Carlos Maria Dominguez - a Borgesian book about books, exploring the almost supernatural hold they exert over true bibliophiles.

Carlos Maria Dominguez, The House of Paper. Trans. by Nick Caistor. Harcourt, 2005.

Bluma Lennon, distinguished professor of Latin American literature at Cambridge, is hit by a car while crossing the street, immersed in a volume of Emily Dickinson's poems. Several months after her untimely demise, a package arrives for her from Argentina-a copy of a Conrad novel, encrusted in cement and inscribed with a mysterious dedication. Bluma's successor in the department (and a former lover) travels to Buenos Aires to track down the sender, one Carlos Brauer, who turns out to have disappeared.
The last thing known is that he moved to a remote stretch of the Uruguayan coastline and built himself a house out of his enormous and valuable library. How he got there, and why, is the subject of this seductive novel-part mystery, part social comedy, and part examination of all the many forms of bibliomania.
Charmingly illustrated by Peter Sís, The House of Paper is a tribute to the strange and passionate relationship between people and their books.

Uruguayan novelist and critic Domínguez's book-obsessed homage to Argentinian great Borges is a sweet miss. A devastatingly beautiful Conrad scholar, Bluma Lennon is killed by a car while crossing a street near Cambridge University while holding a copy of Emily Dickinson's poems. Several weeks later, the narrator, one of Bluma's several lovers, receives a copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line in the mail. There's no letter, but the postmark is Uruguay; the book is inscribed by Bluma to "Carlos"—and it is encrusted with portland cement. The unnamed narrator sets out for Montevideo to discover its secret. The rest of the plot, in which Borges-as-author figures, is predictably book-centered, with plenty of travel and metaphysical musing. It is amiable and sincere in its desire to add its voice to the master's by revisiting some of his settings (including Buenos Aires) and subjects (Quixote, collecting, love, time and death). But it falls short of Borges's own takes and is thus hard to read as more than a love letter. With 11 two-color illustrations by Peter Sís, the book is fun and sad in the right spots, but one never gets a fiendish enough sense of Domínguez's own obsessions or his desire to plot them. - Publishers Weekly

Adult/High School–Some bibliophiles become so ensnared in their passion that books would seem to become the very rooms and rooftops of their lives. This seems literally to be the case for the elusive Carlos Brauer, a South American who mailed a cement-caked book to Cantabrigian professor Bluma Lennon, only to have it arrive after shed died in a pedestrian accident while reading from a volume of Emily Dickinson. The actual book in which this part-parable, part-odyssey unfolds is itself a model of what the characters agree a fine book should be: well-spaced and clearly printed lines, well-made paper, clever but infrequent illustrations, and a narrative that begs to be treated as a living, flesh-and-blood interlocutor. Its very brevity allows bright and biblioholic teen readers the opportunity to see a literary joke through–which is not to say a slight or insubstantial bit of literary twaddle–from setup to close. Dominguez references a variety of authors with whom college-prep students will be familiar and shows off a sprightly interpretation of South American magical realism. This would make an excellent suggestion for formal summer reading. Francisca Goldsmith 
"(A) wonderfully amusing account of how books can dominate the life of the inveterate collector. It is itself a small book, beautifully translated by Nick Caistor and charmingly illustrated by Peter Sís, and you may buy it without worrying about finding room for it on your shelves. (…) The delight in The House of Paper is not so much in the story of the search but in the poetic style of its telling and in Domínguez's whimsical asides on reading and bibliophilia. (…) The House of Paper is one of those little books that can haunt a reader long after it is closed -- or used as a brick to make a house. It comes from a territory of the imagination that is distant and dreamlike." - Alexander McCall Smith
"It is an appealing cautionary tale about the dangers of owning too many books." - Miranda France
Bluma Lennon, a Cambridge academic, is struck and killed while crossing the road in Soho. Her death, occurring while reading a poem by Emily Dickinson, is taken by her colleagues to show the dangers inherent in books and reading. Following her death, a colleague discovers, among her possessions, a mysterious copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line, strangely inscribed and covered in what appears to be cement. His investigations lead him to Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan coast, in search of Carlos Bauer, an obsessive and dedicated bibliophile whose mania for books has led to his mysterious disappearance. And so begins the unusual and haunting tale that is The Paper House.
