Who Owns Whom Part II

As I move uphill, I can’t help but notice the bookshop window with the rows of books looking out at me. I can see the owner, Gianluca, in the back.  I poke my head in and ask him how come he called his shop Arcimboldo. “Well, there’s that famous 16th century painter who created portraits using fruits and vegetables. Then one of my favorite authors, Bolaño, has a character named Archimboldi in his novel 2666.” I look at him and nod, acquainted with the painter but not with Bolaño. Will have to track him down. I wonder if Gianluca has read every book that comes into his shop. He must have at least perused them for he can tell you what they are all about. Now that is a job I think I would like.  Problem is there are some I wouldn’t want to sell. He agrees. “Ah yes. I’ve kept many at home too.”

Throughout the town Christmas lights are twinkling. But I start to go on, and just before the honey shop, a light goes on in my mind. It’s a red stop signal, a snare. “Fermati!“ We are of course in a small town in Italy, yet I think the language of books is universal. I can hear them clearly. No shilly shallying. “Hey, make room for us. Sure there’s the guy who wrote the book, there are the many characters who wander here and there and live their lives in the book, but you also have to make room for me, for the person who bought the book, who read it, who passed it on to others. For we are now inseparable. We have countless ideas to share with you, we have lots of stories to tell.” 

I’m tempted. But then I think of all the books that crowd the shelves in each room in my house and I tear myself away. “You’ll be sorry, come back tomorrow, we’re not going anywhere. Unless someone comes along and decides to adopt us, at least temporarily.”  And indeed there’s a slender book with an intriguing drawing on the cover perched at the right side of the shelf, and I figure I’ll ask Gianluca what it’s about when I pass by the next day. Too late. The next day it’s gone. Right now though there’s Gide (no, sorry, I tell him, you’re too complicated for me today), there’s Elio Vittorini, Il Sempione Strizza l’Occhio al Frejus. Is this the book I read years ago?  In English it was called The Twilight of the Elephant. Would love to compare the original with the translation.  There is Paul Verlaine, Poesie. A friend, who used to be a nun, introduced me to him when we were working on a translation of San Carlo Borromeo, of all things. And Dino Buzzati, Cronache di guerra – I loved his novel The Tartar Steppe, but I read it in Italian. Don’t know if I’m in the mood for his chronicles of the war. Still it is life, it is his life. Could be as if he were writing me those letters.

A book is sort of like a hand-written letter – it’s not just the information it contains, but its soul. Even though hand-written letters seem to be getting rarer and rarer, when I hold one in my hand, I feel I’m still in touch with the writer. And when I open that “used” book I am in touch with the writer, with all those who once held the book dear (or maybe not), and with the multitude of characters roaming through its pages.

Yes, dear David, I agree with you. Long live the book! And a happy 2023 full of books!

3 thoughts on “Who Owns Whom Part II

  1. I just went to the library and checked out Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. A doorstop tome, it may get the better of my patience, time and concentration span. There was a small shelf in the atrium with free books. I chose Imogen Holst’s slim volume on Benjamin Britten and James Carville’s And the Horse he Rode in On, just because the title titillated me. Keep your lovely posts coming. Diane says you are becoming more dextrous daily! Good news!
    James II


  2. Yes, long live the book! I so agree! And equally, long live booksellers and authors.
    I believe you prefer a printed book that you can hold in your hands and touch and smell to today’s electronic version. I feel the same way about the folio – it’s a sensual experience. However, I am equally enthusiastic about electronic books : they have such utility value. I can carry an entire library in my pocket, can enlarge the font, can search for a word or character or passage with the built-in search engine, and can look up the meaning or the translation of a word. I think I shall always want both forms. Both are little worlds full of ideas, information, imagination and diversion. Long live the book!


  3. As soon as I saw the line about the talking books (I can hear them clearly. No shilly shallying), I knew that this piece was going to speak to me. After all, as Erika well knows, I am somebody who has written about my conversations with a solitary pear, and my seven-year-old granddaughter doesn’t think that’s weird (“Why not?” says she. “A pear is a living thing.”)

    And then you go on to talk about the soul of a handwritten letter: “when I hold one in my hand, I feel I’m still in touch with the writer. And when I open that “used” book I am in touch… with all those who once held the book dear (or maybe not), and with the multitude of characters roaming through its pages.” But how about the power of a favorite book to put you back in touch with who you were each time you returned to it? Perhaps even in another language?

    You’ve already heard enough about my letters to men of letters, so I’m sure you understand why what you write here is calling out to me.


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