text by PAUL B. PRECIADO
artwork by ZOE LEONARD
spanish writer, philosopher, and curator paul b. preciado is one of the most important voices for queer theory and identity politics.
Every year at the beginning of September, a kindly cosmic hand puts a mute on the sun and pushes a wave of cold wind that comes from the northern fjords to strike the city and carry away at least some small portion of the air that suffocates us. September is a good month. It’s the moment when the new books, like puppies born in early sum- mer, venture out for the first time to play in the public squares, with their soft-padded paws and glistening backs. The bookshops fill up with these foreign bodies. Some of them will make it into houses, find their place in book- cases, stretch themselves out on bedside tables, and even slip between unfamiliar sheets. Books, like viruses, are intermediate entities, halfway between objects and living things.
A personal library is a physical biography, written with the words of others, formed of the accumulation and order of the various books a person has read over the course of their life. And yet — despite how paradoxical or unpleasant this may sound to those who have devoted themselves professionally to writing (though it is good news for booksellers) — in order to constitute a personal library as a biography, it is not sufficient to consider the books one has read: it is also necessary to add the books one owns without ever reading them, the books that sit and wait on tables, never opened or flipped through, in whole or in part. In the context of a biography, unread books stand as indicators of thwarted desires, idle fancies, broken friendships, unfulfilled vocations, secret depressions concealed under the veneer of too much work or not enough time. Sometimes, unread books are masks that a fake reader wears to send out literary signals aimed at eliciting the friendship or complicity of other readers. Other times, the only thing that matters is the author’s name or even the book title, as on an Instagram page. Unread books are a future reserve, concentrated blocks of time, indications of a direction that a life might have taken but did not take, or might still take.
Every romantic relationship leaves a bibliography in its wake, like a kind of trace or heritage in which one sees the books that each lover brought to the other. Similarly, one might say that every relationship has its own bible, its own sacred book, the book through which a love, or failed love, tells its story.
The intensity and degree of realization of a love can be measured by the romantic relationship’s impact on our personal library. A one-night stand or a quick fling can have a longer or more interesting bibliography than a relationship that lasted for years. Aisha, for instance, declared her desire by giving me Amin Maalouf’s The First Century After Beatrice at the moment when I was preparing to change my name, as if the century of which Maalouf speaks would begin at that precise instant. Our love affair was brief, but its bibliography was thick: she left me all of Mahmoud Darwish’s books — some in French, others in English — which alone constitute a library of Palestine, impossible like our love.
I remember Diedre as well, a BDSM lover I had in New York. We met only for contractually stipulated sessions, but since she was writing a doctoral thesis on Hegel, I ended up reading the entirety of The Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph by paragraph. In my bookcase, I still keep her underlined and German-annotated copy of it, which I will never be able to read again without her.
One of the most terrible relationships in my life — the relationship I sustained with Jean for a few months — brought to my bookcase the oeuvre of Pierre Guyotat, which has been priceless to me from that day forth. I sometimes ask myself if the most violent and menacing parts of Eden, Eden, Eden, a book Jean worshipped, were the passionate protocol for the form that Jean’s obsession would take in the future: his thirst for possession and his rage at me. The rest of Guyotat’s books are still on my shelves and often accompany me on my travels, but the edition of Eden, Eden, Eden that Jean gave me remained in a freezer in Paris for years, in accordance with the instructions of a witch who cured me of his aggressions. When I moved to another apartment, I left it where it was. Perhaps the new tenant thought that I ate books stored at a low temperature. I’ll never know if it has since been thawed out and read, or if it was simply thrown away when the fridge was cleaned, or if this Eden is still on ice.
