A More Personal Chile

Not to Read

by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish and edited by Megan McDowell
London: Fitzcarraldo, 278 pp., £12.99 (paper)
Alejandro Zambra; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

“I abandon books easily,” the Chilean novelist, story writer, poet, and essayist Alejandro Zambra said in a 2015 interview with the Peruvian novelist Daniel Alarcón.

Before, especially when I wrote literary criticism, I had the urge to read books from cover to cover. If I was writing about them, I’d read them twice over. I didn’t enjoy that, in part due to the obligation to say something beyond the obvious. I don’t do that anymore; I became more impulsive—there are just too many books I want to read.

The specter of “obligatory readings” haunts Not to Read, Zambra’s collection of reviews, essays, and lectures; it’s also the title of the first essay in the book, about an early, unhappy encounter with Madame Bovary in middle school at the prestigious National Institute of Chile. “I feel sure that those teachers didn’t want to inspire enthusiasm for books, but rather to deter us from them, to put us off books forever,” he writes. “They didn’t waste their spit extolling the joys of reading, perhaps because they had lost that joy or had never really felt it.”

It is much to the benefit of his fellow readers, then, that through whatever alchemy turns oppressed students into book-mad adults and put-upon book reviewers into compulsively engaging literary evangelists (would that it happened more often!), Zambra has emerged as one of the most perceptive and generous writers on literature currently at work. Most poets and fiction writers are, presumably, obsessed with books. It is rare, however, to find one who is able to articulate that obsession with as little pretense and as much élan as Zambra. He puts down on paper the conversations and internal debates that readers and writers usually have off the page—the number and type of books one takes on a long journey, the judgments one makes about acquaintances upon seeing their bookshelves for the first time, the marginalia found in an old book that seem to uncannily echo or refute one’s own internal reactions. These are the things that make up a bookish life, and in his essays and reviews Zambra captures them with a combination of (seemingly) offhand casualness and authority.

Not to Read is Zambra’s first book that presents itself, at least superficially, as a traditional work of nonfiction, but all his books—from his debut novel-in-miniature Bonsai (which narrates many years in the lives of a couple, together and apart, in less than ninety pages) to his most recent work, Multiple Choice (which takes the form of Chile’s secondary school placement exam in 1993, the year that Zambra took it)—rather freely disregard the distinctions between genres. His short-story collection, My Documents, perhaps the clearest and most expansive delineation of his concerns as a writer, toggles between pieces that read like memoir (an essayistic narrative about quitting smoking, dedicated to his…

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