means to be Catalan.

Dinar a la boqueria (Lunch at la boqueria) is a glimpse of an intense relationship between mother and son that suddenly brings us back to the Catalan exiles at Roissy-en-Brie after the Spanish Civil War. The very personal story of a couple’s journey to deliver a print by Picasso moves from intimate details of their marriage (and her relationship with her son) to the wider setting of exiled artists at the time a fascist force controlled the country.

It is a book about a present that can only be known through the past, and how a small detail of ordinary life opens up a world of past lives and histories. The isolation of the individual and their place in the world is addressed by situating them somewhere: the sense of alienation is usually resolved through the stories of other people. Sharing our memories creates a space for common past, a reference from where to see the present. It is also a vivid portrait of Barcelona the city as it is today, and the tension between the past and present.

Barcelona as seen from Montjuïc, May 2020

An bhfuil cead agam

Officially ‘bilingual’, I am more of a monolingual speaker of an English that lives with the ghost of another language peering over its shoulder. While Ireland has two official languages and Irish is a compulsory subject in schools, less than 2 percent of the population uses the language daily. An bhfuil cead agam? (Do I have permission?) is a phrase most of the population knows because it is used to ask the teacher’s permission in primary school. For most of us, on a conscious level Irish brings us back to the classroom where it was another subject to learn. However, there are unconscious traces of the language in our everyday speech and perception of the world.

Irish-English is the palimpsest of the most widely spoken language in the world placed over the ancient, pre-Latinate tongue of a small community with little or no capacity for the abstract. English easily accommodates the use of the conceptual: whereas the verb ‘esperar’ in Spanish would be used for the vastly different ideas of ‘to wait, to expect or to hope’. In Irish, the phrase for the same notion would be ‘tá súil agam’ ‘I have an eye’ which would be only way to describe the idea that you were looking towards the future – your eye was physically placed in a different place. It makes for interesting translations and descriptions that Irish-English speakers use daily.

There are studies about the influence of Irish on English spoken in Ireland, about grammar, syntax, and pronunciation, but technical study can not address the sense of hearing or using a language that is ‘ours’ but not really spoken by us. We use certain words in Irish, and it is considered an affectionate gesture to call a person by the Irish version of their name (James becomes Séamus, David becomes Dáithi, etc.) Calling a person with an Irish name by the English version is not the same, however – it creates an officious distance. There are no such words as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, which also affects the speech of the Irish native: ‘Are you going? I am. Did you? I did. Was she? She was. It may seem like a simple substitute for the affirmative or negative response to the question, but it also a way of intensifying the meaning.

Sometimes this feeling of a thin membrane that separates the two languages (and the two universes) stretches very thin and becomes almost transparent. There is a feeling of proximity when hearing some words in Irish: you are reminded of your place in the world. Then a vast expanse opens up again as you realise you understand very little, and you are a small child again, asking the teacher for permission.

Ruin near Ballyvaughan, County Clare

A soft day

Looking out on what is known as ‘a soft day’ in Ireland, with its constant light misty rain is the perpetual Sunday afternoon sensation of lockdown. My desk is by the window and I see the charcoal drawn poplars against a woolly grey sky, full of little black birds. A soft day is the ultimate test of your immediate state of well-being, the supreme challenge to the mind that feels the pressure to be productive. There is nothing you can do about a soft day. You just have to accept it as it is and any attempt to imprint your consciousness on it just leads to frustration. It is what it is and while it might not be very beautiful, it is a gentle way of instructing us in the ancient art of meditation. There is a still windless silence under a film of rain that is almost imperceptible, but at the same time weighs more than water. On an island where the weather traditionally changes every twenty minutes, the soft day settles down on the land from dawn to dark, slowly weighing the earth down with more and more water.

Fanore Beach, County Clare, October 2020

What’s in a name?

The first job was to come up with a name: no easy task indeed. A way to describe myself clearly that would not hinder my chances of getting a job. Was I ‘the curious translator’? I suppose I was, but then so were many other people. I was also amused, obsessed, vigilant, inquisitive, pedantic, eager, considerate, intrigued, bold, distracted, infatuated…

Pernickety felt about right, but it left out the awe I feel when I come across a beautiful piece of writing (and again with a beautiful translation) and the avid curiosity about the meaning of words. And then scribe is a nice sounding word which lends itself to images of great concentration and diligence, but it also suggests the art of making copies, which is not really an apt description of my intentions.

But while translation is not merely reproducing a text, there is a ghostly quality about the craft: it should not attract attention to its own form. The phantom scribbler? The two words aren’t very compatible with each other and don’t roll off the tongue like thepernicketyscribe. It sounds a little more like a very studious Marvel character.

Finally, to borrow a notion from Emily Dickinson, who sent warm wishes to a friend hoping that “your rambles have been sweet, and your reveries spacious,” I thought that the spacious reverie might be a good title for the type of blog I was thinking of.

     I hope your rambles have been sweet, and your reveries spacious,”     – Emily Dickinson

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