Carlos María Domínguez’s novel is an obvious homage to the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges. Domínguez has learned well at the knee of the master, integrating Borges’ playfulness with language, creation of miniature worlds and views of literature as recreation into this slender volume.
Readers should not be fooled by the miniature nature of this work for, like much of Borges’ canon, many large themes are touched upon: the nature of time, infinity, labyrinths, reality, and identity. Books create labyrinths of rooms, libraries and collections define identity and reality is subsumed when Bauer loses the index to his massive and valuable collection of books. In describing this loss, one of Bauer’s friends resorts to the analogy of losing the ability to access one’s memories:
Then one day, unexpectedly, you lose the sequence of these memories. They’re still there, but you can’t find them…Your personal history is lost…The worst thing about it is that the facts are there, just waiting for someone to stumble on them. But you don’t have the key. It’s not forgetfulness drawing its kind veil over things we cannot tolerate. It’s a sealed memory, an obsessive call to which there is no answer.
Readers must decide if it is this loss of identity, and the key to his library, in the fire which leads Bauer to the madness that is his undoing? Perhaps the madness already existed and the loss of the key brought freedom for him from slavery to his books? Whether these questions are ultimately answered is left for readers to decide.
The Paper House draws readers in and will cause many to re-evaluate their relationship to their books. If cataloguing methods are stages within the disease, then most readers are far from the illness inflicted on Bauer. In his library, Shakespeare cannot be placed next to Marlowe, because of accusations of plagiarism between the two, and Martin Amis cannot sit alongside Julian Barnes because of a falling out.
The Shadow Line is referred to throughout the narrative and, like Conrad’s novella, Domínguez’s work is an ironic commentary on the nature of experience and wisdom reflected through the story of one man’s struggle with his books. Like Conrad’s protagonist, our narrator is never named; however, he is not the true protagonist in this tale, rather it is The Shadow Line itself.
“And again he pleaded for the promise that I would not leave him behind. I had the firmness of mind not to give it to him. Afterward this sternness seemed criminal; for my mind was made up,” the captain said of the delirious sailor on his sickbed, victim of a “downright panic.” In those words it seemed to me I heard the tacit appeal the book had been making to me from the very start.
Peter Sís’ whimsical illustrations add much to the sense of being outside of any recognizable time while reading this compelling novella.- Janelle Martin
The House of Paper (UK title: The Paper House; don't even get us started ...) is a short novella about being obsessed by books. It is narrated by an Argentine professor at Cambridge, and begins with the death of one of his colleagues, Bluma Lennon, struck by a car as she is reading a poem by Emily Dickinson. A few months after her death he receives a package addressed to her. The stamps are Uruguayan, but there is no sender's address. The contents are also a bit mystifying: it is a copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow Lines, with a dedication from Bluma to a certain Carlos. It's not just the book being returned that is odd, but especially the state of the book, as it has "a filthy crust on its front and back covers", and leaves cement dust .....
       A bookish man himself, worried about his own collection getting out of hand, he can't get the book and these circumstances out of his head. He e-mails around to try to determine who this Carlos might be, and learns that his full name is Carlos Brauer and that he is "a bibliophile from Uruguay".
       On his next trip to South America the narrator tries to find Brauer and return the book to him, but he disappeared a while ago and few people seem to know his fate or whereabouts. Eventually the narrator finds someone who can tell him the whole story. It turns out Brauer was an obsessive reader and book-hoarder, with a fabulous and enormous collection. One of his ambitions was to order his books in a sensible way -- no Dewey decimal system for him ! -- and he set out cataloguing the books in his massive collection according to his own system, taking into account affinities between authors and books in some very elaborate way.
       Though his friends worry that Brauer is getting too consumed by his books, the classification-system seems to fulfil him; naturally, then, disaster strikes, and all the careful order is upset. It leaves his universe shattered, and Brauer in the middle of what is now just chaos. Instead of starting anew he takes radical action, moving to a remote and desolate spot in Uruguay, and while he takes his books with him he puts them to a very different use there. Bluma's request for the return of the book she gave him is then the final crushing blow: what would have once been easy -- looking it up in his well-organised catalogue and then pulling it from his shelves -- is now nearly impossible -- but that doesn't stop Brauer from trying. And, since the book reached England, he obviously also succeeded -- though, as the narrator eventually gets to see first-hand, at a very great cost.
