April 23: A Literary Holiday
By Kenneth Reeds
April 23rd is a holiday. A historical coincidence occurred on this date 400 years ago in 1616. In England, William Shakespeare died. At the same time, Miguel de Cervantes died in Spain. Generally speaking, both authors are considered masters; if not the masters, of their respective languages. Considering the role of colonialism in the spread of English and Spanish, the coincidence expands when we consider that the mestizo author Garcilaso de la Vega—half Spanish, half Inca—also died on this date in 1616. Indeed, April 23rd seems to be wrapped in English/Spanish literary connections.
In celebration, UNESCO declared April 23rd World Book and Copyright Day. While the second part of the official title is less romantic, the first embraces reading and books as an essential part of world culture. Madrid was the first city to be declared World Book Capital in 2001. This was a natural choice because for years Spain had celebrated this date. Around the country, bookstores offer discounts and it has become customary to give a book as a gift to your loved ones. Anyone who has tried to shop in late December in the United States knows that at times it feels that our holidays have sacrificed too much of the moral and community for the mercantile and material. Indeed, in this case, money is being made, but that it is upon the back of encouraging cultural production and reading somehow makes the trade-off less burdensome.
In my house last year our family traded books and we enjoyed the unwrapping. The second-best part was explaining to each other why one book or another made us think of our loved one; there is something special about connecting a text with a person. Without a doubt, though, the best was reading poems out loud from Shel Silverstein’s classic Where the Sidewalk Ends. Published soon before I was born, I remember first my parents reading these same poems with me and then, once able to do it myself, spending hours deciphering the words. Perhaps one of my greatest discoveries was the value of reading the poems out loud; the verses were so much easier to understand this way. To share this with my son was, in a succinct anecdote, a definition of happiness.
Just as books are a reflection of our lives, tales about texts are a mirror image of life. In Berlin you can walk down Unter den Linden Boulevard and come across Bebelplatz. This square is located in the city’s center and always had a cultural connection. It was originally named after the nearby opera, but in 1933 this relationship with culture turned sinister. After several days of gathering books from nearby university libraries, Nazis and their sympathizers burnt some 20,000 in the plaza’s center. This was, of course, simply another step towards the horror that these people would bring to both Germany and the larger world. However, the Germans have recognized its importance and, today, the plaza has been rebuilt in an austere and sobering aesthetic. The architecture draws the visitor to the only feature which is a glass-covered hole in the center. Underneath you can see empty shelves with enough space for 20,000 books. The words you’ll find are a quote from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor:
“It was only a prelude, whenever they burn books, they will ultimately burn people”.
The fact that an author could write, more than one-hundred years earlier, something so appropriate is a testament to the written word. It is important to see ourselves in those flames’ light and shadows as we commemorate this power.
Of course, the base for the whole idea of a day to celebrate books is not entirely true because in 1616 England followed the Julian calendar and Spain the Gregorian. This means that Cervantes and Shakespeare did not really die on the same date. Furthermore, evidence points to Cervantes dying on the 22nd and the 23rd being the date of his burial. These are the historical facts and, as usual, the fiction is more attractive and closer to what we’d like to feel. It is now time to give a book to someone you love. It is now time to go read.