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Bookshops — An interview with Jorge Carrión

Interview by Carlos Fonseca.

Whereas others collect stamps, coins or sports cards, Jorge Carrión collects bookshops. He has spent the last two decades building one of the broadest archives of bookshops, travelling through numerous continents in search for that perfect space where knowledge mirrors the world. Bookshops (MacLehose Press, 2016) is the product of such a project, a book that guides the reader through an intellectual journey that traces a psychogeography not unlike those sketched in Iain Sinclair’s books. From Argentina’s Eterna Cadencia to Ferlinghetti’s mythical City Lights, from Guatemala’s Sophos to Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, Bookshops provides a rigorous yet profoundly emotive history of one of the world’s oldest utopic spaces. With the publication of the book as an excuse, I sat down with Carrión to speak about bookshops, desire, politics, booksellers, Borges and Benjamin, situationist journeys, censorship, the arrival of the virtual bookshop and the dangers that bookshops confront today.

3:AM: Through a careful reading of Stefan’s Zweig’s “Mendel the Bibliophile,” which you compare to Borges’ “The Aleph” and Danilo Kiš’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead, you posit the beautiful idea of “the world as a bookshop and the bookshop as the world.” Can you speak a bit about this idea of the bookshops as a utopic or heterotopic space capable of representing the world?

Jorge Carrión: Like certain collections (of paintings, of diaries, of antiques), bookshops are heterotopic spaces, where different spaces and temporalities coexist. But unlike most collections, the spatial, conceptual and temporal extension in then is absolute. That is to say, in any bookshop it is normal for the Greek classics to be next to the contemporary Latin American novelists, or for Marco Polo to be a neighbour of Steve Jobs. On the other hand, in other types of cultural collections, like that of a pinacotheca or an antiques shops, the limits are more established. There are limits of all kinds: either temporal or spatial limits inherent to the collection, or limits that have to do with the possibility of gaining access to the collection. Bookshops, in turn, even to greater extent than libraries, are of public access, true democratic places for dialogue and knowledge. They are so mundane, so ingrained to the landscape, that we still haven’t noticed them as miniature worlds, as privileged, important sites. Until now.

3:AM: Linked to this idea of the bookshop as a miniature atlas, I liked how your book links the idea of bookshops to that of travelling. In particular, I underlined this sentence: “Every bookshop is an invitation to travel, and itself represents a journey.” You yourself have written many books that link the world of literature to that of journeys. How do you imagine this link?

Jorge Carrión: There are mythical routes and trails that connect distant points, like the Silk Road, the Inca Trail, or the Pan-American Highway. There are also sea routes and aerial routes. As mental journeys. Baudelaire’s analogy, in fact, is at the very heart of modern poetry and is precisely that: a connection between two distinct places. I see bookshops as forests of symbols. As maps where connections multiply. I am interested in bookshops that create questions, that produce intellectual challenges, that surprise us with books that we didn’t know we wanted or even existed. The good bookshops give you the same sense of intensity as good journeys. In a few minutes they allow you to travel through geographies which you didn’t know could be in touch. They open worlds.

3:AM: Which leads me to another thing that fascinated me about your book, which is its form. It is composed almost like a Benjaminian collage or one of Sebald’s journey narratives. As you say yourself in the book: “The history of bookshops, on the other hand, can only be written by using photographs and postcard albums, as a sort of situationist mapping that highlights – through a fragmentary, essayistic narrative – the links between shops that have vanished and those that still exist.” Can you talk a bit about this situationist mapping and about the composition of the book?

Jorge Carrión: Since there exists no exhaustive archive of the world’s bookshops, past and present, our inquiry could at best be partial. That is why I make use of both autobiography and travel literature in order to give form to the book. The truth is that the book could easily be called “My Bookshops” instead of “Bookshops.” Despite talking about some bookshops I haven’t visited in person, with most of them I have a strong personal connection. The book composes a psychogeography. Our shared teacher, Ricardo Piglia, said that Bookshops awakens the sentimental memory of the reader, who automatically projects upon the book his own bookshops. I love this specular dimension. It is the contrary of a selfie: a self-portrait that produces other self-portraits, in an infinite sequence of mirroring effects. You are right to notice that Sebald and Benjamin are hovering over the book (or traversing its underground layers). In my new book, “Barcelona. Libro de los Pasajes.” (Barcelona. Arcades Project) the dialogue with Benjamin is direct: I attempt to translate into a narrative essay the intuitions that guided his project about Paris. In Bookshops, however, Benjamin is no more than one among so many other stellar writers, like Sebald, Zweig, Borges, Cortázar…

3:AM: One of the motifs that runs throughout the book is the distinction between the bookshop and the library. As you say: “The bookshop is light; the Library is heavy. The levity of the present continuous is counterpoised by the weight of tradition.” I found this idea to be central and wanted to hear you expand upon this distinction.