       The House of Paper is an elegant little meditation on the hold books can have on us, and on their importance in our lives. All these characters are bookish, and it comes as little surprise that Bluma, for example, died exactly the way she hoped to. The culling of books is an issue repeatedly raised, from the narrator's own overflowing library to, of course, Brauer who is in a league of his own in being unable to let go of any volume -- but the narrator also notes a time in Argentina when people thought it necessary to dispose of and destroy certain books, when it was dangerous to own certain works. This isn't all worked up in ideal fashion -- Domínguez seems to be trying a bit hard in part to make the story more 'meaningful' -- but the book-enthusiasm as well as the uncovering of Brauer's secret are evocative and clever enough to make for a satisfying quick read.- The Complete Review
I am always attracted to small books about books. This slim volume, originally published in Spanish as La casa de papel, has been expertly translated by Nick Caistor to bring a charming story of books and bibliomania to English-speaking readers. Opening with a lecturer at Cambridge University stepping out into traffic, her nose buried in a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson's poems, The House of Paper is about the victims of books. After her death, an unnamed Argentine colleague assumes Professor Bluma Lennon's academic duties. He receives a package intended for her with Uruguayan postage stamps and no return address. The package contains a tattered copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line encrusted in bits of concrete, inscribed affectionately by Lennon to a man named Carlos.
The search for Carlos takes our nameless narrator from the halls of Cambridge to the world of South American intellectuals and bibliophiles. It is there that he learns of Carlos Brauer and the fate of his private library. Driven by mania, Carlos built a home on the Uruguayan coast out of his books and cement, and that is the last that anyone heard of him. What follows is an international search for the man who was consumed by the burden of his own library
Bibliophiles will cringe at the notion of the bricklayer's trowel spreading wet cement across the covers of priceless volumes. Yet, evocation of the emotions of bibliophilia is what makes The House of Paper such an enjoyable book. Every character in the story is controlled in some way by the written word. Domínguez reminds us how a single volume is capable of connecting the reader to previous owners and, perhaps, loved ones. Books are given a collective personality that interacts with living and breathing humans. They are forces that demand reckoning; a personal library is a creation, like Frankenstein's monster, capable of destroying its creator.
Fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind and Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas will enjoy Domínguez's little book, as it continues in the trend of bibliomysteries from Spanish-speaking authors. Though The House of Paper incorporates elements of these modern bestsellers, the magical realism of Domínguez's South America is likely to remind the reader of the fiction of Borges.
Domínguez's story is complemented by the illustrations of Peter Sís, which enhance the fantastic theme of the story. The House of Paper is a short book that fellow bibliophiles will want to draw out over the course of several reading sessions so as to savor the compact narrative that Domínguez has created.- Daniel Miller 

 When we read under our breath, we produce the sound of the letters at an inaudible frequency.  But the sound is still there.  The voice is present, it is never missing.  It follows the line just as an instrument follows a sheet of music, and I can assure you it's just as essential as the eyes.  It creates a tone, a melody that flows through words and phrases, so that if you add real music at a soft volume, deep inside the ear a harmonic counterpoint is created between one's own voice and the music from the speakers.  If the volume is too high, the music covers the voice, and the text's melody is lost.  And not just that, one becomes confused.  Accompanied by a good concert, poor prose can seem much better than it is."
This short, literary novel explores themes which academicians have discussed for generations--the relationship between reality and language, the belief that creating a library is akin to creating a life, the idea that books can take on a life of their own, and the obsessive collection of books and reverence for them.  Creating an allegory of the literary world and its complications, Dominguez tells what appears to be a simple story--part mystery, part satire, and part quest.
When Bluma Lennon, a professor at Cambridge and a Joseph Conrad scholar, is hit by a car while crossing the street, she had been reading Emily Dickinson.  Several months later, a copy of Conrad's The Shadow Line, coated in cement, arrives at her former address from "Carlos," a man she had met at a conference in Latin America.  The unnamed narrator of the story, originally from Buenos Aires (where Jorge Luis Borges lived), returns to Buenos Aires and eventually travels to Montevideo in search of Carlos Brauer, a former lover of Bluma, and the owner of an extraordinary collection of books.
