Tuesday 31 March 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About My School's Library)

This week 'Living in a Bilingual World' is inspired by Rachel Cooke's impassioned feature in The Observer a few days ago. Please, read her article first in order to understand my column better.

The year was 1983. The season was autumn, the beginning of it at any rate. Although, if true be told, we don't have a proper autumn in Cuba, except for the dry yellow leaves one crushes on the ground walking here and there. As the song by Carlos Varela goes: 'Here leaves fall down, too'. That September, though, the air had acquired a crisp, metallic smell which I lapped up on my way to school everyday. I had just started year 7 at a local secondary school (ESBU as we called it in those days) and my younger self was confused as to the changes taking place in my life. The summer before had been difficult to say the least. My mother and father were having terrible marital problems and as a consequence I had failed my first exam ever. This was a situation that would recur in my new educational establishment a couple of years hence. I sought refuge in Crusoe's island to which I arrived on Jules Vernes' submarine. I became familiar with the sounds and letters of the English language for the first time. I wanted to escape, somewhere, anywhere. And I was not even a teenager yet.

In order to get to my secondary school, I had to walk a set of blocks down a busy avenue full of cars and smog. I was in the afternoon session so therefore had the morning to do Physical Education (PE) and Work Education (Educación Laboral). My initial impression when I arrived at the school the first day was that it was not as bad as people made it out to be. I had been told that I was going to the worst secondary school in Havana. I was hoping they would be wrong, but in the end they turned out to be right. After the first few weeks of the new academic year the flimsy coat of paint that had been sprayed across its front was peeling off, revealing centuries-old layers of decay and neglect. The windows had been smashed again. Maybe on year 8's floor? Or was it year 9's? Who cared? Nobody did. Nobody does, still.

From the outset I stood out, but not in a positive light, at least to my classmates. My teachers adored me, I was their little pet, studious and labourious, I always handed in my assignments on time and never wasted class time talking or being silly. All I was missing was the glasses to represent the perfect geek. It goes without saying that I was picked on quickly by the school bullies (although I gave as good as I got) and that my days in school transformed themselves into battlegrounds for survival. If Darwin wanted further proof of his theory of the species, I was the living example of it. And I hated it.

One day after my Work Education morning session the teacher in charge of our class summoned me to her department. She said that there were going to be a group of students who would be selected to join the library scheme. This was a programme whereby all pupils had to take part in library-related activities, whether it be maintenance of the books, administration or registration. I jumped at the idea without any second thoughts.

Some weeks later I made my way up the stairs of the old school building. As I went up the dimly lit stairs (the lift was for only for school staff) the smell of urine hit me in the nostrils and almost knocked me out. It was a habit of year 7 and year 8 students from the afternoon session to pee in the corners of the stairs when exiting the building at the end of the day. At this time of the year the shadows grew longer and the days shorter and with the poor lighting the school had it was nigh impossible to capture the culprits. But we all knew who they were.

On the first floor of the building I reported for my first day at the school library. It was a quaint little room that looked more like a detention cubicle than a place where reading was encouraged. Several slogans hung from the walls and there were publicity flyers for competitions that were never run. The librarian was polite and humorous. I still think after all these years that she was surprised to see that the, by now, famous 'Philosopher' and 'Inglesito (Little Englishman)', my two nicknames at the time, was a black boy with short hair and vivacious eyes. She did crack a couple of politically incorrect jokes which I refuse to reproduce here out of respect for my readers and fellow bloggers. But that has always been the nature of racial relations in Cuba, it's like the uncle who cracks unfunny jokes about the groom at the wedding party but we are too embarrassed or polite to deal with him.

I was told there and then what my responsibilities would be, above all, the librarian said, I was there to learn how a library functioned as this was my part of the school curriculum, albeit not subject to a final examination. I don't need to add that I was over the moon about the opportunity to work in such a creative enviroment; I plunged into the role headfirst. Some of the activies in which I engaged at the time were: book-mending, cataloguing, labelling and filing. My favourite one was book-mending. Averse to blood from a young age I knew that medical school would never be my calling, however there was definitely a magical effect on me whenever I mended a book and brought it back to life. To this day that remains one of my strongest passions and my children can aver to that. Woe betide if either of them ever leaves a book face down with its pages spread-eagled on the floor.