Jorge Carrión: The bibliography about libraries is abundant: that of bookshops, in turn, is minimal. Departing from this fundamental difference, between their importance within academic tradition, one can establish many other contrapositions. Libraries are almost always public; the bookshops, private. Libraries hardly change site; bookshops are more nomadic, they are constantly on the move. In the book I speak a bit about that, but I don’t go too far into it since my focus are bookshops, not libraries. But the truth is that all mythical libraries fed up, since Alexandria, from the great bookshops of their epochs. There is a great feedback between both institutions. They need each other.

3:AM: Reading “Bookshops” I felt that secretly it was a homage to the figure of the bookseller: from Sylvia Beach to Adrienne Monnier, all the way to Ferlinghetti. The bookseller, in your book, appears as a political figure. ¿Can you talk about the politics behind bookselling?

Jorge Carrión: Exactly, the bookseller is a prescriber, a cultural agent, a curator, a political figure. Both in terms of literary politics, since he is the one that administers the visibility and the possible influence of a book, in terms of ideology and social politics, given privilege to some books above others, or in the context of dictatorship when they take the risk of selling prohibited books. In both cases, they are acting in favor of freedom and of democracy. Many Jewish booksellers died in the extermination camps; there is also the story of many leftist booksellers that disappeared during the Latin American dictatorships. Beach, Monnier and Ferlinghetti, for example, had a decisive influence in the construction of the English, French and North American canons, with the support they gave to the surrealists, the modernists, the beat poets. They also suffered at the hands of Nazism or due to censorship in the United States. Ginsberg’s “Howl” is now studied as one of the decisive moments of the history of freedom of expression in the United States: it was published and read in City Lights. Bookshops pose a menace to the system.

3:AM: Which reminds of another secret motif that runs throughout the book: that of censorship. One could almost say that the history of bookshops is a counter-history of censorship.

Jorge Carrión: True. I discovered in my youth that Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mao (who was a bookseller), Castro or Pinochet, among so many other dictators of different persuasions, were lovers of books, habitual clients of bookshops. I speak of those stories in the book. And of how, later, they designed terrible, sophisticated systems of censorship, thanks to their personal experience (and their labyrinthine and monstrous minds). The reading of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton. A Memoir, under this light, reveals itself as a succession of actions that have to do primordially with bookshops. At least from the perspective of someone, like me, who is obsessed with the topic.

3:AM: However, not everything is censorship. In a chapter that I found to be illuminating, you also sketch how the bookshop is a place traversed by desire. A place where bonds are constructed around the material presence of books.

Jorge Carrión: It is not a coincidence that so many love story movies begin at a bookshop. They are spaces of desire. They are spaces where the desire of the reader for the book, a capitalist desire in itself, can transform itself into an erotic desire, a sexual desire between the bodies of readers that love the same books. From platonic eros to sexual sweat. That’s why in the first pages of The Savage Detectives so many bookshops show up: stealing books, writing poems, being an adolescent and wanting to be a writer, masturbating, drinking, screwing, visiting bookshops, it is all part of the same formative process.

3:AM: In a book that is all about material presence, about the physical effects of books and bookshops, you decide to end with a chapter that begins with a disappearance: that of the Catalonia, which in 2013 was turned into a McDonald’s. What is sketched there is the transition from the material space of the modern bookshop to the virtual space of the postmodern space of the virtual bookshop, exemplified by Amazon. How can we think of this transition?

Jorge Carrión: In 2012, when I wrote the book, I use to read in my iPad. I stopped doing so. I noticed that I never quoted in my articles or conferences or books that which I had read as an e-book. Now I only read paper books. Some steps ahead, some steps back. Coexistences. Corrections. We are in a passionate moment, in which the pixel and the paper sometimes collide, but mostly complement each other. The book is a perfect technology: it resists, it is enjoyable, it smells good, it can be intervened with a pencil, it connects us with a material reality, with the artisanal world, with certain values… On the other hand, the great symbol and company of the e-book, Amazon, has stolen the prestige of the book in order to extend it to any other sort of commodity (from shakers to drones to pizzas); this provokes in me a great sense of mistrust. In fact, I have written a manifesto against Amazon. I believe that it will be published next year in my new book, which also deals with bookshops. Let’s see if that way I purge myself from the obsession.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE

Jorge Carrión is a writer and literary critic. He studied at the University of Pompeu Fabra, where he now teaches literature and creative writing. His published works include essays, novellas, novels and travel writing, and his articles have appeared in National Geographic and Lonely Planet Magazine. Bookshops, recently published by MacLehose Press, was a finalist in the Premio Anagrama de Ensayo, 2013.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, BOMB, The White Review and Minor Literature[s]. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London. Colonel Lágrimas, his first novel, was published in Spanish by Anagrama and in English by Restless Books. His new novel, Museo Animal, will be published this coming September.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 7th, 2017.