As the narrator travels to meet scholars and antiquarian book sellers, he acquires additional information about Brauer, who has apparently gone mad.  After accidentally setting the index of his books on fire and being unable to find anything in his weirdly organized collection, he moves to the sea and builds a house from bricks pressed from the waterlogged books in his collection.  Conrad's The Shadow Line, which he has returned to Bluma, is obviously from this damaged collection, and the symbolism of this book and its themes of a man's rejection of his youthful illusions, the belief in the sea as a healer, and the search for self-knowledge help explain Brauer's life.
Though the novel is carefully written, its self-consciously literary approach and its use of allegory and satire keep the "reality" of the plot at arm's length.  The themes dominate the novel, and the reader must constantly ask what the unfolding events mean or represent as the parallels and conflicts between real life and the life of books unfold.  Characters are more symbolic than real, and their behavior often becomes a satire of their academic lives.  Erudite and clever, the novel exists on its own terms, rather then through any direct connection with the reader, and it sometimes feels ponderous. - Mary Whipple 
Book people can be maddening, especially when they are writing books about writing books, or writing about reading books, or --- worst of all --- writing books about reading books while writing and/or reading them. 
We have, for instance, in the past, tangled with Alberto Manguel who does go on about the wonders of his life in books. Indeed, we wrote such a sneery take on his History of Reading that we got fired from a job of book-reviewing for a major but as of this writing unnamed daily major market newspaper. (It all happened a dozen or more years ago, and we hope he has forgiven us for calling him a "noisy show-off" who "writes fat, portentous books about reading." Even though he still is and does.)
I could see long pathways that led from line to line, crossed paragraphs, occasionally came to a halt, then branched off diagonally, from right to left or left to right, or cascaded vertically down. 
In other words, the printed page turns into a work of art, and the printed page turns the characters in The House of Paper into genuine looneycakes.
Such that when Carlos by mistake burns up the index to his 20,000 book collection with his candelabra, he is done for: "the books now owned him ... he was a martyr to volumes." Most people run away from home to get away from family, husband, wife. Carlos heads off to the deserted Uruguayan village of La Rocha because he lost his index. Using his books and a bit of cement he builds a cottage on the shore builds a whole house with his rare collection of books. [Emphasis mine.] This is book-love with a vengeance.
This whole plot-line gambol starts out with Carlos sending a literary lady a heavily cemented copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line. I was going to Google the book and see if I could figure out why, in a books about books and book-lunatics, the author had planted this particular title. It must be significant, n'est-çe-pas? 
I think I won't bother. Looking up the Conrad reference, I mean. Domínguez --- like Nabokov, Marías, Smollett, Joyce, Barth and Amantea --- is very fond of playing literary tricks. I could come up with a dozen or so guesses, and I suspect they would all be right.- Lolita Lark

Can books change people’s destinies? There is much discussion of this very topic when Bluma Lennon is struck by a car, distracted by a second-hand book of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Over the years, there have been other victims of such mischance, those avid readers oblivious to their surroundings, grown careless while turning the pages of a favorite title.  Bluma's eulogy lauds her as a lover of literature, but no one could have imagined that her passion would lead to her early demise, eliciting such heated discussion that the students on campus enter a competition on the subject: "Relations between reality and language." Cambridge is buzzing with opinions, everyone with something cogent to say on the subject.
A package arrives, addressed to Bluma, postmarked from Uruguay. The narrator of the novel, who has been teaching her classes until a successor is chosen, secretively opens the package, unable to contain his curiosity. Inside is a used, broken-spined copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line, the author the subject of Bluma’s thesis. The volume is filthy, with particles of cement clinging to the cover and no letter to explain its arrival.
Strangely disturbed by the package and its origin, the narrator takes pains to track the sender: Carlos Brauer of Rocha, Uruguay, formerly of Argentina. Obsessing on the details of the damaged book, the narrator reveals his love of the printed word, his own shelves overflowing with titles, many given away to students during the year but quickly replaced by new acquisitions, his library "advancing silently."
