As a kid, did you ever have one of those books custom-made for you, personalized with your name and perhaps the names of loved ones in your life? My oldest child has one that’s nicely done; it’s a picture book that he received as a baby gift, with all the animals in the world spelling out his name, letter by letter. But my husband has the real deal, an old-school version from his childhood that sends our whole family into hilarity when we unpack the holiday books each December. It’s a storybook that tells the tale of “Scott” going on a Christmas journey around the world. It includes his brother and sister, his dog, and even a fictitious cat named “Kitty” (the book format couldn’t be adjusted for individual readers, so if you didn’t have a cat, you just had to make one up). The names of each person and pet have very obviously been typed—using a bona fide typewriter—into rather large spaces left blank for personalization, and the pages are filled with typos, generic pictures, and other idiosyncrasies that make this book a treasure for the ages.
Though the product may be clumsy, the effect on a child is powerful. If you ever had one of these books, you will certainly remember the feeling you got from seeing your name in print in the pages of a real, hardbound book. These days, in the modern era of self-publishing and custom-made digital photo albums, kids wouldn’t be able to relate. But back then, it was a special feeling—an experience of reading a book tailor-made for you, and for you alone.
Have you ever had that experience as a more mature, seasoned reader? Have you come across a book that feels as if it was written just for you? If you’re someone for whom books are more of a passion than a pastime, I dare say you’ve had the rare experience of reading a book that speaks to you, for you, about you.
That experience is at the heart of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel The Shadow of the Wind, my book club’s pick for October. From the moment you open its pages, it’s apparent that this is a reader’s read. No matter what you think of the story Zafón spins out over some 10 sections and 500 pages (though it’s inconsistent and formulaic in spots, I found it to be ultimately enjoyable and thought-provoking), it’s hard not to be hooked by the place he describes in the opening chapter: an ancient, mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the last remaining copies of books end up when they’ve been forgotten to the world. Here they lie until some worthy reader might comes along and resurrect a book by choosing it and adopting it as his own. As Daniel’s father tells him by way of introduction to this special place,
“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”
The idea of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books will make any book lover sad, thinking about the thousands of real books—many of them hidden gems—that have been forgotten over time. It’s not unlike the feeling you get when you visit an animal shelter, wishing you could rescue all the poor pups that have been left behind.
Following tradition, Daniel accepts his assignment to choose one book, which he will take with him, read, and promise to keep alive. As if in a dream, he is drawn to one particular selection hidden among the crowded shelves: The Shadow of the Wind, written by a seemingly unknown novelist named Julián Carax. Back at home, Daniel “fall[s] right into it,” finishing the novel by the dawn of the next morning.
As Zafón’s book The Shadow of the Wind unfolds, I waited with anticipation to find out more about the story within the story, Carax’s—as opposed to Zafón’s—The Shadow of the Wind. What wonder of a novel would arouse such literary passion in Daniel? What kind of plot and characters would draw him in to the point of making him track down the author and save his books at all costs?
But, when it comes to the novel within the novel, Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind, only a vague outline of events is given. The rest remains elusive (um—as you might guess—like a shadow and like the wind). Gradually, the story reveals itself, but only insofar as Daniel takes it over and begins to live out the events of the novel and the author’s own life. The novel’s reader has become so enthralled by the book that he actually brings it to life, assuming the author’s identity and (re)enacting the novel’s romantic plot. In Frankenstein-like fashion, Carax becomes Daniel’s doppelgänger (or does Daniel become Carax’s doppelgänger?), and the novel and the reader become confusingly intertwined. (The postmodernists, deconstructionists, and structuralists would have a field day with Zafón’s novel and its suggestion that Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” didn’t effectively kill him after all. But that’s a lit-seminar essay for another day.)
When it comes to Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind—not Carax’s—there is much more for readers to chew on, think about, discuss. The novel deals with Spanish history, post–World War II Europe, and political intrigue. It has inspired comparisons to Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Umberto Eco. It is a gothic tale, romance novel, metafictional text, coming-of-age story, and epic drama rolled into one.
At bottom, though, The Shadow of the Wind celebrates (albeit in a dark, twisted sort of way) the act of reading. Daniel’s singleminded devotion to Carax and his novel will make you reflect on your own history as a reader. What are the books that have spoken to you, told your story, defined who you are and want to be? For me, that book is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I’m not saying I’m Edna Pontellier, and I hope I don’t meet my end by drowning. But every time I read Chopin’s novella, I experience a deep connection that can’t quite be put into words.
If you can say that about some special book, then you, like Daniel, disagree with the practical perspective of his wife, Bea, who puts forth a dismal prediction for the future of books and bookshops like theirs:
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.
Zafón doesn’t believe that the art of reading is dead, and neither does Daniel. And neither do the millions of worldwide readers that continue to love The Shadow of the Wind.
What is your special book, written just for you?