Lang & Lit
When I went off to college to major in Spanish at the University of California, Riverside in 1973, I was excited to become a member of the highly touted Department of Spanish and Portuguese. With a student population of only 4,000 at the time, the professors at UCR could provide completely personalized instruction and advisement. They took the time to get to know you and, in turn, you came to known them hanging out at student-inclusive staff parties or being graciously invited into their homes. It was quite a special time. As time went on and budgets deteriorated for the Humanities, changes were made to the department structure. Thus, there was an unpopular, forced merge of many language departments into one large Department of Languages and Literature which we begrudgingly referred to as “Lang & Lit”.
When majoring in any language, it is generally required that you not only study the language but literature written in that language as well. In this way, you learn much about the cultures associated with it which is equally important. In my case, that involved reading many historically renown novels in Spanish. I surveyed the likes of Don Quijote (Cervantes), Cien Años de Soledad (García Márquez), Bodas de Sangre (Lorca), La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (Fuentes), and many others. However enlightening it might be, literature in any language has never been my thing. So much is left to interpretation and opinion about the meaning behind all the words in these literary masterpieces. Reading this type of work in a second language demands an understanding of its many nuances which is not easy to achieve. I preferred to focus on the less abstract, more concrete side of things… language. The development and structure of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and the Romance languages in general were an endless fascination to me. So I was much more dedicated to my studies in linguistics, a field I had been introduced to at the age of 16 when I attended a National Science Foundation summer program. Even after six years of studying Spanish in junior high and high school, I had never heard of Morphology, Syntax, Semantics, or Phonology — some of the many sub-fields of Linguistics. Once I got a taste, I was completely hooked. In the same way in which literature helps you understand different cultures, linguistics helps you understand languages and the people who speak them. Originally, I considered pursuing a career as a linguist, but decided to choose a more practical application of the knowledge I acquired from this intense study and the ability to speak a second language fluently. It served me well in so many ways throughout my entire 40-year career as a teacher.
Today I continue to reap rewards from my degree as I travel to other countries. This year we are beginning our journey in Spain, an experience I expected to have when I was back in college until the young, impressionable girl I was then chose to defer an opportunity to study abroad… for a boy — silly me! Though I have visited San Sebastián in the northern Basque Country on two previous occasions, I have always wanted get an overall feel for the whole country. In order to prepare for that experience, I chose to open some more books. This has always been my practice before traveling to a new place. To that end, my reading list includes several non-fiction titles I have been working my way through in the past few months:
- The New Spaniards – John Hooper
- The Basque History of the World – Mark Kurlansky
- What’s Up with Catalonia
- Tales of the Alhambra & Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada – Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame)
- Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain – Chris Stewart
In addition, I enjoy reading a few fiction titles set in the areas we will visit to provide atmosphere along with some historical perspective for our travels. Among others, I was thrilled to discover the novels of Carlos Ruíz Zafón, currently the most widely published Spanish contemporary author. Born and raised in Barcelona, Zafón moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago where he worked for a time as a screenwriter developing writing skills he uses in his novels. His most popular work is a series called “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” (El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados) with four titles so far. I read all four rather voraciously and highly recommend them. The novels are a mix of mystery, thriller, and historical fiction set against the backdrop of a hidden repository of BOOKS. The way in which the stories and characters are intertwined within each novel and throughout the series in extremely intriguing. They all take place in Barcelona, but even if that’s not your next destination, you will still enjoy them especially if you love books. I chose to read the series first in English, but I plan to pick up at least one of the books in Spanish during our trip. The translations are excellently rendered by Lucia Graves (daughter of renown British poet, Robert Graves), but there’s nothing like reading the author’s original words.