Tracking Brauer’s movements from Argentina to Uruguay, the narrator soon finds himself in Buenos Aires, where he encounters a fellow collector who confides that Carlos is a bibliophile, one who loves books for the pure joy of ownership. Recently however, Carlos has gone missing, selling his house and many of his precious books before leaving Argentina for the harsh coast of Uruguay. The narrator is faced with yet another mystery to solve.
His search fraught with minor frustrations, the narrator is finally able to locate Carlos Brauer’s last residence on the Uruguayan coast, only to be faced with another conundrum. The pages littered with quirky characters, this rarified world of book collectors, "concealing a dense web of secrets beneath a mild air of reticence," is complemented by fanciful illustrations, a dense fable of an extraordinary world where man's destiny intersects a love of language, the twisted road to a remote crossing of The Shadow-Line. - Luan Gaines

 So here we have two books, both with paper in the title, both by Latin Americans (or Latino-Americans), published in 2005. Both also happen to be about books. Plasencia's novel is the second McSweeney's publication I've read in less than a month; their bindings are always just so pretty, and I guess after a lot of recent non-fiction reading I was ready for some fiction that was a little more arch and challenging. This one is definitely experimental, both typographically and authorially. Stories are often told in several columns on a page spread, each narrated by or concerned with a different character; the type sometimes ends up running sideways on the page or blocked out by black squares; one word is actually cut out of the page each time it would appear, leaving a small rectangular whole; and at one point the entire book starts over again, with a slightly altered dedication page. None of this is gratuitous, however; it really is in service to the plot, which concerns the fortunes of an interconnected group of Mexican-American farm workers, actresses, herbal healers, mechanics, Catholic priests and clergy, and always men and women busy breaking each others' hearts. The omniscient sections of the story are labeled "Saturn"; when some of the farm workers launch a rebellion against Saturn's invasive observation, the planet turns out to be Sal Plasencia, whose own hang-ups and heartbreaks begin to bleed into the story. This is an odd book, and I did have one or two moments of annoyance at the irksomely cutesy experimentalism that McSweeney's seem unable to entirely avoid. But it's a rich one too, a Mexican melodrama on a postmodern stage. As they live their deeply felt, folk-art colored lives, the characters' rebellion is essentially against authorial authority, and Plasencia's book is about the moral choices of making art, as well as its healing power.
Dominguez' novel is much more straightforward: a single story told in the first person. At a slim 103 pages, it was one that I consumed in its entirety on a single subway ride home. Then I took it back to the store the next day (I had been borrowing it) and bought it, because I wanted to be able to return to Dominguez observations about books and book lovers. The story ultimately concerns a book collector whose books literally take over his life, pushing him into a corner of his house and taking the place of his friends; when a fire destroys his card catalog (and thus any chance of finding a particular book again) he goes mad, and begins using his beloved books as mere bricks to build the house of the title. His story is gradually uncovered by a nameless protagonist, a colleague and lover of a literature professor who was hit by a car while absent-mindedly reading Emily Dickinson; she receives a mortar-covered book in the mail after her death, and our hero sets out to return to sender, only to be drawn into the strange tale of its origin. (The book in question is THE SHADOW-LINE by Joseph Conrad, and the book's allusions make me want to read more Conrad, whom I've always admired.) The illustrations by Peter Sis (a wonderful artist and children's book author, who also recently illustrated Borges' BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS) don't illustrate the plot, but rather symbolic interactions between people and books, and they are so beautifully strange and evocative I wish I could adopt one as my own symbol, or give them away as cards or posters.
Both of these books on paper are about relations between books and people; while Plasencia is concerned primarily with the subject, the author, and the book, Dominguez is focused on the book and its reader. Reading them together made for a wonderfully deepened experience, and sparked meditations on the nature of writers and readers and their common obsession that I will be thinking about for a long time.
I'll end with my favorite passage from THE HOUSE OF PAPER, as the narrator observes the situation upon arriving in Buenos Aires from London. Replace "Buenos Aires" with "New York City" or even "the entirely literary world" and it's a deadly accurate depiction of the frantic place the book industry can be. In my interpretation, reading itself is our calm River Plate, and each beloved book our hydrofoil.
