“A Whole Universe in a Single Unknown Book”

By Sara Mortensen

The very first chapter of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón ends with this passage:

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader that the first book that find its way to his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later — no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget — we will return. For me those enchanted pages will always be the ones I found among the passageways of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this passage took my breath away. I read it and knew exactly what the narrator meant.

For me, the book(s) that found their way to my heart in my childhood were those in the Harry Potter series. Nothing has been so formative for me, and nothing has stuck with me quite like that story. (This is a massive understatement, but this post isn’t about Harry Potter so I’m going to leave it at that). I can think of a few more stories that have found their way to my heart in similar, if less intense, ways: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg all come to mind.

From the moment I read this passage, I was fairly certain that this book too would find its way to my heart. Spoiler alert: I was right.

On the surface, not much about this book feels very accessible to me. Sure, it’s a book about a book (an immediate selling point for this bibliophile) but it also takes place in Barcelona in the 1940s, neither a time nor place to which I have ever been. It didn’t matter though, I was immediately drawn by the writing, characters, story, and setting.

The basic story is this: Daniel is ten years old when his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an ancient sort of library that houses books that would otherwise be lost when libraries and bookshops close down. It is tradition that when someone visits the cemetery for the first time, they are to choose a book and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear from the world. Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, and falls completely in love with it after reading it in a single night. However, he soon discovers that he potentially owns one of the last of Julián Carax’s books in existence, as they all seem to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

What follows is a truly epic story. The mystery of who Julián Carax is and what happened to his books unravels slowly as Daniel learns more about Julián’s past. In the opening pages, Daniel gives us the perfect setup for how this mystery is going to feel throughout the rest of the book:

Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections. (pg. 7)

This book is enchanting. Not only because of the brilliant way that this mystery unfolds, but because of the setting (a bleak, dreary, and also magical Barcelona recovering from war) and the characters (who are overwhelmingly human and many of whom are introspective in a way that greatly appeals to me).

Books and stories remain at the center of the narrative, and one of my favorite passages of the entire story is the following:

As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot. (pg. 76)

I love this passage for many reasons, mainly because I often have a sense of overwhelming existential dread at the thought of how many stories there are in the world that I will never even discover let alone have time to consume, and this passage conveys that feeling perfectly. But I love so many more things about this: the idea of discovering a universe inside of a book, describing books as abandoned pages, the idea of a society losing itself, its memory, and its wisdom because of its abandonment of books.

At times, The Shadow of the Wind feels like one long love letter to books and bookshops and readers. From the opening pages when Daniel says:

I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day. (pg. 4)

to the final pages, when he says:

Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day. (pg. 484)

I don’t really think the art of reading is dying (and I definitely believe that books can and should be windows, in addition to mirrors) but maybe this is a product of having so many friends who love books as much as I do. A common thread throughout this book, though, is the idea that bookshops and libraries are becoming less successful due to the advent of newer, more enticing ways to spend time. This is one of the reasons why the Cemetery of Forgotten Books exists in the first place. If this is relevant in 1945, when this book is set, it’s certainly relevant in 2017.

Now, I really don’t like the elitist attitude that spending your time reading a book is somehow better than watching television or using the internet. Reading is very important, certainly, but I think spending your time in other ways is also meaningful, even if that means using a device. However, books, and the places that provide access to them, will always have a special place in my heart and my life. This is why I loved this book so much. It felt like a 486 page long celebration of not only books in general, but specifically of the lasting and real impact they can have on our entire lives. Simply put, it was about how stories can change your life, a philosophy I certainly subscribe to and something I’ve experienced first-hand.

All of this is not to say that this book was perfect. For one, I don’t think any piece of media can be perfect. My main complaint is that almost all the female characters only seem to exist as love interests to the male characters and as catalysts for their stories, which irks me, to say the least.

But despite any flaws, I still love this book. For all of the reasons I have already mentioned and for all of the dozens of other moments that I felt my heart swell or was compelled to exclaim out loud when reading. The writing in this book struck me over and over again. There were so many small moments that felt like fundamental theses on the nature of humanity, that were stated simultaneously so beautifully and so effortlessly. Because I can’t help but gush about them, here are a few of my favorite lines:

In my schoolboy reveries, we were always two fugitives riding on the spine of the book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and second hand dreams. (pg. 29)
People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t already complicated enough. (pg. 71)
Julián lived within himself, for his books and inside them — a comfortable prison of his own design. (pg. 166)
Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true. (pg. 356)
Don’t laugh, it’s people like her who make this lousy world a place worth visiting.
No. We’re all whores, sooner or later. I mean good-hearted people. (pg. 480)

I’ve been wanting to write more, maybe even start a blog, for a while but have struggled with 1) feeling like my writing is adequate enough to share with anyone, and 2) not knowing what I should write about. I don’t think either of these have been resolved, but I did write something, so it’s a start. It seems appropriate that a story that is so much about the power of the written word, a story that literally says that books have souls and therefore authors pour themselves and their identities into those books through their words, would inspire me to write something and share it with the world.

— — — —

When reading, I like to jot down any words I come across that I don’t already know the meaning of. Here’s a list of words I learned from this book:

  • salubrious — healthy
  • diaphanous — light, delicate, and translucent
  • fetid — smelling extremely unpleasant
  • disentailment — the action of freeing property from entail
  • ocher — an earthy pigment containing ferric oxide, typically with clay, varying from light yellow to brown or red
  • penury — extreme poverty
  • ascetic — characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons
  • sibylline — prophetic or mysterious
  • mellifluous — sweet or musical, pleasant to hear
  • proffered — to offer
  • ecclesiastic — a priest or member of the clergy
  • didactic — intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive
  • magnate — a wealthy and influential person
  • missal — a liturgical book containing all instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of Mass throughout the year
  • coffered — in architecture is a series of sunken panels in the shape of a square, rectangle, or octagon in a ceiling, soffit or vault
  • leonine — of or resembling a lion
  • garroted — a method of capital punishment of Spanish origin in which an iron collar is tightened around a condemned person’s neck until death occurs by strangulation
  • indelible — not able to be forgotten or removed
  • veracity — conformity to facts, accuracy
  • ecumerical — referring to something universal
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