From the Left



My Offshore Library: University of Puerto Rico, 1978-1985 (Part I)

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

I love books. I am fond of them for the words they speak and the ideas they convey, for the stories they tell and the manifold characters that spring out of their pages.

But some of us also enjoy books for reasons beyond their contents, as artifacts, tridimensional objects that readers admire visually, thumb through and even smell.

For all their convenience, e-books do not provide sensorial gifts akin to caressing creamy-textured pages or smelling the aroma of a new book -- that enchanting combination of scents emanating from paper, ink and glue.

Physical books, on the contrary, have lives of their own and sometimes (as artifacts) become texts in their own right. As single volumes or as part of a collection, they contain memories, even secrets, and if we are willing to listen, they can tell stories as well.

I have three libraries: one at home, one at my university office and one that's a smaller, offshore collection of books I left at my parents' home when I emigrated from Puerto Rico almost 35 years ago.

When I visited my mother, who still lives on the island, this spring break, I spent a few hours examining my unexiled library. The exercise transported me to my years as an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, whose gates I crossed for the first time in 1978, awestruck and starry-eyed.


I pulled a small, golden-orange-colored book from a shelf inside the closet that houses my collection. Its slightly discolored spine contains the author's name, Hector Oscar Ciarlo, and the title, "Las ideas del Renacimiento" ("the ideas of the Renaissance," 1974). The smell it contained as a freshly printed book had long been replaced by the musty whiff of dust, its 180-odd pages showing the unmerciful effect of nearly half a century of tropical heat and an average humidity of 75%.

The book brought back fond and vivid memories. It was January 1978. I was preparing to enter the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, and my father had the foresight to invite for dinner a neighbor, professor Ciarlo, and Argentine, who held a deanship at the university.

I remember the conversation we had that night. I told professor Ciarlo that I was planning to become a high school history teacher. As the good professor he was, he asked where my true passion lay: "Is it in education or in history?" In history, I replied. "If that is the case," he continued, "you should go to the College of Humanities rather than the School of Pedagogy."

Shortly before leaving, Ciarlo pulled out a copy of his "Las ideas del Renacimiento," opened it to its title page and handwrote a personal dedication: "For Luis Martinez, with the cordial wish that this reading accompanies your vocation for History." He was the first scholar I ever met, and his wise advice placed me on track to become a professional historian and author.


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