Some friends gave me the volumes they had just published, but said little about them. They talked about whether Piglia or Saer had a strategy to place themselves within the corpus of Argentine literature, if it was a good idea to say you would take part and then not turn up to a roundtable or a book launch, whether you should "aim for" academic critics or newspaper ones, go into hiding, choose small publishing houses that would take great care over your book or be a celebrity for a month with a Spanish publisher, then vanish like a shooting star from the new titles table.
Their literary aspirations amounted to a political campaign, or perhaps more precisely a military strategy to find a way to demolish the walls of anonymity, an insuperable barrier only a privileged few managed to scale. There were brilliant stars in the literary firmament, people who earned a fortune overnight with dreadful books that were promoted by their publishers, in newspaper supplements, through marketing campaigns, literary prizes, ghastly films, and prominent, paid-for positions in bookshop windows
[BN aside: that's what I call abuse of co-op dollars]. They talked of this in bars as if it were a chaotic battlefield a writer had to traverse not during the adventure of writing – although some did start then – but as soon as that was over. The publishers complained of a lack of good books, of the writers of the "horseshit" brought out by the big publishers, and everyone had an indignant demand, a justification for their failure, a desperate ambition. In Buenos Aires, books had become the center of a nightmarish strategic war, talent a question of ubiquity and power.
A week later I took the hydrofoil across the River Plate to the unknown shore. The river was dun-colored and quiet, and as I left Buenos Aires behind I could feel myself recovering a sense of proportion in the expanse of water and broad horizon that made it easier to breathe, to discover some space inside me.

“He was looking for a book.”The Paper House from Argentinean author Carlos María Domínguez is a delightful cautionary tale, a fable of sorts that explores the excesses of a bibliophile at “the mercy of his passion,”and asks the question: when does the luxury of a prized collection of books “cross an invisible line” and become a burden?
Professor Bluma Lennon has just purchased a book of Emily Dickinson poems. She’s distracted by reading when she crosses a street and is hit and killed by a car. This event opens the story’s beginnings with a wry twist on that old saying: “Books change people’s destinies.”
The narrator, a work colleague of Professor Bluma Lennon, attends her funeral, and at the service, yet another professor makes a speech in which he creates “great controversy.” He states: “Bluma devoted her life to literature, never dreaming it would take her from this world,” and subsequently a debate rages across the university whether or not poetry is responsible for her death.  The narrator is perhaps particularly interested in the idea that books can be harmful as, in childhood, his grandmother always stopped him from reading claiming it was “dangerous.” As the narrator grows older, he thinks perhaps his grandmother was right.
An elderly professor of classical languages, Leonard Wood, was left paralysed after being struck on the head by five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that fell from a shelf in his library; my friend Richard broke a leg when he tried to reach William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which was so awkwardly placed he fell off his stepladder. Another of my friends in Buenos Aires caught TB in the basement of a public archive, and I even know a dog from Chile that died of indigestion from swallowing the pages of The Brothers Karamazov one afternoon when rage got the better of him. 
Shortly after Bluma’s death, the narrator, who has taken over her office and courses, receives a package from Uruguay with no return address. Upon opening the package, the narrator finds a tatty copy of Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, but the book is covered in cement particles. Who sent the book? The only clue is an inscription from Bluma to someone named Carlos, and so the mystery begins that takes the reader to Buenos Aires and eventually to a remote beach in Uruguay. This is the story of Carlos, a man who loved books so much that the sheer number involved drove him out of his house. With a library of over 20,000 books, how do you store them? How do you keep track of your collection?
they were piled in the kitchen, the bathroom, and in his bedroom as well. Not his original bedroom, because he had been forced out of there, but in the attic where he had taken refuge, next to another little bathroom. The stairs leading up to the attic were also full of books, and it was nineteenth century French literature which watched over his scant hours of sleep.
The sheer number of books in Carlos’s collection presents a horrible logistical problem. After all, one must be able to locate the books one owns, otherwise what’s the point? Carlos develops a new way of indexing his books, and it’s a fatal choice.
It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is a part of us. I have noticed that many people make a note of the day, month, and year that they read a book; they build up a secret calendar. Others, before lending one, write their names on the flyleaf, note whom they lent it to in an address book, and add the date. I have known some book owners who stamp them or slip a card between their pages the way they do in public libraries. Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to lose a ring, a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book whose pages we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. 
