Texts That Made Me: Rachel Stenner

Despite the fact that I spend my days swimming in words, emotions and objects locate the texts that have made me as much as what is written.

My favourite poem is Pablo Neruda’s Heights of Macchu Picchu (Alturas de Macchu Picchu). It’s an occasionally inscrutable series of 12 cantos reflecting on history, loss, and creation. He opens with the lines ‘From air to air, like an empty net, / dredging through streets and ambient atmosphere, I came’ (‘Del aire al aire, como una red vacía, / iba yo entre las calles y la atmósfera, llegando y despidiendo’). I read it after I had visited Peru’s city in the sky, and Pablo’s words perfectly described for me the feeling of trying to be open to the landscape, whilst at the same time attempting to understand the layered history of its people and its structures.

I am a fan of old books. Not just Renaissance ones, which I study, but ‘pre-loved’ and decomposing ones. Some of my best books are parcelled up in strings and ribbons, like my inherited copy of The Silmarillion (Tolkien riding again in these pages), which is held together with a strand of an old jumper, and my copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, wrapped with an especially loved grey velvet ribbon. My fondness for both of these books and their falling worlds made me realise that I am drawn to fading glory; the moment in which something is on the turn always makes me pause. These volumes are almost unreadable in their fragility, but I can’t discard them. This is one of several reasons why my shelves are full of duplicates: also, the books my partner and I separately brought to our shared home (Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting) and those which I’ve thought I’d lost and needlessly replaced (Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient).

But what I like most about providing the next home for an old book is when someone leaves more than a trace of themselves in it, so that when I pick it up, I see something about them too. The letter below, signed by ‘AJB’, arrived between the pages of my copy of Heights of Macchu Picchu. I can only imagine the ‘maravillosa noche’ of music and song that prompted its grateful composition, and speculate whether the musicians ever made the wished-for road trip.

Rachel Stenner

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