Desperate Literature (or interesting bookstores and libraries)

I fell in love with literature at the American School in London with a couple of great teachers: Soledad Sprackling for Spanish Literature and James McGovern for English. But I did not fall in love with books until college.

At Bentley University I discovered the Bowles Reading Room which had beautiful books. It was glassed in from the rest of the library and every day I went there to do my homework but would invariably end up looking at the wonderful books. I loved that room so much that at the end of my studies, I donated a book about Spain to the Collection. (I contacted the librarians who got me this rare photo of the Reading Room for this post, thanks!).

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

But I would have to wait until after college to have enough disposable income to buy books, which, living in Boston, was very easy. Some days on my lunch break I would sneak to Goodspeed’s to look for treasures. Such is my love for books and literature, that years later, I ended up getting a PhD in Spanish Literature! (see previous posts)

Speaking of UNC, one of the highlights are the libraries. Plural. The old library is the Wilson Library (which is featured prominently in Robin Williams’ great film Patch Adams). I spent hours studying in this library and a couple of times studying very old books in the Rare Book Collection. The big, modern library is the Davis Library with its 7 million books. There, I soon made best friends with the Spanish book librarians Teresa and Becky. I would walk to their office deep in the heart of the library and talk books, (and gossip). This library is as close to the Borges idea of a library as I have ever been: massive and repetitive, but with a soul.

During my studies at UNC, one summer I got a Fellowship to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. What an experience! To get to the rare book collection you have to pass not one, but two security checks, you cannot bring in any pens, books, phones, etc. Books there are treated with the care and reverence one would expect of -in my case- over two hundred year old books. I spent every morning that summer reading most of Francisco de Isla’s first editions, manuscripts, and other pieces attributed to him but not his. That experience is one of the highlights of my academic career. (Their coffee shop in the basement was also excellent – and subsidized! but that is for another post)

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

After UNC I moved to Southern Florida, which is a wasteland for books -must be the humidity. But, in 2016 I did read this great article in Vanity Fair, (to which I have subscribed and read every issue from cover to cover since around 2006) about this magical book store in Santorini called Atlantis Books.

Fast forward to 2018 when my dear friend Matthew came to visit me in Madrid. He stayed at a hotel in the old part of town. One evening after I dropped him off, around the corner from the hotel, on narrow Campomanes street, I bumped into Desperate Literature. I was ecstatic! What a discovery, what a find! A tiny bookstore, but filled with books mostly in English, with a few in Spanish and French for good measure. It was a tiny paradise, an oasis of… books!

Books in time of Covid

Books in time of Covid

I soon found out that this bookshop is part of Atlantis Books which I had read about in that Vanity Fair article. It all fit in, a collection of magical bookstores.

During this Covid-19 pandemic I found out they were sending books to folks. I ordered one and I was able to make use of my workout time to ride my bicycle to pick it up.

In conclusion: support your local -hopefully quirky- bookstores, and read.

 

On teaching French

Since I arrived at UNC, every time I bumped into the Director of French Studies – which was often because she is a keen supporter of the North Carolina Symphony which I also follow (although not as keenly), I would always offer my services to her as a French teacher. Little did I know that one day she would offer me to teach a section of French 105, French for High Beginners, i.e. students that have had previous exposure to French but are too rusty to go into intermediate level.

I cannot lie, my French grammar – which was never my strong suit to begin with – was, was, hmm, rusty. But my course coordinator who also happens to be my desk neighbor in our office had fantastic Power Point presentations covering the grammar.

French came to me later in life. I started taking classes in high school in London, which were complemented with great summers at the International Teen Camp in Lausanne in French Switzerland. I continued taking classes during university and spent those summers working in Paris, Bordeaux, Lausanne and Geneva, taking classes in the evenings and immersing myself.

After that I worked for a stint for a French stockbroker in Madrid, and tried to practice as much as possible with friends and work colleagues.

More recently, for my studies I have loved revisiting Montesquieu, Voltaire and other 18th C French authors.

So my speaking and reading are fine, but I struggle with the writing, due to the grammar, so teaching was not a total shock, and I compensated with total immersion from the music video to welcome the class to using only French all the way to the end of the session. The mix of students was as good as anyone could ask for. From quiet and shy overachievers, to frat bros, (to continue perpetuating stereotypes) to the whole demographic. I believe this always makes for more enriching classes. Our classroom in the Urban Planning Department building was nice and cozy and coincidentally had a massive wall sized reproduction of an antique map of Paris!

French Class outdoors

French Class outdoors

Year one Ph.D.: Check

Well, that wraps up the first year of my Ph.D. program and of my course work. Now I “only” have to read until my eyes bleed for my exams next Spring. This semester was overall much better than the Winter term. I took three courses: Early Modern Spanish Women Writers, with Rosa Perelmuter – a luminary in the field, and an Independent Study on Medieval Narratives with the iconic Prof. Domínguez. For my third course I took 18th Century Spanish Lit. with Irene Gómez-Castellano – and it has changed my life. Not only did I learn about the Enlightenment (something that had been in the back of my mind since I read Voltaire’s Candide at the American School in London, and then reread often) and the Romantics, but I discovered Padre Isla, a fairly unknown Jesuit writer who wrote the “best seller” of the 18th Century: Fray Gerundio de Campazas. I also taught two sections of Spanish 203, an intermediate level class. I loved it! I had great kids and we had a great time, including the cockroach that climbed up a girl’s dress. Pobre Raquel!
The end of the term was extremely stressful. One is normally 100% occupied with schoolwork during the year, so having to take two exams, write three twenty page essays, give and correct about forty exams, plus all the end of the year wrap up stuff was beyond hectic. For a week I did not work out or shave! I hope that the first year of the Ph.D. program is the baptism by fire test, that it is the hardest to juggle all the work, because the end was no fun.
But it is over and with very positive results. Most importantly my dissertation seems to be coming into focus, writing about Padre Isla. My secondary/complementary writing list will be about Medieval satire with Prof, Domínguez and my Transatlantic list will be Colonial lit. with Rosa Perelmuter. This means that I have to come up with six reading lists. A primary reading list of twenty books for each list and about thirty secondary/theoretical lists for each topic. Total: give or take 150 books that I have to learn by next Spring to pass my exams, Gadzooks! Yikes!
Taking only three classes, I had time to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill on Monday nights, and I worked at the Clinical Skills Center at the UNC Hospitals

teaching medical students Spanish. Both of these side ventures are a lot of fun and very rewarding and very much needed to clear my head and do something else for a while that is not just studying.
Conclusion: Overall it has been an incredible year and I have learnt much more than I ever expected or hoped. I’ve met some very interesting people, discovered a new town, been more culturally active than I expected, forged some nice relationships and I am slowly rebuilding my life. I’m very happy to be doing this, I love UNC and Chapel Hill.