Krakow UNESCO City of Literature | August 2019

Freakonomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner refer to a study that found children who grow up in homes with books will score higher on academic tests, and the more books one is surrounded by, the longer they stay in school. As I complete my 19th (non-consecutive) year of schooling with aspirations of continuing my studies towards a PhD, I have to admit, I am partial to this idea. That’s right…I blame my parents.

My sisters and I grew up surrounded by books. While we each had our own bookcases in our bedrooms, the house also had bookshelves around every corner. Books that did not fit on the overflowing shelves could be found piled high on nightstands or the coffee table. Hardcover cookbooks lined the kitchen counter, motorcycle memoirs, travel guides, and stories about dogs were stacked neatly by Dad’s chair, and whatever novel was book-of-the-month for Mom’s bookclub could usually be found next to a cup of tea in the living room. Books were (and continue to be) a gift, to be valued and cherished, and it was a special treat to get to go to a bookstore, whether it was the tiny, independent bookshop in Denman Island Village, or a trip to the city to go to multi-level Chapters.

As I walked the grounds of Wawel Royal Castle and through the streets of the Old Town this afternoon, I felt transported into the heart of the story that is Krakow. Krakow was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2013 “, “Miasto Literatury”, but the city’s rich culture, architecture, and history is centuries-old. Upon ducking into Massolit Books and Cafe, Krakow’s English-Language bookshop, I felt like I had entered a world unto itself.

Lazily browsing Massolit’s shelves of “Contemporary Literature”, I smiled to myself as I recognized the spines of multiple Scott family favourites. In my mind’s eye, I could picture their designated spots back home; Zadie Smith’s White Teeth standing out with its teal and yellow cover in the bookcase in the downstairs hall, a second copy on the shelf in the upstairs den. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, gifted to Mom from my sister one Christmas, a spot of honour on Mom’s bookshelf. Anne of Green Gables, lined neatly beside other classics like Little Women and Chronicles of Narnia in my own childhood bedroom.

Although I willed myself not to, I picked out not one, not two, but THREE books. Now, I have been living out of a suitcase for the past few months that is already overweight thanks to numerous novels and academic articles. What’s three more? In fairness, two are short stories, so they won’t take up that much room.

New-to-me books in hand, I sat down with a cup of Cherry Rooibos tea and began reading the first few pages of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Out of the corner of my eye, a sign mockingly pointed out the door, “More books this way”. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole as I followed the arrows and found myself in yet another magical land of books, this time, non-fiction. Titles like “Arctic Ice Exploration” and “Guide to Croatia” taunted me, but the weight of the three in my canvas bag did a good job of instilling some self-restraint.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic”, writes Stephen King, and in a little English-language bookshop on the corner of two streets I cannot pronounce, in a city I’ve only just arrived, books transported me home.

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” 

Roald Dahl

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