Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”

My feelings about this book are complicated. First of all, Shadow is an amazing work of art. Descriptors like “brilliant,” “sweeping,” “gorgeous,” and “epic” are used in every review I’ve read, and they are all accurate. Zafón himself is compared to such literary icons as Gabriel García Márquez, Umberto Eco, and Charles Dickens. The turns of phrase (even in translation from the native Spanish) are visually stunning – the setting of Barcelona vibrates on every page. It hails reading (not only writing, which is usual in a book like this, though writing as well) as an art form in and of itself, and views readers as a critically important piece of the art form, which I completely adore. Shadow is a book about books, set in libraries and bookshops, and laden with manuscripts and drafts. It’s a book that I should have loved.

Also, I was prepared to love it. My friend Kristine loaned it to me with a glowing recommendation and upon perusal of the back cover, it seemed to cover everything I love in literature: darkness, Gothic suspense, love, and a mystery waiting to be unraveled. Kristine’s description immediately reminded me of Diane Setterfield’s brilliant Thirteenth Tale – another “book about books” and one of my all-time favorites. (Have you read Setterfield’s book? If not, stop reading this immediately and GO GET IT. But that’s another blog post.) However, while I liked Shadow, I honestly didn’t love it right away. And initially, I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly. I mean – how could I not love a book described by critics as “a love letter to literature”? Really.

Here is what I’ve deduced to be the problem, though, after much deliberation. I’ve been on an ill-advised television tear, which is unusual for me. I simply cannot be trusted with TV, and therefore I almost never watch it, which is why I’m painfully ignorant of popular culture, overall. To illustrate: When in the throes of a television series, I don’t sleep, my family is neglected, and I become a shade of my usual self, especially in terms of any possible intellect I might have. It’s a miracle I can even string a sentence together after a month of frantically watching Friday Night Lights at every possible opportunity, for the love. (There, I said it. It’s out there. Go ahead, laugh. FINE!) While FNL is a smart show (which, OMG, this is so embarrassing to admit, but it IS!, and that is a whole other blog post), it’s not literature. It’s not reading. To say the least. The brain work required to get through and make sense of a novel is simply not necessary for FNL, and I’ve atrophied. So, since my brain hasn’t had to decode anything more involved than the curve of Tim Riggins’ ass for the last thirty days (and granted, it is SPECTACULAR), moving straight from that show to Zafón was a little tough to take. In Shadow, there’s innuendo! Parallelism! Symbolism and intrigue! Really, it was just too much for me to process.

But in reading over the paragraph I just wrote, I realize something. All of this is to Zafón’s point and central theme – that readers and reading are crucial. In Shadow, Zafón creates a character who systematically tracks down every copy of a specific author’s books in order to destroy them. (This doesn’t give anything about the plot away, so don’t worry about spoilers. I never tell the ending, much to my husband’s annoyance.) Keep in mind, this is 1945, and there is no internet, no Kindle, no electronic database of uploaded texts. Books are finite. A manuscript is vulnerable – uninsured and unprotected, completely fragile. A warehouse fire or a lost manuscript can end a book, altogether. So, as someone who is in my thirties and who is a product of the electronic age, I’m not accustomed to thinking about books or information in this way. I’ve become desensitized to information loss, because our generation stands on the opposite end of this spectrum – information overload. Zafón’s book, on the other hand, forced me to think about the loss of intellectual product as a type of mortality, so Shadow became funereal – like an elegy to books. What has been lost? Which thinkers and which works are gone, forever? Zafón’s antagonist is completely ruthless in his destruction – murderous, in fact – and I began to comprehend the utter violence in his annihilations of art, of thoughts themselves. So this brings us back to the theme – ideas are alive. Books do work. Reading and readers matter, as much as life itself does. Hmmm. Maybe I liked this book better than I thought.

Not that there isn’t still a special place in my heart for Tim Riggins, and his ass.


  1. Ok, if I can be torn away from the computer....I just may start reading again. Love that you're doing this and I totally get the Tim Riggins thing too.

  2. I cannot possibly describe how much I loved this review. Incredible.

  3. Love it!!! Very funny. You are a great writer. Definitely time to publicize this blog. And I love that you choose the book I recommended. You'll have to give it a try again in a couple of years when your brain is fully functioning again. (=

  4. Wow! Great review and now I want to read it to see if I dislike it like you or love it, like the other reviewers. Thanks. You are funny, and smart.

  5. You guys are so great, thank you for the kind words! And I'm not ready to go "live" yet, but soon...

  6. Well done. And I can so relate to the intellect atrophy. The Twilight series (and Kardashians) have ruined me. However, I loved your insight and honesty. You have definitely inspired me to netflix "Friday Night Lights."

  7. The Shadow of the Wind is one of my favorite books! Enjoyed your post. :)