I spent a whole year - academic year, that is - at the library and in between repairing novels by Dumas and filing non-fiction books I would steal a moment or two to read Agatha Christie or Edgar Allan Poe. The skills I acquired in that autumn served me well for the coming winter in '84 when I suddenly found myself at my mum's work instead of being in the countryside with the rest of the school during our work experience. My mum worked then (and still does) at a copyright agency and I was tasked with cabinet-filing. I managed to do it so well that I had extra time to devote myself to one of my passions: reading.

Years later...

1992. Autumn. Fourth year in university. I had been part of the Carolyn Duval's Improvisation Theatre Workshops (long story behind the name, by the way, maybe in another post) since winter that year and my face was recognisable in certain quarters. Like at the post-graduate teachers' library. This was a room situated at the far end of the Foreign Languages Faculty at the Varona Pedagogic Institute (re-baptised Pedagogic University some time after). Though still an undergraduate student I managed to book myself on a couple of post-graduate courses by the writer Dick Cluster and the drama tutor Wallace Bullock. In the meantime I still attended rehearsals with Danielle Fauteaux, our very own theatre director. In between my involvement in amateur theatre and my role as teaching assistant (alumno ayudante) I managed to sneak into the 'Americans library' (as it used to be called, regardless of the fact that there were Canadians and Brits in there, too) and borrow the books that were officially censored. It was also the beginning of my life-long literary affair with Margaret Atwood's oeuvre, a fling that has lasted well over seventeen years now. Her 'Handmaid's Tale' was haunting and having read it straight after Orwell's '1984' I admit to having had nightmares at the time. My own society was sinking in the miasma of political rhetoric and the veil over my eyes (already pierced) was peeling off once and for all. It was the time also when I discovered Dean Moriarty's thirst for living life to the full in Jack Kerouac's immortal novel 'On the Road'.

And then...

Fourteen years after I had climbed up the dirty and dimly-lit stairs of my old school building to start my library stint and continue my life-long love affair with reading and five years after I had become a regular presence at the 'American's library', I found myself in a similar institution in London. My son, a few months old was with me and my wife. The air had acquired a crisp, metallic smell which I lapped up on my way to work everyday. We were there as part of a Parents and Toddlers group, although some of the children were as young as our own offspring. In the UK there is a scheme whereby you can register your child at your local library the minute they are born. It is free and reaps good results in the long-term as I can attest.

Since there are no public libraries in Havana, only the school ones and the main one, Biblioteca Nacional (National Library), I was surprised to see so many in my borough when I arrived in London. It was a real delight to place an order for a book that I had already read years before but whose companionship I sought again, like 'The Idiot' by Dostoyevsky. I attended poetry readings and new releases by children's authors. I also began to perform in public libraries. My story-telling act caught the attention of a few librarians and as a result a group of musicians, a visual artist and me started doing the rounds in some libraries in the British capital.

And yet, this blissful experience is coming to an end, or at least having a makeover, and a very bad one indeed the way I see it. As Rachel Cooke's article points out more and more libraries are closing in the UK per year. As it is usually the case, when culture is left to the technocrats, bureaucrats and Philistines, it suffers. A couple of years ago I signed an online petition to bring dance to the fore and give it the high profile it deserves. Last year I found myself seated next to Sir Ian Mc Kellen at the Young Vic, in south London, with plenty other artists, arts organisations, companies and independent practitioners, passing a 'vote of no confidence' in Arts Council England for its mishandling and mismanagement of its funding scheme. I do not usually put my head above the parapet but sometimes causes call for one to abandon the comfortable fence which one is blithely straddling and jump off it and kick up a fuss, shout, scream and demand. Especially when a building to encourage creativity, imagination and thinking is closed and a new one opens in a shopping centre ('mall' as they call it across the pond).

