Wednesday, 28 May 2014
My life with books
I am making myself a cup of chocolate tea while debating whether I should buy yet another book by Keith A. Smith on bookbinding techniques. I like them, I am thinking, because... well, they read like books. I can sit down with my tea and read about the structure of books as if it were philosophy or religion, even. Well, ligature and religion kind of have the same origin. And then there is The Book. Books are powerful. I was happily reading somewhere that young people prefer real books to e-books. It doesn't take that long to make tea, but I am a very fast thinker, and I managed very quickly to run in my head a super fast film of my life with books. So here it is. I was born in Venice, in a flat full of books. My grandparents and great aunt could read many languages and had a massive collection of French, German and English classics. My great aunt read me stories, translating in real time without pauses or glitches. At the time, my father was head librarian at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. At home he had about 5000 books. We had no bare walls. I can't recall what my first reads were, probably Treasure Island and To Kill a Mockingbird. But the first love was Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, from a collection bound in red leather. I was ten. I would stand on top of my bed and recite, "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" Then I read The Rivers Ran East, in a thatched hut in Venice Lido, and the Secret Agent, and I started dreaming, dreaming of adventure, far away places, full of spies, and palaces and jungles. I knew that wherever I went, there would be another layer to beauty - the layer of literature. I got a job in a Russian library, age 14. I knew the alphabet, and that was sufficient. There was nothing to do, so I would go into one of the empty reading rooms and meditate lying on the floor while staring at the shelves. It was a good job. Then I worked in bibliographic research, at the age of 19. Before the Internet, finding books was difficult. So you needed book finders. Except that I wasn't finding anything, I only packaged the books and took them to the post office. The rest of the day I would read Lovecraft and all the dark spooky literature, like Derleth and Machen that were lurking in the dusty shelves. I dreamt of rooms without corners. Around that time I started to translate and proofread books, and study and accumulate degrees and all of that stuff that is kind of the backbone of my life as a freelance translator and writer. My adventure among books continued with a job at the British Library collating manuscripts, when it was still inside the British Museum. Walking through those corridors and handling those mysterious codexes was magical. Apparently some librarians in the past died in there because they got lost. Bodies were found years later. Then I became a book cataloguer for book dealers, handling the most incredible, fragile, bizarre specimen, and falling in love with bindings. I translated a book or two on the history of bookbinding and did research and scouting for a Milan publisher catering for the bibliophile. We had some great adventures trying to buy the rights of obscure books written by obscure writers. I ate the most wonderful veal milanese near his beautiful office, while chatting with the great writer and friend Hans Tuzzi. Then I indexed and proofread a world atlas for two years. I was paid to do arm chair travelling. I had to type fast and go through thousands of names, but I dream fast, so I dreamt a lot, especially about Mongolia, as it reverted to the Mongolian names of all its towns, rivers and mountains. I have written more Mongolian words than any of you, I bet. We pored over the published atlas with my best friend (and avid reader) and her family in her Genoa flat. Then we made a laurel wreath for my dad, when he was still alive. It hung in the kitchen for nearly six years. Now, well, I still translate, and read, and sometimes write books. And in between I bind books, draw and collage in books, and read Keith A. Smith, as if it were the best novel ever. Do I like books? I think I do.