In praise of books, but specially old books

A couple of Fridays ago I was mindlessly leafing through the small collection of science books I have in my office, trying to get pumped up for work (something rather challenging in the mornings, as we all know), when I stumbled upon my very first scientific acquisition: a small, green cloth bound, delightful little book: “Analytic Geometry and Calculus”, by F. S. Woods and F. H. Bailey, Professors Emeritii from the MIT; printed in the 1940s.

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A throng of memories overcame me. This beautifully printed book belonged to my late grandfather, Manuel Buen Abad Meneses, the Fifth of that name; who we endearingly called simply “Abuelo”, a word a thousand times warmer and sweeter to the ear than its English equivalent, “Grandfather”. Grandfather, to foreigners like myself, gives the impression of something bigger, more majestic and gigantic, like another father, but older and far more terrifying. Abuelo, on the other hand, means candies, walks through downtown, museums, and archaeological sites, barbecues in the backyard, endless chatting, anecdotes and history; sweet wines and Christmas’ turkey, songs, and presents. Abuelo has both the comfort of home and the excitement of adventure. We never knew what el Abuelo was going to say during dinner or breakfast, or where he was going to take us to in the afternoon; but we did know it was going to be delicious.

I opened the book and there, in the title page, was his name, written in the austere calligraphy of engineers. My father writes in a similar way (with slightly uglier letters—it’s true, dad), but I, since my elementary school days, decided to write in script. Because I have engineer blood in my veins though, the result of my artistic experiments in the realm of writing only produced a mixed breed, letters with strange curves, impossible shapes and baroque forms. I’m proud of my writing style, but I admit it is as ugly as a kick in the nuggets.

I remember the day el Abuelo gave me this book. We were visiting my grandparents in their house; I was probably in my last year of middle school, or in my first one of high school, and I was chilling on the couch (the old one, not the new) when he approached me. “I want you to have this. This is a book on Calculus” he told me. “I learnt from it”.

Now imagine, if you can, the pimpled face of an extremely nerdy teenager, who attended the Mathematics Olympiad club and was fascinated with science, being presented with the book his grandfather—who was admired thoroughly and without reserve by said teenager—studied to learn Calculus, that mysterious area of math filled to the brim with sensual curvy “S”, and small “dx”‘s dancing in its paragraphs.

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“Calculus is very important”, my Abuelo said. “You can do everything with it. From simple stuff like calculating areas and volumes, to much more advanced applications in science and engineering. I once won a very beautiful dinner set thanks to it”, he said, with a smile.

“How?”, I asked, relishing the prospect of one of his anecdotes. If my Abuelo ever had a vice, it was that of pride. He was proud of his stories, and of his grandchildren—all of us, and he enjoyed putting them together in his storytelling. It gave him immense pleasure.

“Well, once I attended one of the meetings of the Golf Club’s Committee. Some people were trying to maximize profit in one of the Club’s activities, but weren’t unable to figure out how. And then, I stood up and said ‘Why, if it’s just a Calculus problem’ and went straight to them and showed them how with some derivatives we could solve the problem by optimizing the outcome. The Committee was fascinated and as a reward they gave me the spectacular dinner set.”

Of course, I was bewitched. That something so abstract in appearance as Mathematics could translate into something as tangible as the crockery on which you ate your dinners was a hair shorter than magic. I took the book almost with a shudder and that very day I started to study it.

My Abuelo’s house was full with books. That was probably the first thing you’d noticed had you entered his home any day. Books, books everywhere, on all subjects, of all types, from all years. Books on science, on history, on politics, novels of all kinds, books on the folk tales and legends of Mexico, books of countries and museums, books to learn languages; gilded leather bound books, and of course masterpieces of literature (there were at least three or four versions of Don Quijote). Even the gorgeous paintings in the living room were about books: Dante and Virgil in Hell observing a condemned man; or Abraham and Isaac climbing Mount Moriah, Isaac with the heap of firewood on his shoulders, asking a question to his father, while the latter holds a half concealed sacrificial knife…

My grandmother Leticia, which we call Ticha, had her own books too. A trained pianist and a professional opera singer, she collected dozens and dozens of books on music and art (subjects on which she educated my Abuelo; in her own words, she “civilized” him since they married), from biographies of the greatest musicians to histories of art and books on theory of music. Poetry books. Religious books (my Ticha is a devout catholic, and has a very impressive preparation in the subject). Everything.

I mean, my grandfather had a book on the story of the measurement of the meter. That is, a couple of french engineers going from here to there in Europe. Measuring. To get the meter. Written as a sort of thriller.

You can hardly go nerdier than that.

It was Paradise.

The old books at my grandfather’s house were the ones that fascinated me the more. He once showed us, after breakfast, a 19th century book that was an anthology on the poems of Byron to different women, illustrated with engravings. I don’t know where it is, now, but I’ll ask for it next time I go to my Ticha’s.

There was also a book that I used to spy in my Abuelo’s office: “The Franco-German War of 1870-72“, written by none other than von Moltke himself. A beauty on a subject I’m most interested…


I started this post with the idea in my mind of talking generally about books and ended up talking of my Abuelo.

Don’t blame me. I’m slightly too sentimental of a man, and I miss him.

And, come to think about it, he was a book too. Better yet, an old book. My Ticha used to call him “The Encyclopedia of Useless Things“, for his habit of seasoning his conversations with useless yet interesting details about anything and everything.

My Abuelo was an old book. But unlike books, that can stay unused, gathering dust in a corner of the house, my Abuelo was alive, in the fullest sense of the word. He was a Professor of Energy, like the madmen of yesteryear used to say, like Ruben Dario said in his poem. He was Manalive, from Gilbert’s novel. He was a book of stories, made flesh.

I want to live like him, and die like him. Live with a story in my lips and die with an Ave Maria in them too. If I can be a tenth of the man he was, I would still be a good man.

I want to live and die a damn good story.

El Abuelo and my dad.

El Abuelo and my dad.

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