Task: Read a book about books.
This book checks off so many boxes for me – crumbling old buildings with on-premises walled-off basement crypts, sordid doomed romances, lifelong obsessions, out-of-control bibliophilia, a gorgeous and gorgeously realized setting, whole-heartedly ridiculous melodrama, tangled up subplots involving all kinds of lovable eccentrics, and much more. These are things that I enthusiastically show up for, and so I was surprised to find myself repeatedly asking, “why am I not enjoying this more?”
This was supposed to be a treat read, and instead, I spent most of September bogged down in it. This is a well-liked book, too, and it ranks as one of the internationally bestselling books of all time. I can’t put my finger on why it was such an unexpected chore for me.
I felt sour toward The Shadow of the Wind almost immediately, due the early appearance of a mysterious labyrinthine location called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The idea was that every out-of-print book (in the world I guess?) made its way to those shelves to await the coming of its One True Reader. The plot of the book kicks off when the young hero Daniel selects a mysterious volume eponymously titled The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. However, it soon becomes clear that a shadowy figure is systematically burning every volume of Carax’s work, and Daniel is launched on a mission to uncover the truth about the writer.
I started out lowkey annoyed with that entire idea. The Cemetery irritates me because I get irritated at the reactions to the necessary things librarians do to maintain their collections. [I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THE LIBRARY IN WHICH I WORK. I AM TALKING VERY GENERALLY ABOUT LIBRARIES EVERYWHERE.] We call it weeding, and if we do it wrong, we can get in a lot of trouble with the public. Overzealous weeding can lead to damning headlines with lots of viral potential. People lose jobs over mismanaged weeding projects.
But look. There’s a fairly obvious problem with a physical building stocking physical books when over one million books are published in the U.S. annually. Sure, it makes sense to buy multiple copies of James Patterson’s latest, but you best believe we’ll be getting rid of those extras to make room for the next batch. Now, many libraries do have a Friends of the Library store, and books that are in reasonably good shape will typically head there where they can be purchased at low prices (and most extra Pattersons will land there). But sometimes books are in awful shape. Sometimes they contain outdated medical information. Sometimes no one buys them and they take up space for no good purpose.
People act like recycling a book is an equivalent to what happens when the animal shelter gets full, and it’s just…not. Check out the comments on any public post about weeding though and you’ll find a level of wailing, vomiting, heartbreak, disgust and despair that you really wish could be aimed at worthier targets.
To be fair, most weeding PR disasters are earned. Good weeding requires a lot of careful thought and well-designed criteria. This is why we get paid to do this stuff. We do mess up sometimes.
And there should be eyebrows going through the roof at the thought of a profession that as of 2010 was 88% white deciding what lands and what stays on library bookshelves (I knew that stat was going to be bad when I went looking for it, but I didn’t realize it was going to be that bad). I do think that white librarians have a very serious responsibility to read books outside of their own demographic comfort zone, to be mindful in their hiring practices and in their support of colleagues and would-be colleagues, and to be very ready to acquire, defend and recommend books that more accurately reflect humanity than the profession itself does. We also owe it to the communities we serve to weed thoughtfully. But damn it, we do have to weed.
Every book ever published doesn’t deserve to exist forever. I’m sorry. But it doesn’t. Some books are better than others. One is not supposed to say this. But it’s true. The idea of preserving every single printed volume until the end of time is about as logical as saving every single LiveJournal entry forever and ever.
Um, yeah, so, The Shadow of the Wind. It would be highly unreasonable for me to roll my eyes at the entire book because I don’t have patience for people who think that to discard a book is to commit a crime against humanity. So next on my list of possible reasons for my lack of enjoyment is the book’s slate of female characters. We have blind Clara Barcelo, Daniel’s childhood love interest. Then we have Bea, his adult love interest whose character arc leads her to a moment of damseling out in a violent confrontation with the villain. Then there’s Penelope, Carax’s beloved, who dies horribly, thus permanently altering Carax’s fate. And Nuria, who’s repeatedly described as a femme fatale, even though she never does anything remotely as interesting as a proper noir heroine/anti-heroine might do.
It wouldn’t be the first time I turned a blind eye to failed Bechdel tests, but then we also have the character of Fermin, Daniel’s sidekick who Daniel and his father rescue from a life of destitution. Fermin is portrayed as a lovable rogue. This is signified by scenes in which he pinches women’s asses from his sickbed, for example. That irrepressible scamp! I’m just not up for it this year. My president is a man who bragged about being able to grab women by the pussy. This weekend my social media consisted almost entirely of #metoo posts, because damn near every woman I know has experienced some degree of sexual harassment. I don’t have to put up with it in my fiction and pretend like it’s okay.
But even aside from that, I still feel like this book was missing something important. I adore twisty plots that leave all kinds of dangly loose ends all over the place, so it wasn’t that. I don’t think it was the translation, either, though every once in a while the register of the dialog felt a bit off. I was bothered by the fact that Daniel himself did very little to solve the riddle (a comically lengthy deus ex machina of a letter toward the end reveals all). There’s a twist near the end that was telegraphed as plainly as the presence of a McDonald’s at the next interstate exit, though again, I could forgive that too.
I wanted this book to be a big, goofy gothic mess, and I could tell that it wanted to be one too. Maybe it was the sum of everything I mentioned here that made it such a disappointment, but it just didn’t work for me.