Resurrection by reading: An ode to used books

On this World Book Day, let’s remember how invigoratingly edifying reading can be.

People browse through second hand books in a book shop in Havana
People chat and browse books at a second hand book shop in Havana, Cuba [Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images]

It has by now become platitudinous to remark that people hardly read books any more – and physical ones even less – absorbed as we are by the demands of the digital age: scrolling, clicking, obsessively checking likes, and converting emotions into sequences of little yellow faces.

As a child, I read books constantly – along with everything else: the magazine that arrived with the Austin American-Statesman every Sunday to my parents’ house in Texas, appliance warranty papers, the text on the cereal box at breakfast. Decades later as I travelled the world in my twenties and thirties, resurrecting the ravenous reading habit was always on my to-do list – and yet it was inevitably easier to just continue scrolling and clicking.

Prior to spending the month of February 2022 in Cuba, I had not read a book for leisure in nearly a year – and I had not even finished that one. Then, one afternoon in Havana, I was overcome with spontaneous determination and dispatched myself in search of a used bookstore.

Perhaps it was because I already associated Havana with used books, having visited the city in 2006 and acquired a massive biography of Cuban revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos, which I then had carted around to various countries while my intention of reading it remained unfulfilled. Or perhaps it was because Havana – with its effusive nostalgia and much-fetishised old-world charm – simply made me feel like I should be engaged in some romantic, pre-technological activity like reading a book.

Whatever the reason for my sudden decision to be the person that actually goes to the bookstore rather than just fantasising about it, I set out from my flat by the port in Habana Vieja – Old Havana, the city’s colonial quarter – passing elegantly crumbling and not-so-crumbling architecture and former haunts of the likes of García Lorca and Hemingway.

When I reached Calle Obispo, site of the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway once lived and the sort of street that looked like it would host a used bookstore, I turned left – and, sure enough, there was Librería Victoria, the name rendered in art deco stained glass above the shop entrance. The interior was intoxicatingly crammed with heaps of books and only a faint hint of organisation beyond the obligatory prominent display of offerings from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Obviously, I could not proceed with my bookshop experience without first taking a photograph of the scene for placement on Facebook.

Thoughts of Facebook began to fade, however, as I rummaged through stacks of Borges and Neruda, Lenin and García Márquez, piles of children’s books and a shelf devoted to the Afro-Cuban struggle. In the end, I set aside two books by Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti, of whose existence I had been previously unaware, plus a book of poems by Neruda, and, finally, a Cuban atlas from 1978, the frayed blue cover of which had been invaded by a rust-coloured stain that had overtaken the “B” and “A” in “Cuba”.

The last addition caused some hesitation, as I weighed such issues as luggage weight and what exactly one does with a Cuban atlas from 1978. But whim won out over reason, and I presented my four items to the shopkeeper. Assuming that the prices pencilled in on the first page of each book were merely a jumping-off point for negotiations – particularly given the present financial situation in Cuba, where, for example, the 1,000 Cuban pesos pencilled in 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 some sum off the top of my head.

The man agreed and began packing up the books. I handed over the pesos, whereupon he redid the math and found my offer retroactively to be insufficient. I attempted a gringo capitalist customer-is-always-right approach, according to which he could not renegue on his initial acceptance; he countered by bellowing that I was crazy and launching into an impassioned recounting of all the times customers had accidentally overpaid and he had chased them down Calle Obispo to rectify matters. We shouted back and forth for several minutes – an exchange that was somehow not stressful in the least but rather, I felt, an ode to life. Then we were friends, and he gave me the books with a revised discount.

I lugged the treasures back to my flat, where I set them out on the table and reacquainted myself with the intimate thrill of inspecting used books and the sensation of holding history, as it were, in one’s 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 surname and included a page torn from a 1986 datebook: Thursday, February 6, through Wednesday, February 12.

By coincidence, the date of my visit to Librería Victoria was February 9 – albeit 36 years after the February 9 of the datebook page in question, which also bore the contact information of a certain María de los Ángeles at the Psychology Department of the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia. By further coincidence, the book itself – titled, La Tregua (The Truce, published in 1960) – began with a diary entry on February 11. Before I had even started reading, then, I felt some sort of captivating personal connection to the texts – a connection that was tied up with B Valiño, Rebeca, and María de los Ángeles of the Psychology Department.

There were no clues as to the provenance of the Neruda book, but inside I found dried rose petals in the fold preceding a 1953 poem inspired by Neruda’s then-lover Matilde Urrutia and the Italian island of Capri, evoking nostalgia for his native Chile. The upper right corner of page 141 was also folded over, and the title of that page’s poem, Con Ella (With Her), was underlined along with the poem’s first line: “Como es duro este tiempo; espérame” – “This time is difficult. Wait for me”.

On to the atlas, thanks to which I would spend countless hours poring over colourful maps depicting the mechanisation of Cuban sugar cane agriculture by province in 1978 and the average temperatures of regional surface waters in summer and winter. This was at least as good as reading the cereal box, I figured, and was certainly time better spent than on the wasteland of humanity known as social media. On pages 102 and 103, another map featured key landmarks of the Cuban Revolution as well as assorted imperial aggressions, including “counterrevolutionary infiltrations” and the inauguration of the US economic blockade of Cuba, illustrated by purple dashes surrounding the island. Officially enacted in 1962, the embargo continues to devastate the country as punishment for the felony of refusing to capitulate to capitalist domination.

Armed with my acquisitions from Librería Victoria in Havana, I was quickly reminded of how invigoratingly edifying reading can be – and felt I was pretty solidly exercising my “right to rest and leisure” as enshrined in Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Capitalism, of course, has different ideas about human rights, and prefers “leisure” activities that can be monetised – like staring at your mobile phone screen, where advertising saturation and limitless consumer opportunities mean you can still be contributing to corporate tyranny even under the illusion of downtime.

To be sure, reading books has been shown to improve mental health, reduce anxiety, and provide a necessary respite from real and digital worlds that are perhaps equally depressing. But it remains a luxury for many of the world’s inhabitants, who are often too busy trying to survive in a context of gross global inequality to think about the number of tractors in Cuba’s Ciego de Ávila province in 1978.

As Neruda wrote, “This time is difficult”. And as we plunge into ever more difficult ones – with less and less time to dream – here’s to more rose petals.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.