Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Today's Discovery: A Rare Book

One of the distinctive cultural characteristcs of Italy, and I think in particular of Florence, is the overwhelming plethora of bookstores that thrive not only in the center of town but throughout even the most remote little neighborhoods on the periphery. There are more book shops here than churches, if you can imagine that. Most of them are located in tiny storefront spaces among 15th century buildings, with books stacked in no special order, from floor to ceiling. Some are sold by vendors in the street out of portable outdoor stalls. When I first moved here, I was bewildered by the fact that so many little mom-and-pop book shops could survive so harmoniously side-by-side. Many of these, if not most of them, sell old and used books. Each little store is unique and specializes in a different genre or topic in which the owner is often an expert. The buying, swapping, trading and selling of used books is a passion here.

Discussing and debating new and old books is a natural passtime in Florence. Public presentations of new books and authors is commonplace not only in the booktores, but in libraries all over town. People pack in to see them and there is seldom standing room if you don't arrive early. Structured presentations of new books by their authors and advocates is a common diversion.
Because Florence plays host to a huge international student population, it is no wonder that there are so many book shops. But upon closer inspection, I have noticed that the customers of the numerous mom-and-pop shops are overwhelmingly local Italian non-students, as the students tend to keep to the libraries and larger bookstores near the big piazzas. The customers are simply the people. They browse and read with a reverence that you only see in church. They caress the pages and browse through them like they are handling a precious manuscript. Something will surely be lost the day that Italy accepts the Amazon Kindle into their culture.

Today while walking home from the market, I wandered into the bookstore pictured to the left. Before I knew it, two hours had passed while fascinating myself browsing among books mostly of Italian Risorgimento and WWII history, art and culture during those years, many of which were more than 100 years old!

While suddenly, within a pile of old timeworn volumes, I spotted a book, the cover of which I immediately recognized. I had found a gem.

It was the 65 year-old original first edition (photo on top of page) of Carlo Levi's narrative "Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli" (Christ Stopped at Eboli), which he wrote while living across the street from Palazzo Pitti after being released from the Murate prison here in Florence after the fall of Mussolini. I had accidentally stumbled upon a buried treasure.

My personal experience with this book was in 2005 when I read it in English as preparatory material before embarking upon a 10 day cross-country bike tour (thanks to Ciclismo Classico) that took me through Matera and the wild backroads of Basilicata in southern Italy. There in Matera I visited Carlo Levi's museum, which houses the painting that you see at top, on the cover of the book. This mystical art portrays the story of the impoverished "Mezzogiorno", or southern Italy, during the reign of Mussolini, as accounted by this exiled anti-facist activist. The book formed an indelible impression upon me and was one of the precursor reading experiences that contributed to my ultimate destination in Florence.

Afraid to touch this sacred book any further, I held it in my hands with humble respect. I could not believe my eyes. This was the original, used hard cover book published in its first year, 1946, before it ever became politically and socially famous. God knows who it belonged to, how many people touched it. I was in awe.

I was afraid to ask the owner how much he was asking for it. He said 10 Euro. Did I hear that right? This is a collector's item. It is probably worth hundreds. But it's worth way more than money to me..."One man's garbage is another man's treasure". I trembled with excitement and awe as I handed over the 10 Euro. This will be a lifetime keepsake for me.

The church bells started to ring, signaling noon. A few minutes later, a friend of the owner came into the shop with lunch. He unwrapped a large piece of pecorino, a container of vegetables that he brought from home and a loaf of bread from Montespertoli. They insisted that I share in their lunch and wouldn't let me say no.

Thank you, Florence.