It is ironic that the word 'library' is a false cognate term in Spanish (read here for more info on the subject of 'cognate' and false cognate' words) as my native tongue comes from the dead Italic lexicon. Although it does stem from Latin 'librārius', the Spanish equivalent is 'biblioteca', not 'librería', the latter translates as 'bookshop'. And as more and more libraries disappear, the selling aspect of a shop is all that remains in lieu de the old 'chest for books', as the government makes space for more retail outlets. The air again has acquired a crisp, metallic smell, but I am not lapping it up anymore.

Note: This post was amended on Thursday 2nd April, 2009. Instead of 'book-binding' which I have never done, it should have read 'book-mending' an activity in which I still engage. I have also included John Harris' article in today's Guardian on the same subject. Thanks.

Copyright 2009


  1. Hello Mr Cuban,
    this story brought to mind my own library experiences. In my suburb of Christchurch NZ we had a public library, as did most suburbs. When I was about 7 I rode my bike down to the library and joined up. I was so excited to come home with an armload of books.. One was Noddy and Big Ears, another the Secret Seven.
    Later I can remember the smell of my high school library, up the flight of stairs, as I moved on to Leon Uris...
    thanks for the memories.

  2. My friend I too miss the libraries. Which are now here neglected and which bookstores seem to be taking over.

  3. I used to work at the college library in S. Lake Tahoe, California. I loved that job, believe it or not. It paid almost nothing, but the people I worked with were lovely and it was so wonderful just being around so many books.

    In high school I had a teacher who said, "If you want to prepare for the future of America, learn Spanish." Did I listen? Nope, I took French.

    She was right. If I spoke Spanish I could use it every single day. Why didn't I listen?

  4. I, too, lived in and for libraries from earliest childhood until well into adult years. Then, with dollars in my pocket, I found it preferable to run to a bookstore, buy what I wished and run home, rather than endure standing in lines, waiting days for a book to be returned so I could obtain it, having to return a book at what always seemed to be an inconvenient time and dealing with librarians who always seemed too busy to answer questions. Perhaps it is my fault libraries are closing.

    Now, later still, with the advent of the internet, I find it preferable to shop online and have books delivered to my door, so I no longer have to trouble myself with driving crowded roads, standing in lines and dealing with sales people who try to sell me things I do not want. Have you noticed? In the U.S., at least, many smaller bookstores are closing. Perhaps it is my fault.

    Take care, CiL ....

  5. Thank you for sharing your life story, Cuban,
    It brought my own, similar and sad memories of my childhood in USSR…
    …We were raised happy and proud citizens of the best country in the world…. As strange as it may sound, I missed that country…

  6. Thanks for your kind comments.

    No, Fram, you're not to blame. You're still reading, whether it be shopping online, or rushing down to the nearest bookshop, you're still reading. In the UK the government is trying to turn libraries into cafes, the equivalent of Starbucks. I still can't believe that a minister complained recently that people were shushed in libraries, he saw nothing wrong with people talking in a loud voice.

    That's what I meant, Fram, you're still reading, my friend, don't forget that.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Qué tal, Cuban!
    Preparar el evento a su pasito me ha comido algo el tiempo blogueando pero paso hoy a saludarte, recordando también mis tiempos de antan~o... En aquellos an~os leí muchísimo, la colección Radar casi completa.

  8. Agu, la coleccion de Radar? Madre mia! Lo que me has recordado.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  9. I did read Rachel's story. The inspiration you obviously drew from it is inspirational in its turn. Our local libraries are devoted more and more to computers and the web, I fear.

  10. What a nice story! Libraries have changed so much over the years. I'm afraid I wouldn't recognize the ones of my childhood - no card catalogues, no banks of encyclopedias I would get all my references from for book reports. Your story brought back a flood of memories, and I thank you!

  11. the day libraries disappear would be the saddest day in my life...it brings to mind the pleasant sound of the post dropping through the letterbox in the morning here in london, now what use is e mail, you cannot hear that familiar sound!but 'snail mail' is fast disappearing, people just don't write letters anymore!. so sad.

  12. Many thanks to all for your kind comments.

    soulbrush, like you, I love that metallic sound of the post falling through the letterbox.

    Greetings from London.

