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A B o r d e r L if e b y t h e B o o k R a m ó n S a l d í v a r O ne day in the late spring of 1958, Sonia and I came home from school to find that our mother had done something completely out of character. In the middle of the tiny front room that we used as a combination TV room, den, living room, dining room, and sometimes, when my father had done something particularly bad, a bedroom, there in the middle of the room, in partially unwrapped splendor, like a Mexican Christmas in July, was a splendid stack of magnificently gleaming, white faux-leather, gilt-edged, World Book Encyclopedia volumes. I am not sure that I can easily communicate to you that we were not an encyclopedia sort of family. It still happens to me, and I’m sure to Sonia and José, that sometimes when someone figures out that we are not three random Saldivars but that we happen to be related, that someone imagines that we are from an academic family. Surely, he or she will say, your father was a professor of romance philology, or maybe an English teacher. No; I’m afraid not. Our father had a fourth-grade education and was a laborer all of his working life. Up to that moment in 1958, I do not remember anything readable around the house, other than maybe one of our school textbooks, or perhaps a random comic book, or maybe a few worn copies of Home Beautiful magazine. I’m exaggerating. There were two books in the house before the encyclopedia. One was the Bible, but Catholics weren’t supposed to read that book, so that one didn’t count. The other one was a textbook on plumbing. Our father must have considered changing careers at some point. But since the book was in pristine condition and looked unread, clearly he had aban­ doned that project at some point. I can’t say that I blamed him. I tried to read the plumbing book but just couldn’t get into it. In later years, there have been numerous times that I have regretted not having read and digested that plumbing book. But back to the encyclopedia. What had gotten into my mother? What was she thinking to have spent the prodigiously outrageous sum of eight or nine hundred dollars, money that we certainly did not have. For books!?! Would we eat for the next several months? Would she live through the night once our father got home and figured out what she had done? What would our father do when he got home? Who in the world had sold her this utopian libretto? W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L i t e r a t u r e 4 0 .3 ( F a l l 2 0 0 5 ) : 3 2 4 -3 1 . S a l d î v a r P l e n a r y 3 2 5 That spring and summer, Sonia and I started reading the encyclo­ pedia. José was a precocious little boy but he was too young to read just yet. He got to it later. I went to it directly. And having always been an Aristotelian sort of guy, I started at the beginning, Volume 1, A, “aardvark .” It took a while, but I eventually made it all the way to Z, “zygote.” I read that encyclopedia like a novel, charmed by the contingency that each volume was measured and ordered by a different letter of the alpha­ bet. Twenty-four volumes in one fell swoop. It made reading Balzac, Trollope, and Proust in later life seem normal. It probably also explains my love of reading three-decker Victorian novels. That was just an after­ noon’s reading. I like to tell people that the result of that reading is that I have encyclopedic knowledge. The only problem is that it ends at 1958. Who was that door-to-door salesman who sold my mother these books and what was he doing in the Villa...


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pp. 324-331
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