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Cambridge

“They say the sky is the same everywhere […] But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, li-ghter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”
—Virginia Woolf

Of all the cities I’ve visited, Cambridge is still one of my favourites, and a place very close to my heart. Its colleges, its trees, going punting in river Cam, the orchards, the sheep, the libraries, the bikes, the markets— Cambridge is just as soothing as it is inspiring for any fellow lover of literature or art. Its streets and alleyways are poetic in themselves; bricks and chimneys on one side, monumental gothic structures on the other.

Cambridge is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209. The University includes 31 colleges with different buildings all over the city: King’s College, Queen’s College, St. John’s College, Trinity College and Clare College among them.

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Morning coffee at Bennetts

The city is both vibrant and mysterious, full of life and yet strangely whimsical. It seems to go back in time a century every morning, with its traditional cafés and shops, its stone streets, old willows and wooden bridges—and then to come back to the present at night, its main streets filled with music and laughter, kebab places, international students everywhere. Some people say Cambridge is very similar to Oxford, both very old university towns, both undoubtedly pretty — but I think there are some things you can only see and feel in Cambridge.

My Cambridge

Having been before in many cities that became books, I was amazed to see in Cambridge a book made into a city. Although perhaps it was just a city that made me feel I was in a book. Thomas Hardy said about Cambridge, “What institution is more majestic than Trinity College? […] There are towers and battlements and statues, and beside these things there are cloisters and gardens and bridges”. And certainly, towers, turrets, battlements and  green extensions of grass compose the landscape surrounding river Cam. The cobbled streets almost always shine under the rain, and the yellow reflections of the street lamps and the chapels baths almost every building in its glow, even in the mist.

The heart of the city seems to be King’s College Chapel, gathering all the light around itself. A few blocks away, buried in bikes tied to every surface, there is The Eagle, the famous pub where Crick and Watson discovered the DNA structure in 1953. The whole city guardes important memories for knowledge and science; it was here where Stephen Hawking studied, worked and wrote his most important theories on relativity and the cosmos. And it is not hard to imagine it, with the amount of unkempt students that wander about the pubs, or that spend hours in Costa with no more company than a laptop and a pile of papers.

 

Cambridge is a good place to look around. People watching here turns almost always into a contemplative experience. The people, the tea rooms with fogged windows that cast an eerie glow on the street, the yellowish grey of the buildings, brick by brick, only interrupted by the sudden green of the trees and the grass. Every few streets there is a park, wide extensions of grass maintained in a perfect balance between neglect and artifice, or some shrubbery with eternally damp little flowers, trees that seem older than the colleges.

The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209, being the fourth oldest university in the world. In its many colleges studied some of the most brilliant minds, like Newton, Darwin, Hausman, Keynes, Stern, Thackeray, E.M. Forster, Nabokob, Malcolm Lowrt, Sylvia Plath and Terry Eagleton. Many times, specially when punting, I wondered about what it must feel like to study in a university like this— are there any vestiges, any aura or atmosphere, around places where art has happened, where so much poetry has been written? There must be. However, the whole city seemed submerged in this kind of atmosphere for me, a timeless bubble where people were safe to contemplate and write and learn.

Not far from the centre, 20 or 30 minutes by bike, there is a place called The Orchard. It is a little cabin with outside seating where they bake the best scones in England. There, it is said, between apple trees and tall grass, Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster sat to write. And it is hard to think of a better place to write, although Cambridge is full of them: riverside cafés, underground coffee shops, little tea rooms in every corner, giant trees perfect for reclining, comfortable benches in front of beautiful buildings, semi deserted pubs with thick wooden tables and huge chimneys.

 

Much of the time I spent in Cambridge, I spent in places like that. The rest of the time I was probably around Market Square. Old Market Square, where dozens of stands appeared every morning; fish, fruits, baked potatoes, kebabs and, above all, second-hand books. Two big stands had my attention, offering treasures buried beneath hundreds of best-sellers and paperbacks of all kinds. This is where my Agatha Christie collection started. Before, I had read Sparkling Cyanide and so the first book I bought in Cambridge was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where I met Hercule Poirot. Later I bought At Bertrams Hotel, where I found the best detective of all times, Miss Marple. Almost every week I would buy a paperback for one pound, which resulted in tremendous difficulties when going back to Mexico.

Apart from my Christies, in Market Square I found a beautiful edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass from 1971. A beautiful brown book with golden letters on its back and yellow pages. Later I also found a sixties edition of The Italian, a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, basically unknown now but very famous in its time, a red book with its title almost unintelligible. Radcliffe is one of the authors mention in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, one of the books I read before arriving in Cambridge. Some weeks after finding The Italian among piles of old Grisham’s novels, I decided to look for The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel which Austen’s heroine reads. I spent many months hunting for it among second-hands books, and I finally found it in Waterstones, a new Penguin edition, around a thousand pages long in tiny letters. This literary founding only increased my love for both the city and literature, so much I decided to get my degree on literature. Some other loves were also found, among them afternoon tea with lemon and milk, Chelsea buns and cycling.

Because Cambridge is a city to cycle. The place where I lived was about two miles away from King’s Parade, where I went almost every day, so a bike seemed to me the best transport. The city centre is completely covered in parked bikes and the number of cyclist is by far bigger than that of the car drivers, two facts that make me think of Cambridge with nostalgia now that I live in Mexico City. And having a bike there was a good idea… until November, where I started reconsidering after falling a couple of times due to the frozen streets. But my budget would not allow other types of transport, so reconsideration didn’t last long. I have always thought one can get used to anything, from two pairs of socks (the second over my jeans to avoid trapping in the wheels), to carrying a chain and lock and remembering where among that vast sea of bikes I had parked mine.

Still now I remember what it felt like to ride a bike from Parkers Piece to Hills Road, then through Cherry Hinton Road and Coleridge Road… even when much time passed until I knew who Coleridge was and how important his poetry would be for me. Much time passed, too, until I had to say goodbye to that grey bike that kept me company and whose little front basket carried my books so many times.

 

 

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Have you been to Cambridge?

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Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

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If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.