1676814170 Confessions of four bibliophiles

Confessions of four bibliophiles

Libraries speak of their owners like wardrobes. Books can be more than a passion, they can become a hobby, like collecting coins or collecting old watches. Books evoke the past, coexist with its voices and resist oblivion. They have “the ability to abolish time,” as the Spanish writer Irene Vallejo puts it. Every library is a universe revolving around its owner; After all, it is an expression of his light and dark sides, his longing, sadness and joy. Libraries are not only resonances of the past, but also consonances with the present.

Bibliophiles feel the need to live immersed in books they don’t necessarily read but love. Alejandro Gaviria (Santiago de Chile, 55 years old) is Minister of Education, writer and collector of rare books. Books are valuable objects for him, but also rest, refuge and company. For 20 years he has been collecting books that are no longer available in his high-ceilinged apartment. It has an extensive collection of all the first editions of García Márquez’s works.

Gaviria is fascinated by the hidden stories behind book dedications. In his first issue of La Hojarasca, García Márquez wrote on the cover: “For Carlos Alvarado, who keeps my secret.” For years, Gaviria followed the news and, without having definitive confirmation, concluded that it was the first person the Nobel laureate had confessed to marrying Mercedes Barcha.

Bibliophiles treasure the stories of others. When someone buys a used copy, they usually don’t know who owned it and the journey it took to get into their hands. It’s a chain that doesn’t know where it begins and where it will end. Some time ago, Gaviria bought a first edition of the Twelve Pilgrim Stories with a drop of blood spilled by García Márquez on one page. The book belonged to a nurse who did a blood test on the writer and accidentally left the drop on the cover. García Márquez used it to draw a flower and wrote a dedication to it. When Gaviria found the book, he found treasure: “It has the DNA of García Márquez.” Some time later, the nurse who sold it to the antique shop regretted it. The bookseller explained the situation to Alejandro, who unfortunately returned it.

Alejandro Gaviria, writer and Colombian Minister of Education, at his home in Bogotá on February 11, 2023.Alejandro Gaviria, Colombian writer and Minister of Education, at his home in Bogotá on February 11, 2023. Chelo Camacho

Gaviria searched until he found the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift in a virtual antiquarian bookshop. He paid $80 for a treasure that would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 today. Four months passed and the book did not arrive. He thought resignedly that he wasn’t the only one who had been scammed on the internet. Six months later, the book arrived in a handwritten letter from a small town in Illinois, USA. The bookseller told him that he was dying of cancer, that he had a hobby of collecting stamps and asked him for stamps from Colombia in the early 20th century. Alejandro bought them and sent them to him. He never heard from him again. Three years later he was also diagnosed with cancer.


Current affairs analysis and the best stories from Colombia, delivered to your inbox every week


Gaviria has been looking for rarities for years with the help of Álvaro Castillo, one of Colombia’s largest bookseller. Among the curiosities in his library is a diary of Che Guevara in Bolivia, signed for Fidel Castro; books signed by Borges; the sixth edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; the first edition of a book by Joseph Conrad… Even a manuscript by Aldous Huxley that survived the fire that destroyed his home. “I like this trip down memory lane,” says Alejandro.

Fascination for the book as an object

“I have always imagined paradise to be some kind of library”: this phrase by Borges sums up what books mean to many. In the library of the poet and writer Piedad Bonnett (Amalfi, 72 years) there is not only knowledge. He treasures the library he inherited from his son Daniel, which consists mostly of books on art and architecture. Piedad’s most famous and well-known book is What has no name, about his son’s suicide.

There are books in every corner of his house. Biographies, novels, essays, poems. Calculate that you can have 6,000 books; At first glance they seem more. There are some that he no longer consults but are relics, like encyclopedias: “The encyclopedia is wonderful. If it’s virtual, you search, but if it’s on paper, you randomly open a page and find things that spark your imagination,” he says.

Piedad Bonnett, Colombian writer, at her home in Bogotá on February 10, 2023Piedad Bonnett, Colombian writer, at her home in Bogotá, February 10, 2023Chelo Camacho

Piedad also buys books for the beauty of their covers and pages to look at. “I have a kind of fascination with the book object,” he says. In the room there are Fables by La Fontaine, the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci and Battista Piranesi. In books he collects traces of his friendships with other poets, some of whom have died, such as José Watanabe and Blanca Varela. It also has signatures of Vargas Llosa, Raúl Zurita, García Márquez. Organize the library by genres and countries.

