How a Library Changed my Life – Luis Torres

I want to tell you a story. At first, it was supposed to be about libraries, but somehow it ended up being about tables and bookcases in clean and well-lighted places.


There are 3 things that have always brought comfort to most people: safe places, community, and stories. That’s why, in these trying times —when finding a safe place can be challenging, minority communities are oppressed, and books are banned for daring to speak freely— we need libraries more than ever.


As with any story, this one contains many others —digressions and bits that could have been footnotes— and I don’t want you to get lost. For that reason, and given that it’s a story about libraries, I decided to guide you through it using the Dewey decimal classification system.


We’ll begin in section 599.5. This number specifically covers the category of marine mammals.


599.5 Marine Mammals


I was born in the desert. I went to the sea for the first time when I was eight years old. However, thanks to our encyclopedia, I knew the names of the most common whales in Mexico’s Pacific waters: the grey whale, the humpback whale, and the blue whale. Not being able to read yet, I memorised every detail of the illustrations: the anatomy, the proportions, and the subtle curvature of their immense bodies. My first experience with books wasn’t reading the words, but the images. However, that wasn’t enough. If I wanted to be an expert, a Mexican Jacques Cousteau, I also needed to read the words: all the long articles or at least the footnotes —you can always pretend to know everything by reading those. Alas, that wasn’t an easy task.


372.4 Reading


During the first year of primary school, my mum was told I would be at risk of repeating the year if I wasn’t able to read fluently by the end of the Easter holidays. So, she decided, that no matter what, I would improve in the next two weeks. And we spent all those days sitting next to each other at the kitchen table. On its bright-red formica surface, she placed everything we needed: notebooks, pencils and a pile of books. The plan was to make me fall


in love with books and consequently with reading. On the first day, we read together the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and given the success of the aquatic theme, on the second day, we continued with Jason and the Argonauts. Then on the third day, it was my turn to read on my own one of the two, and I started reading, one syllable at a time, “Juno and the Nargotuas”. My mum looked at me in disbelief. She knew I wouldn’t dare to play such a silly trick on her, because after all the effort she had made it was obvious her patience was running thin. Therefore, there was only one explanation, I was slightly dyslexic. With no other pedagogical knowledge than her common sense, my mum decided that the best thing I could do was to read as many books as I could aloud.


“It’s like dancing”, she said. “The more you practice, the better you’ll get. You are going to read aloud and listen to yourself and if it doesn’t make sense you’ll go back and read again. Just follow the sounds and you’ll find your way.”


As a reward for my daily efforts, she emptied the only bookcase we had at home, usually filled with cooking and new-age books, and we replaced it with the ones she knew I would like the most. That’s how that bookcase and that table in our clean and well-lighted kitchen became my first, and most beloved library.


In Greek, the word for bookcase and library is the same: βιβλιοθήκη. I’ll stop there, as I’m no expert in etymology, but my point is that Greeks understand that, in essence, a small bookcase at home is the same as the biggest library in the world: a place to keep close all the books we need.


821 English poetry


During my school days, in that forgotten era with no internet, one of the main reasons to go to the public library was to do group assignments —obviously something I dreaded. I’m not saying all libraries were the same, but the experience of visiting ours was like reviving the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, where the half-human, half-bull monster that lived inside the labyrinth was the ill-tempered librarian. And of course, we were the heroes, trying to get in and out without disturbing the beast. Who, I have to say, probably, was just a misunderstood monster, one of the least likeable kinds, but a creature of nature at the end.


As the librarian didn’t want to deal with any additional trouble we were always told to avoid certain sections of the library: she would say something like, “These sections are the only ones you need to do your homework, so stay away from anywhere else”. And the poetry section, of course, was part of those forbidden places. I’ll never know if it was just disobedience or answering the call of the hero’s journey, but one day I decided to cross the threshold into the unknown and defy the monster. Walking into the forbidden paths of the poetry section was like entering a haunted house. I felt chills down my spine when I stepped in and the moment I took a book from the shelf I knew there was no way back.