  13. I love libraries. I use two at regular basis. But you know how much I love books so that's no wonder.

    I really like this post. I would love to read the whole book "Living in a Bilingual World". Thanks!

  14. Thank you for sharing your library experiences, Cuban. I had a great aunt from London who would send books every year at Christmas to Alberta, as she had done for my mother. This started my love of books and reading, and early visits to the library. Now once my research for writing history articles and my own fiction manuscripts is over, I donate those books to the local library.

  15. Very interesting you comment on The Handmaid's Tale. I was talking to my roomate about that book last time we were in Cuba but she had never read it. It was on our curriculum in school in Canada, not sure if it is still there.

    We were forced to spend hours in the library when I was in highschool, and luckily in Canada it seems they are building more and not tearing them down.

  16. My parents were voracious readers and shared their delight in the written word with my sister and me from the time our eyes first focused! Later, when I went to school as a boarder, the library became my place of refuge after the rigorous schedule of lessons and the hectic, clamorous fun of the playground. I started at the As and slowly, quietly, happily made my way through the alphabet, chosing the books carefully as I did so. At Uni, under the tutelage of Professor Andre Brink, I continued my reading adventures.

    Later still, Guy and I passed on our love of books to our daughters. We've used the libraries of every city we've ever lived in and continue to do so here in England. What an absolute travesty if they were to close.

    Thank you, Mr. Cuban, once again for an illuminating and interesting post - and for bringing this to our attention. Starbucks instead of a library? Hell, no!

  17. I think you know how much I thoroughly enjoyed this booky post!

    Book binding is something I've always been fascinated with, since I always get a thrill just holding a book in my hands.

    Ahhh...that crisp metallic smell of autumn. Even though spring is in the air, I am still homesick for autumn.

  18. Hola Cuban.
    (habamos muy poquito Espanol amigo - and I'm sure that I don't have that in the right context, lol).
    I am a library skulker. I love my local public library and can't imagine what I would do without it.
    Another wonderful post my friend.

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  19. I love library posts. You set a scene and create a mood with your well chosen words.

    This post is evocative of the book I reviewed today about a child whose parents are having marital problems – she also escapes into stories. I’m sorry you had to live through this, but it’s good that you found refuge in books. I got targeted by bullies too. Nonconformists? Racist jokes are never funny.

    You might be interested in the book I’m reading now about a book archivist, Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book. I hope to finish it in time to review next week.

    You got to sit next to Ian McKellen – I’m so jealous. I saw him in Richard III – best acting ever. It’s good that you are trying to make a difference.

    I really enjoyed your book themed memoir.

  20. Thank you very much for your kind words.

    Polly, I have been trying to flog my 'Living in a Bilingual World' columns for aeons now :-)! Any newspaper editor online now?

    Tessa, like you I had also two parents who were bookworms, my dad more than my mum, to be honest. And my wife and I are both voracious readers, too, so we have passed down that literary gene to our children, too.

    Barbara, what an adorable memory! Many thanks for sharing.

    Veronica, I have probably read 'The Handmaid's Tale' four or five times now. Other titles by Atwood I have read include (I'm using my memory, which is never very reliable when it comes to book titles): 'Surfacing', 'Bodily Harm', 'Cat's Eye'? 'The Edible Woman' and 'The Blind Assassin'. I'm sure I have missed one or two. I admit that I will have to go back to some of the ones I mentioned before because one rule of the 'Americans' Library' was that you had to return the books on time. I had to borrow them through my literature teachers. So speed-reading was a must.

    Sarah, I loved your post today because it was so honest and open. I will check out that Geraldine's book and of course I look forward to your review next week.

    Willow, you know you're my soulmate when it comes to books. And thanks for your review of 'Nowhere in Africa'. I'll be watching it soon.

    Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  21. Ey!! Saludos desde Barcelona... pufff... ni idea de dónde saqué la foto, la verdad... mi sentido de la orientación es pésimo, iba sin mapa y anduve mucho... :-) Si averiguo te digo!!! Sigue bien!!!!!

  22. Eso me parecio el este de Londres, pero igual puede ser cualquier otra parte.

    Muchas gracias.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  23. thanks for sharing your story. Rings many bells. Best wishes

  24. And I certainly do love libraries.

  25. Many thanks, rising. Your comments were much appreciated.

    Greetings from London.

