APRIL 3, 2018
FOR ME, when it comes to good writing, texts are alive and living among us, no matter the genre. Juan Villoro’s The Wild Book — a story in which books themselves are characters — is an especially good example. Labeled as YA, The Wild Book tells the tale of another Juan, a 13-year-old boy, and the summer of his parents’ divorce, when he must live with his eccentric Uncle Tito, a voracious reader and obsessive book collector. Uncle Tito’s sprawling house in an old neighborhood of Mexico City includes a labyrinth of a library so huge and confusing that he gives Juan a bell to ring in case he gets lost. Tito tells Juan, “a million books live here,” though he immediately qualifies this by admitting the books are hard to count because “they are very slippery.” While Tito uses an analogy to explain what he means by this — “you put two socks in the wash and only one comes out” — Juan quickly discovers there’s more to the story. Uncle Tito’s library is a tangled forest of a place where books live as wild creatures. They possess not only sentience but agency, moving separately and together of their own accord, and purposely intervening in the lives of humans. In Uncle Tito’s library, the books choose their readers.
So Villoro’s novel chose me — although not in Lawrence Schimel’s recent English translation, but three years ago, in Spanish, as El Libro Salvaje. I’m almost certain that I’ve logged more hours with the story than anyone other than Villoro himself. To explain, I’m a late-in-life Spanish language learner — in various ways an undisciplined and impulsive one. The whole endeavor continues to feel writhing and perilous — moments of clarity and confidence flit in only to slide away. I first read the book, painstakingly, dictionary in hand, and it took me four months. I began studying Spanish in my early 40s, when a Mexican friend told me I still could. That I believed him and turned toward the possibility, enrolling in a local course with an enduringly patient teacher, remains a testament to the miracle of the unexpected. Three years into my study, my friend mailed me a copy of El Libro Salvaje: he believed it would be on the far edge of my language reach. At that point my teacher and I formed a book club of two, meeting once a week to talk about and clarify what I’d read.
The books in Uncle Tito’s library parallel the animal world. They sleep and wake. They are susceptible to disease. Moreover, the books have astonishing capabilities: they have ideas and they make decisions. They seem to migrate from one part of his library to another. Juan keeps finding various novels about a “heart-shaped river,” for example. They turn up in places and at times he doesn’t expect — suddenly appearing in his pocket, or on a bedside table, or shelved with books about a completely different topic. When he accidentally wanders into a room of “shadow books,” written in Braille, and can’t find his way out, as though in purposeful alliance, they form a staircase and he’s able to exit through a high window near the ceiling. There are also predator volumes, including the “pirate book,” which seems to attack and ruin others, stealing entire pages and changing plots and characters. When the pirate book loots a “heart-shaped river” novel in this way, Juan turns to the shadow books for help. He locks the pirate book in the room of Braille texts for safekeeping, their letterless script seemingly untranslatable and therefore naturally resistant to this sort of attack.
Juan arrives at Uncle Tito’s as an unsuspecting, even reluctant reader. But the older man firmly believes Juan is special, a “Lector Princeps” whom the books sense and privilege. Tito explains that books “don’t want to be read by just anyone, they want to be read by the best people — that’s why they search out their readers.” Juan protests that he can’t be one of these — he doesn’t even like school much. But his uncle dismisses his objections, deferring to the books’ better judgment. Tito insists he needs Juan to help find and capture a particular book, one he’s certain exists but which has eluded him his whole life, and which, feral as it is, he believes has never been read by humans. With the help of Catalina, another teen who works in the pharmacy across the street, Juan spends the summer learning the library’s terrain in order to fulfill Uncle Tito’s longing to find and tame the wild book.
Equal parts ecology and magical realism, Villoro explores the nature of literature and reading. The best stories are wild, after all. Then, too, upon publication, once a book is “released,” it takes on a life of its own. Its dimensions emerge, of course, to be interpreted by its readers, but the story itself remains something more and apart not just from us but from the author as well. So it is that early in his summer adventure, Juan discovers the “heart-shaped river” books never have a single way of being read. Catalina, a Lector Princeps in her own right, sees in them things Juan initially does not. When he revisits the stories, her reading enables him to absorb more and differently. But if stories take on new significance with each reader, the act of reading itself has the potential to make each of us more than we were before. So there is an exchange, a giving and receiving, between books and their audience — a relationship that cannot be reduced to possession or ownership. Instead, it functions like an ecosystem, one so profound and interconnected, that it is something like magic and nothing less than alive.
It follows that readers of Villoro’s novel are necessarily included in the same special category to which Juan belongs: Lector Princeps. Villoro entrusts young readers to care for and sustain the magic — and in doing so, takes them seriously. But the novel is also generous with its adults. Some YA novels render grown-ups absent or diminished (dead, overbearing, foolish), but Villoro’s primary adult character, Uncle Tito, changes and grows just like Juan, the teenage protagonist. An insightful and empathetic inhabitant of books, Uncle Tito must learn an important lesson from Juan and Catalina — how to live in the present, and with the risks of that story as it unfolds.
As a teacher of writing and literature for over 20 years, I’ve been exploring and negotiating with students how the stories we read and write are deeply entangled in a forest of historical context, legacy, and imagination: not just the author’s experience and understanding, but the reader’s — and not just one reader’s, but any group of people talking about the work as we do. Sometimes at the end of a discussion, students become skeptical. They want to know: is all this what the writer had in mind? It doesn’t matter, I tell them. Really. It doesn’t. The story belongs to us now. Or maybe the story belongs only to itself. In The Wild Book, I hold those 20 years of teaching as a lesson before me, in my hands, both story and metaphor. But the fact that I read this novel initially in my second language (insofar as I can use the possessive “my” to describe the relationship I have with Spanish) animates the metaphor further. Even as I struggled to read, stumbling over the strange surface of an unfamiliar tongue, Villoro’s story and characters, like the shadow books who assist Juan, dropped the steps into place before me, leading me into and along a path I could recognize — the reality of a living story. So Villoro’s novel illuminates why YA literature has such a large adult readership. Even as we age, or perhaps especially then, our purpose is not to tame our life stories — but rather to allow them their wild lives.
Kristin Van Tassel teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Her work has appeared in literary, academic, and travel publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, World Hum, ISLE, The Journal of Ecocriticism, the Los Angeles Review of Books, About Place, Wraparound South, and Temenos.