It has now become commonplace to see that people hardly read books anymore – let alone physical ones – engrossed as we are by the demands of the digital age: scrolling, clicking, obsessively checking for likes and transforming emotions in sequences of small faces.
As a child, I constantly read books—along with everything else: the magazine that arrived every Sunday with the Austin American-Statesman at my parents’ house in Texas, the appliance warranty papers, the text on the breakfast cereal box. to eat lunch. Decades later, as I traveled the world in my twenties and thirties, reviving the habit of voracious reading was still on my to-do list — and yet it was inevitably easier to keep scrolling and to click.
Before spending February 2022 in Cuba, I hadn’t read a hobby book for almost a year – and I hadn’t even finished this one. Then, one afternoon in Havana, seized with a spontaneous determination, I set out to find a second-hand bookstore.
Maybe it’s because I already associated Havana with second-hand books, having visited the city in 2006 and acquired a massive biography of Cuban revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos, which I then transported to various countries as my intention to read it remained unfulfilled. Or maybe it was because Havana – with its effusive nostalgia and highly fetishized old-world charm – simply made me feel like I had to indulge in some romantic, pre-tech activity like reading a book. .
Whatever the reason for my sudden decision to be the person who actually goes to the bookstore rather than just fantasizing about it, I left my apartment near the port of Habana Vieja – Old Havana, the colonial district of the city – passing elegantly in ruins and not – Ruined architecture and the former haunts of García Lorca and Hemingway.
When I reached Calle Obispo, the site of the Ambos Mundos Hotel where Hemingway once lived and the kind of street that looked like a secondhand bookstore, I turned left – and, sure enough, there was Librería Victoria, the name rendered in the art deco stained glass window above the shop’s entrance. The interior was intoxicatingly filled with heaps of books and only a faint hint of organization beyond the obligatory prominent display of offerings from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Obviously, I couldn’t continue my bookstore experience without first taking a picture of the scene to post on Facebook.
Thoughts of Facebook began to fade, however, as I rummaged through piles of Borges and Neruda, Lenin and García Márquez, piles of children’s books, and a shelf dedicated to the Afro-Cuban struggle. In the end, I put aside two books by the Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti, whose existence I had not known until then, plus a book of poems by Neruda, and, finally, a Cuban atlas from 1978, whose the frayed blue blanket had been taken over by a rust-colored stain that had gone beyond the “B” and the “A” of “Cuba.”
The latest addition caused some hesitation, as I weighed issues such as luggage weight and what exactly one does with a 1978 Cuban atlas. But whim trumped reason, and I presented my four items to the merchant. Assuming that the prices penciled in on the first page of each book were just a starting point for negotiations – especially given the current financial situation in Cuba, where, for example, the 1,000 Cuban pesos written in pencil on the first page of the atlas corresponded to 40 dollars at the official exchange rate and 10 dollars on the black market – I offered a sum out of the blue.
The man agreed and started packing the books. I handed over the pesos, whereupon he redid the calculation and found my offer retroactively insufficient. I tried a gringo capitalist approach to the customer who is always right, according to which he could not go back on his initial acceptance; he countered by bellowing that I was crazy and launching into an impassioned tale of all the times customers had accidentally overpaid and he chased them down Calle Obispo to make things right. We shouted back and forth for several minutes – an exchange that was somehow not stressful at all but rather, I felt, an ode to life. Then we were friends and he gave me the books with a revised discount.
I took the treasures back to my apartment, where I laid them on the table and found the intimate thrill of inspecting second-hand books and the feeling of holding history, so to speak, in my hands. . One of the Benedetti books had apparently been acquired by a B Valiño on April 2, 1970, while the other had belonged to a Rebeca with an indecipherable last name and included a page torn from a 1986 diary: from Thursday February 6 to Wednesday 2 February 12.
Coincidentally, the date of my visit to the Librería Victoria was February 9 – although 36 years after the February 9 of the diary page in question, which also bore the contact details of a certain María de los Ángeles from the department of Psychology from the National University. from Costa Rica to Heredia. By another coincidence, the book itself – titled La Tregua (The Truce, published in 1960) – began with a diary entry on February 11. Even before I started reading, I felt a kind of captivating personal connection with the texts. – a connection that has been linked with B Valiño, Rebeca and María de los Ángeles from the psychology department.
There was no clue as to where Neruda’s book came from, but inside I found dried rose petals in the fold preceding a 1953 poem. inspired by Matilde Urrutia, then lover of Neruda, and the Italian island of Capri, evoking nostalgia for her native Chile. The upper right corner of page 141 was also folded and the title of the poem on that page, Con Ella (With her), was underlined with the first line of the poem: “Como es duro este tiempo; hope” – “This time it’s difficult. Wait for me”.
Moving on to the atlas, through which I spent countless hours browsing through colorful maps illustrating the mechanization of Cuban sugarcane agriculture by province in 1978 and the average regional surface water temperatures in summer and winter. . It was at least as good as reading the cereal box, I thought, and it was certainly time better spent than on the wasteland of humanity known as social media. On pages 102 and 103, another map showed key landmarks of the Cuban Revolution along with various imperial aggressions, including “counter-revolutionary infiltrations” and the inauguration of the US economic blockade of Cuba, illustrated with purple dashes surrounding the island. Officially enacted in 1962, the embargo continues to devastate the country as punishment for the crime of refusing to capitulate to capitalist rule.
Armed with my acquisitions from the Librería Victoria in Havana, I was quickly reminded of how invigorating and uplifting reading can be – and felt that I was exercising my “right to rest and leisure” quite solidly as he is registered in Section 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Capitalism, of course, has different ideas about human rights and prefers “leisure” activities that can be monetized – like staring at your cell phone screen, where the saturation of advertising and the opportunities for Unlimited consumption means you can still contribute to corporate tyranny even under the illusion of downtime.
Certainly, it has been shown that reading books improve mental healthreduce anxiety and provide much needed respite from the real and digital worlds which may be equally depressing. But that remains a luxury for many people around the world, who are often too busy trying to survive in a context of gross global inequality to think of the number of tractors in the Cuban province of Ciego de Ávila in 1978.
As Neruda wrote, “This time is hard.” And as we sink into ever tougher challenges – with less and less time to dream – here come even more rose petals.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.