Books preserve the moments and feelings that stay with their readers when they read them. Piedad usually visits those who have inspired her, and before she sits down to write, she always reads. “To kill fear and arm me with courage,” he says. In a special place she keeps the treasure of youth, the children’s encyclopedia, with which she began as a reader. One of his gems is a leather-bound edition of Shakespeare’s works from 1734. “At some point in my life I discovered that when I was upset, in pain, or sad, my head would go straight to my study. More and more I just want to read and write in life, and I prefer reading to writing,” he says.

Signatures, wine and dedications

Bibliophiles are romantics. In the house of the writer, journalist and researcher Juan Camilo Rincón (Bogotá, 40 years old) you breathe in the sweet scent of old books. Almost every wall is covered with cluttered shelves and furniture. Keep the most precious in bags with hermetic closure. There are books in the living room and in the three rooms including the bedroom. On the shelves where other people would store clothes, he has books. “I know what I’m saving and it’s one more time I’m giving them life,” he explains.

Juan Camilo found parts of the libraries of the politician Rafael Uribe Uribe and the writers María Mercedes Carranza and Elisa Mújica. It has around 6,000 books, 3,000 of them signed by their authors and 2,500 first editions. He has specialized in Ibero-American literature. It has 400 books by Borges and about his work; 350 from and about Cortázar; 100 by and about García Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. “Signed books have a little seed, a trace of the author; The author touched the book and that makes it wonderful,” he says.

Through dedications, signatures and letters, Juan Camilo has traced the relationships between writers and countries, as he does between blood and words in his latest book Colombia and Mexico. Among its jewels it keeps a book by Ricardo Palma dedicated to Uribe Uribe and another by León de Greiff signed by the poetess Matilde Espinosa, on whose pages the wine drank while the author made some corrections in his handwriting.

Juan Camilo Rincón, a Colombian journalist and writer, holds one of his books at his home in Bogotá February 11, 2023.Juan Camilo Rincón, Colombian journalist and writer, holds one of his books at his home in Bogotá Chelo Camacho February 11, 2023

Its collection also includes wonders such as Viento fuerte, by Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, dedicated to another Nobel laureate, Spaniard Camilo José Cela; and Sombra del paraíso, dedicated by the Spaniard Vicente Aleixandre to the Colombian Andrés Holguín; Books that were part of the libraries of Holguín, Enrique Grau and Fernando Charry Lara; and a curious signature book by Isabel Pérez de Ayala, secretary to former President Eduardo Santos, in which she collected signatures, poems, and even illustrations of important writers, musicians, politicians, or academics.

A bibliophile’s greatest pain is the loss of their books. Although they no longer fit in the house, Juan Camilo is not seen without them. In fact, he thinks that if there were an earthquake, he’d rather die there with his cats, his plants, and his books. When Piedad Bonnett last moved 20 years ago, it took her six months to organize her books.

Books are living presence

There are collectors who don’t recognize themselves as such. For Alejandra Jaramillo (Bogotá, 51 years old), author and professor of creative writing at the National University, books are knowledge and background for her classes. “When I first held a book in my hands, I think it was the most important moment of my life because I discovered that they could be the perfect company, that no amount of loneliness could end me,” he says.

For Alejandra, books are a living presence. She mainly collects contemporary literature by women writers. She compiled the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and includes in her courses writers who are not usually part of the boom, such as Clarice Lispector, Elena Garro, Cristina Peri Rossi and María Luisa Bombal. “I want the world of women to be present in literature, to be read and to be a very important form of literary construction,” she explains.

Alejandra Jaramillo, Colombian writer and teacher, at her home in Bogotá on February 11, 2023Alejandra Jaramillo, Colombian writer and teacher, at her home in Bogotá Chelo Camacho on February 11, 2023

In his library he has books signed by Albalucía Ángel, Laura Restrepo, Roberto Burgos or Julio Paredes, most of them current writers. “I don’t buy books compulsively, I buy them because I need them,” she says.

Collectors or book lovers are all different. Alejandro Gaviria, Piedad Bonnett, Alejandra Jaramillo and Juan Camilo Rincón have in common that they preserve the history of the books, they are their temporary custodians. The books have outlived others and will outlive them and the passage of time.

Subscribe here to the EL PAÍS newsletter on Colombia and receive all the latest information about the country.