The cover read Blake. When I opened it I found a Tyger burning bright. I couldn’t understand all the words, but I saw the flames. I flipped the pages. I was shaking. I got lost in the forest of the night. And of course, I wanted more. But I had defied the monster and I had to pay the price. I was told how perverse my act was. While tearing my library card in two the librarian said, “Imagine if you had found Sappho, Whitman, Brecht or Angelou”.


The only reason why I regret not being allowed back is that I never got an explanation of why these poets were so dangerous. Luckily this incident didn’t keep me away from libraries, it was quite the opposite, I had looked the tiger in the eyes and I wanted more. That’s the library that unintentionally changed my life forever.


325.1 Immigration


As an immigrant living in Athens, I’m faced again with the inability to read. Given that Greek has its own alphabet, you don’t just learn to speak it but you need to learn to read all over again.


So, I’m a 40-something-year-old immigrant who is not able to read fluently and my mum is not here to help. However, I have to confess that, despite the practical inconveniences, being in this position as an adult has been a blessing in disguise. I’ve come to appreciate the process of putting together letters and sounds, and then long sentences that carry meaning, and it’s incredible. However, I had to stay away from Greek libraries for a while, as I am not able to read a book (yet). That, obviously, makes me sad but also appreciative of the benefits and privileges of being a literate person. I’ve been brought back to those childhood days when I could only read the images, and again I want to able to also read the words. I want to


know what the signs in the streets say and mostly I want to go back to the libraries because they are my safe place.


305.8 Multiculturalism


Kypseli (Κυψέλη), which in Greek means beehive, is the name of one of the most lively and harmonious areas in Athens, and it’s also home to a multilingual community library named “We Need Books”.


In one of the many commercial buildings that were abandoned during the crisis, a whole community, like the most organised, buzzing and thriving beehive, works towards the same goal: building a safe space to keep close all the books it needs.


Unlike the library of my school days, the first time I was there, I felt welcome. There were books everywhere; some were organised on the shelves, but there were also piles over the tables, and others were still waiting inside cardboard boxes. Books donated by the community; books that were loved and read many times before; books that were forgotten, with broken spines and scratched covers; books cherished like a treasure, with shiny golden letters; books in French, German, English, Spanish, Greek and Farsi. There were books everywhere, and I was happy.


Was this a library? Yes. There were bookcases and tables. And it was also a clean and well-lighted place. Worn carpets and sofas, living their best second life, created cosy corners where the visitors read quietly, away from the noise and vertigo of the outside world.


In “We Need Books” everyone has their own special corner and their own special readings. Ali, for example, always sits in the red armchair under the window overlooking the garden. On that Louis XV-style armchair, embraced by the light and quietness of his favourite corner, he has read all the available translations of Nikos Kazantzakis into Farsi.


813.52 American fiction (20th century)


One day, while I was volunteering to organise some of the shelves, Ali approached me. The conversation led us to one of the common topics among immigrants: our nationalities. When I told him I was Mexican his face lit up with joy and he said:


“I can’t believe it. My favourite writer is Mexican. His name is…”

I didn’t quite understand the name, but the closest thing I got was Hemingway. I was confused, there was no direct connection with Mexico, but in my head, I deduced that since Hemingway wrote about Spain, Ali made a connection with Mexico somehow. However, his enthusiasm stopped me from asking him to repeat the name and I tried to confirm which author he was talking about by saying:

“Which of his books is your favourite?”

“I like all his books, but there’s one story in particular. Wait, I have to translate the title because I only know it in Farsi”. After using the translator on his phone he said: “A bright and clean place”.

I didn’t recognise it, but I promised him I would look up the story and read it. When I got home I searched for it and it turned out that the title was A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway. A short, sad and powerful story. A story that speaks of what becomes essential when you have nothing: “light… and a certain cleanness and order”. For the character in the story, it was a café, for us, it was a library, our library.

I know I said the library that changed my life was the one of my school days, but I think I’ve changed my mind. We Need Books is that library now. The one I share with Ali and my community, all the other immigrants like me who need a clean, well-lighted place with its tables and its bookcases to keep close all the stories we need.

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