Some relationships leave behind a single frozen book that we will never be able to read again. Others create a new library. With Virginie, the lover with whom I lived the longest, we came to form a more than 5,000-volume library, uniting our books and adding new ones each day. Although it has been more than four years since we separated as a romantic couple (according to the bourgeois and patriarchal conventions that still govern what is socially understood to be a couple), we have never been able to separate our books. Virginie and I came from two different worlds, or to put it more precisely, we had radically heterogenous personal libraries before we loved each other. Hers was composed of 1,000 books on musical culture and punk rock— several of which were in English — intermixed with a good collection of American literature and a sharp selection of French detective novels. Mine had been constituted during my passage through the university institutions of three different countries, from the Jesuits to the New School for Social Research, by way of Princeton and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. It was a rather boring and studious library, in three languages, comprising the Greek and Latin classics, history of architecture, history of technology, and French philosophy, with only 500 or so books of feminist, queer, and anti-colonial theory to disrupt the canonical peace of Western thought.
First, our love caused a few books to be swapped between our respective libraries. Perhaps it all began when Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body migrated from my bookcase to hers, where it found its ideal place between Albertine Sarrazin and Goliarda Sapienza. Then there was the contraband incident with her Elroy and her Calaferte, which sharpened their pages to open a space in my library be- tween Hobbes and Leibniz. And then the glorious meeting of her Lydia Lunch and my Valerie Solanas. And the escape of her Baldwin, which came to my bookcase and found a place beside Angela Davis and bell hooks. It was as if each library’s established political borders had crumbled in the presence of the charm of the other’s books.
Then, when we moved in together, our libraries fused. This was a reorganization of every sequence, the rupture of the canon, the toppling of the repertoire, the perversion of the alphabet. Derrida sounded better in the company of Philippe Garnier and Laurent Chalumeau. Later, the metamorphosis occurred: the library began to enlarge itself with new titles born of this mutual insemination. And so entire new shelves appeared, of Pasolini and Joan Didion, June Jordan and Claudia Rankine, Susan Sontag and Elfriede Jelinek. Next, Virginie learned to speak Spanish, and Roberto Bolaño, Osvaldo Lamborghini, Pedro Lemebel, Diamela Eltit, and Juan Villoro arrived, like new organs. The book- case was becoming a monster at whose feet we could spend hours playing like children, adding an Achille Mbembe here, an Emma Goldman there, and gazing at the mutant anatomy of this body of fiction. The mutual library was alive and grew alongside us.
The sexual reproduction of our libraries — as one might almost call it — made it impossible for us to separate their books when we decided to leave each other and I moved to Athens. This is proof that our mutual library was much more solid than our relationship. Our love was a book-love. Not because it corresponded to a bookish narrative or because its nature was more fictive than real, but because it united our books in a more lasting and definitive way than our bodies. To this day, our library continues to live and mutate.
In other cases, romantic problems can be bibliographic problems right from the outset. For example, in my relationship with Alison, her resistance to love was immediately evident in her reticence to grant me free use of her library. Alison had a bipolar library. On one side, she had a classical and rigorous library, carefully chosen. Born of her years of study and the bequest of her parents, who were both writers, this library contained not a single book published after 1985. The other hemisphere of this bipolar library, on the contrary, comprised the most het- erogenous and uneven collection one can imagine of poetry, theater, architecture, short stories, and essays in Spanish and in Catalan. These were all published after 1985 and given to her by the authors themselves, often in exchange for introductions at bookshop events in which Alison frequently participated, amicable gatherings well-lubricated by Priorat wine and accompanied by slices of fuet.
When I would arrive at Alison’s after a long journey from Athens or New York, nothing pleased me more than to stretch myself out on her bed and wait for her as I read at random one of those books published before1 985. That’s how I reread Spinoza’s Ethics, Gilles Deleuze’s book on Foucault, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and the first Spanish translation of Moby Dick. Amid Barcelona’s culturally tedious and politically hostile atmosphere, these books were like a group of loyal friends always ready to accompany me on a walk. They would come with me to the beach, get lost in my backpack, and frequently end up full of sand on the kitchen or bathroom shelves. Alison said I was ruining her library. And the systematic production of this disturbance was the fundamental activity that I devoted myself to — in addition to making love to her — on each of my visits. I cannot say which I miss more from those Sunday afternoons in between two journeys: the moments when Alison would rearrange my body, or those when I would disarrange her library. That aptly sums up my definition of free time: sex and reading. Love and writing. No tourism, healthism, bicycle-ism … or any other -isms.
