Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind

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The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Author), Lucia Graves (Translator)
Penguin Press: New York. Copyright 2001 (translation copyright 2004)

I stumbled upon this book looking for quotes about reading for this post. Having found a good quote, I wanted to read a bit about the book to avoid quoting something terribly objectionable or wildly out of context. I soon discovered that it was a novel about books. The blurbs mentioned a “cemetery of forgotten books” and a twisting tale of intrigue that opens before the book’s narrator, Daniel, as his father takes him to this mysterious place and he chooses a book. Daniel tries to learn more about the obscure author and finds himself descending into a story that pulls him farther in at every turn.

As a bibliophile, this intrigued me enough to borrow the book from the library, which is a significant step since I rarely read novels. I am not opposed to reading fiction; I just don’t do it very often.

In the novel, Daniel lives with his widowed father and is only 10 years old when the story begins. His father owns and runs a small used book store in Barcelona in the years following the Spanish Civil War. Zafón writes with a tenderness and depth of one who has spent time among and in books. The closing paragraph of the opening chapter illustrates this:

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into 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.

By this point I was hooked, for I could see that Daniel and I shared a similar temperament. I, too, have stood in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books—several of them. We call them university libraries. While not all the books on their shelves are forgotten, I have seen some that are. Two images come particularly to mind.

In the early 1990’s as an undergraduate at Ball State University, I both frequented and worked at the university library. I worked in the interlibrary loan department and my 4-hour shifts were filled with searching for oftentimes obscure titles in order to photocopy particular pages or prepare the book for mailing. I remember finding a doctoral thesis on the formation of tooth-buds in tadpoles; the author admitted the obscurity of his research, but theses must be original, after all.

One of my favorite sections of the Bracken Library was on the fourth floor where there was a section of shelves full of old books still cataloged by the Dewey decimal system, instead of the Library of Congress system usually used. As a philosophy major whose main interest was logic, there was a forgotten book there that I visited often: A History of Formal Logic, by I. M. Bochenski, translated and edited by Ivo Thomas, University of Notre Dame Press, 1961. (No, despite a recurring temptation, I did not steal the book, but finding a digitized copy on the internet takes me back to that dusty volume.)

Thirty years later as a graduate student at Syracuse University, I would again escape to the library. It truly was an escape as we had no requirements to ever go there and most of my classmates never darkened the door of the place. This fact still mortifies me and gives me greater affinity for The Cemetery of Forgotten Books motif.

I remember one day in particular, aimlessly walking among the B’s—the Library of Congress call numbers for philosophical works start with B—thinking about how much was here and how little it was used when I saw it. Dio Chrysostom. Five volumes of the works of John Chrysostom, of whom I was beginning to discover in earnest, in Greek and English. I pulled one off the shelf and just like in the movies, I blew on the top to disperse a cloud of dust. I absently flipped through the pages and then placed it back on the shelf, knowing that in the midst of a completely unrelated course of study, I did not have time to delve into these volumes. I also knew I was nowhere near having the faculty in Greek to appreciate them. According to the Bird Library online catalog, they are still there, quietly sitting, waiting to be discovered.

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