  26. Qué bien escribes, Cubano.

    Closing of libraries, and in the UK of all places... a real sad sign of the times.

    I have worked for the British Council for many years, and one of the roles of this organisation is to promote "UK's excellence in education, culture and the arts", among other things, at an international level. I have always been proud of my British education and I have always felt proud to talk about UK's educational excellence (at least at certain institutions, not all of them!).

    However, when I read about some of the things happening in the UK, in the fields of arts, culture and education (such as this that you are pointing out), I become outraged. It is very sad indeed.

  27. Ah, una pila de recuerdos y visiones de escaleras...Sabroso el escrito.
    Lamento mi ausencia de las bibliotecas de la escuela, siempre fui bastante majadero, sin embargo ya tarajayU , regresE por mi cuenta a la Biblioteca Nacional para encontrarme con Camus y no parar hasta Epicurus...

    Me pregunto cuanto hubiera perdido, si entonces no hubiese tenido acceso a esos libros?

    Que bueno lo de tus performance cuban, Metele, no te rajes... ;)


  28. Many thanks, Susana and asereSON.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  29. M.Cuban in London-
    Firstly, and yet again I say, I hope you have a book of your own on the way- you are indeed, a fabulous story teller. The world needs stories like yours to bring us all back to the basics which is why our societies can not afford to remove real life access to books for young and old. Nothing will replace the experience of turning pages, of the smells and sounds we associate with reading. The immediacy of the culture of the internet has its merits, yet it breeds potential impatience and an unnatural expectation of instant gratification. I see it in my own children,sadly! In coming to France,to a small village I had hoped they would learn to appreciate process as much as product. And I fear my long hours fostering other children's health in hospitals ,sometimes working 3 jobs for over 100 hours a week,(ugh) left my own precious children without enough reading! --without enough reading appreciation! Alas, I hope my husband's & my constant reading teaches by example--en plus there is a new and fabulous library here - which has seen extraordinary demand!!Have a great day there in London and know even your stories about mending books have mended more than that.
    Salut du Midi.

  30. Many thanks, dancing, your words are soothing to say the least. A book in the making? More than fifteen years and only forty-seven pages written is the response :-).

    But one day... one day...

    Greetings from London.

  31. I do enjoy reading your posts...no matter the topic. Libraries are sacred places to me; the loss of funding and imminent closures makes me weep.

  32. I, too, diva, feel sad for one of the oldest traditions in this country. Local libraries in the UK are renowned for their service to their local community. Ours is as important to me as it was when I first visited it all those many years ago when I had just arrived in London. Many thanks for you comment.

    Greetings from London.

  33. Cuban,

    Qué post tan delicioso! Casualmente ayer fui a la biblioteca del centro cultural donde mis hijas pasan su curso de historietas. Se nota cierta falta de renovacion en los titulos, pero alli estan, aun al alcance de todos. También ofrecen la Internet gratis, cosa que me hizo pensar en Cuba. Por cierto, aproveché para tomar unas fotos que pondré en un post pronto, ya veras por qué. De ahi nos fuimos a la biblioteca publica de mi barrio, que es muy moderna. Esta si es con todos los hierros, pero descubri que estan imitando la formula que ya ha entrado en vigor en algunos paises europeos: te cobran por algunos titulos y por los CD's y DVD's! Es muy poco lo que cobran, pero la sola idea me dejo de piedra.

    Vuelvo a tu post, qué ambiente tan intimista! Me transportaste a la biblioteca del Guiteras, a la de Artes y Letras, a la de la Colina y a nuestra biblioteca Nacional. Soy una ferviente enamorada de las bibliotecas y librerias. El amor por los libros es mi mas antigua y visceral pasion. Mis hijas lo heredaron. Simplemente, no concibo la felicidad en esta vida sin ellos.

    Gracias por compartir esta historia de vida con la que me identifico tanto. Saludos desde mi desvelo montrealense!

  34. Muchas gracias a ti isabella por tu comentario.

    Saludos desde Londres.



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