Our bibliographic incompatibility manifested itself overtly when she gave me a book by Michel Onfray as a Christmas present. This sparked what might be described, in technical terms, as a conflict of bibliography. If she had ever read the entirety of a single book I have written, she might have understood that Michel Onfray is as far removed from my library as Karl Ove Knausgaard is from Chimamanda Ngozi’s, or Philip Roth from Maggie Nelson’s. I said nothing. We didn’t talk about it. She tried to make amends for what was done. One day, Alison presented me with a magnificent illustrated edition of Dale Pendell’s Pharmako Gnosis. But, in general, I adored her library, and she wasn’t interested in mine. And then the question occurred to me: is it possible to love a writer — I mean here the person, the body of the writer, or in other words the reader — without reading them? Is it possible to love someone without knowing and embracing their library?
In writing these lines, I realized that I still have on my desk the last book that Alison gave me, on April 23: Enrique Vila-Matas’s Esta Bruma Insensata (That Mindless Mist). April 23 is perhaps the most beautiful day of the year in Barcelona. As the city celebrates International Book Day, all the bookshops, whether large or small, put out street tables on which they display not only the best- sellers that keep their businesses afloat, but also those books that will never sell, completely unknown collections from publishing houses in financial ruin. The first page of Esta Bruma Insensata has the inscription Alison wrote me: “On this day of books, including your own, as Barcelona and I accompany you in happiness. I love you.” I’m struck by this inscription, not only by the “I love you,” which now pains me, but by the presence of that 26th letter — the 21st consonant — of the Castilian alphabet, that y with which Alison unites the words Barcelona y yo — “Barcelona and I” — as if she considered herself a city or, on the contrary, as if she considered Barcelona to be a person and had struck up some secret alliance between the two of them. Was this supposed to mean that if she stopped accompanying me or loving me, the city would do the same? I know today that there was something premonitory about this inscription. I began reading the book when we were together. When I finished it, we were already separated.
That Mindless Mist could well be the black book of our love. In the novel, the narrator, Simon Schneider, brother of a renowned writer for whom he collects the sayings of other authors, invokes this mist to characterize the thick cloud of political confusion that the separatist Catalan and Spanish unionist movements have raised over the city of Barcelona in the past few years. There are certain things that, to Simon’s mind, possess no more existence than a mist, a fog, or a gust of wind — a “minor existence,” as he calls it, quoting the art historian Souriau. In our case, such a fog might aptly characterize the confusion that Alison’s bibliographic separatism and my bibliophilic unionism created in our relationship, until the library of our love, so to speak, was lost in the mist.
One day near the end of our relationship, in mid-conversation I asked her about a box of yeast called El Tigre on which someone had written “para la bollería fina” — for fine pastries.
“Why do you care about that box?” she asked.
“Because the person who gave it to you was trying to make a joke about the fact that you look like a dyke, even though you’ve always said you’re straight,” I said. “It’s for your fine pastries, ‘para la bollería fina’ because in Spanish we call lesbians ‘pastries.’”
“Listen, Paul,” she said, “the world isn’t a Countersexual Manifesto.” These cold and disagreeable words were spoken in reference to my first book, which she had never read in its entirety, and which I do not believe she had ever mentioned in my presence.
What I had imagined as a joke became a settling of scores between two librarians. It was as if she had taken my book itself and thrown it in my face, as if her words had destroyed my fragile library. I knew then, as I might have known from the moment she first accused me of having disarranged her books, that we would never have a mutual library. A few days later, I packed a dozen boxes with the books I had accumulated at her place over the course of my journeys, and I left, without her asking me to stay. We have never spoken to or seen each other since.
In periods of depression or deep disaffection, a library becomes simply a piece of furniture, and books become mere objects. We see them as forms and volumes that ornament a wall, that separate us from the outside world, that disturb or burden us. We measure them in cubic centimeters, we weigh them in kilograms. We see them as paper doors leading to parallel worlds. But one day love will come again, and we will know it when our library has once again become a virus.