Peppered throughout this novella (which includes illustrations from Peter Sis) are the most marvellous observations about books and book lovers. This witty, wise cautionary tale of letting our libraries grow out of control makes my best-of-year list. - Guy Savage

There are some terms I never use to describe books. Important for example. If it’s not a major sacred text or Das Kapital then however good it may be it’s probably not that important. Life-changing is another. How exactly did your life measurably differ after reading a supposedly life-changing book?
But perhaps I’m wrong. Here’s the first paragraph of House:
One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a second-hand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.
As the author reflects, ‘Books change people’s destinies.’
House is a charming novella about the dangers inherent in books. The more obvious perils are the physical ones: the risks inherent in volumes stored on high shelves where you can overbalance reaching for them or have them fall on your head. Beyond that though the real dangers are subtler.
Bluma was a Cambridge academic and a little while after her death the unnamed narrator is appointed as her replacement. It’s because of that he receives a late piece of post for her – a parcel containing a broken-spined copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line. Bluma was writing a thesis on Joseph Conrad at the time she died which could perhaps explain why someone sent her it:
But the extraordinary thing was that there was a filthy crust on its front and back covers. There was a film of cement particles on the page edges that left a fine dust on the surface of the polished desk.
There’s no note and no explanation, just an inscription from a “Carlos”. For no evident reason this Carlos sent Bluma a terribly damaged copy of an easily obtained book. It even appears to have been dipped in concrete at some point. Why was she sent it?
The narrator can’t leave the question alone. He is an avid reader and collector. His house is filled with books, each well cared for. He owns nothing like this battered orphan volume. It’s presence sparks reflection on books and his relationship with them:
There is a moment, however, when we have accumulated so many books that they cross an invisible line, and what was once a source of pride becomes a burden, because from now on space will always be a problem.
So true. Worse yet he thinks about:
… the panic I feel when someone praises all the books I possess. Every year I give away at least fifty of them to my students, yet I still cannot avoid putting in another double row of shelves, the books are advancing silently, innocently through my house. There is no way I can stop them.
What’s to be done? He can’t bring himself to just bin the rogue Conrad but nor can he ignore it. He sets off to Uruguay where the parcel came from to investigate the sender and discover his story.
In Uruguay the narrator meets other book collectors and through them learns about Carlos, who died himself not long after posting the Conrad. Carlos was also a collector and owned more than twenty thousand titles. That meant he was faced with the classic problem of how to keep track of them all and how to be sure of finding any particular book quickly and easily.
Carlos took the view that indexing by alphabetical order or by theme leads to absurdities. He was sure that a better method was possible – a perfect indexing methodology based on the affinities of the texts in question. Those affinities were clear only to him, although he does explain to his friends that at the very minimum one cannot sensibly shelve together books by writers who don’t get along: as Carlos explained Amis cannot be anywhere near McEwan following their famous falling-out.
Books are seductive. Carlos liked to read 19th Century novels by candlelight, would pour a second glass of wine for the book he reads at dinner. One guest sees on Carlos’s bed a pile of books which:
reproduced the mass and outline of a human body. He swears he could see the head, surrounded by small red-backed books, the body, the shape of arms and legs.
Books can bring madness. I won’t say much more as this is a fairly easy single-sitting read and much of the pleasure of it lies in discovering quite how Carlos was brought down by his collection and the reason for the curious delivery of the concreted Conrad.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Paper House. It comes with bookish illustrations that don’t particularly relate to the text but which are lovely and therefore need no other justification. It’s something of a cautionary tale and literary joke and that means it’s a bit slight, but that slightness is also what makes it such a fun read.
House is perfect for the younger reader in your life who may have caught the book bug but who it may still be possible to deter. A gift of House could provide a useful warning, allowing them to take up a healthier pastime such as hang-gliding or professional ice hockey. For the habitual reader it’s probably already too late, but there will at least be a twinge of pained recognition.
Other reviews
Guy Savage reviewed this here and it was his review which prompted me to buy it. On the more negative side, I discussed it on Twitter with Scott Pack who has read it twice and found afterwards that he could remember almost nothing of it either time. Although I’m with Guy on this one I’m not entirely surprised it might not stick in memory – it’s in its nature as a relatively light comic anecdote that it’s not going to stick the way say Krasznahorkai’s Satantango might. - Max Cairnduff


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