(The following is a guest post by Catalina Gomez of the Library of Congress Hispanic Division.)
The Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, most commonly referred to as the AHLOT, is one of those rare gems that readers can come across in the hidden corners of the Library of Congress. Compiled and carefully curated by the Hispanic Division since the 1940s, this extensive audio archive has collected close to 700 recordings of the most prominent poets, novelists and essayists from the Luso-Hispanic world reading from their works. Throughout the years, the AHLOT has captured works in Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, Catalan, Basque, Nahuatl, Zapotec and Aymara, becoming a unique treasure of the cultural patrimony of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States and the world.
Among the writers included in the archive are Nobel Prize winners Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda (both from Chile), Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Juan Ramón Jiménez, Vicente Aleixandre, Camilo José Cela (all from Spain), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru). Other noteworthy authors included are Argentinians Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, and Mexicans Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Fuentes. Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, who read his poem “One Today” in the 2013 presidential inauguration, was recently recorded and added to the collection in the spring of 2013.
Listening to Neruda read his beloved poem “Las Alturas de Machu Picchu” (“The Heights of Machu Picchu”), Paz read his “Piedra Nativa” (“Native Stone”), or Mistral read “Canción Qechua” (“Quechua Song”), will suffice in making one understand the magic of these recordings, which are available for the public to listen to in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Library. The idea behind the AHLOT has been to provide poets and prose writers with a unique space and opportunity to interact intimately with their work, where they can express it, and, in some cases, dissect it. As they record, writers choose which selections to read from, in what order to do so and what tone to use – hence the uniqueness and value of each session. Another fundamental aspect of the archive is the great significance of a literary work when read aloud. It could be said that in the voices of these writers live the essence of their creation in its purest form.
In a great number of AHLOT recordings, authors provide rich reflections on the meaning of their work. Borges, for example, speaks about the concepts of happiness and the profound nature of poetry during his recording: “… it might be said that to a poet unhappiness is essential.” He says, “Happiness, as you all know, is an end in itself. Happiness does not desire anything more. But to have been unhappy, to be unhappy, is something that a poet has to turn… has to change into music, into passion, into some strange harmony.”
Novelist Cortázar explains how surrealist cinema and reading anthropology fuel his creativity, and how John Keats has been one of his most influential figures (translated from the Spanish): “I oftentimes imagine that Keats is still alive and that he is my buddy.” Cortázar also gives advice to young writers during his recording (translated from the Spanish): “I would offer some advice to young writers, and that is to never ask for advice from other writers. I would advise them to search alone and through reading … reading books. My advice is for them to search for that indirect advice that can only come from a poet that has long been dead, or by a philosopher far, far away. Never ask another writer for advice, as that is a sign of weakness, and those who ask for advice will never become great writers.”
Even though the bulk of the recordings in the AHLOT are literary, the archive also delves into other disciplines such as philology, history, essays and non-fiction. The recording of Angel María Garibay (Mexico), an encyclopedic compiler, biblical scholar and expert on Nahuatl and ancient Greek is one example. Garibay’s recording contains commentary on his important philological study of the Aztec languages, and he reads Nahuatl poetry both in its original language and in Spanish. Another example of a rare recording is that of Lewis Hanke, the first chief of the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, and the founding editor of the “Handbook of Latin American Studies” (HLAS). In his AHLOT interview, Hanke tells the story of the beginnings of the Division and of the building of the beautiful Hispanic Reading Room.
Building this collection has been no easy feat. In 1943, the then assistant chief of the Hispanic Division, Francisco Aguilera, spearheaded the project, and for 27 years he served as the curator of the AHLOT before passing it on to the Hispanic Division’s current chief, Georgette Dorn. Aguilera and Dorn, throughout their years as curators, have actively reached out to authors, poets, publishers and embassies, in order to cast a wide net and capture as many voices as possible.
Staff members of the Hispanic Division are currently working with the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS), to transfer the recordings from their original format (magnetic tape reels) to digital form – a task made possible thanks to the cutting-edge technology housed in MBRS’s Culpeper campus. The goal of the Hispanic Division is to one day provide this special collection to an online audience making it available to the entire world. For now, those who live locally or those who come to visit the nation’s Capital can come and experience the collection onsite in the historic Hispanic Reading Room of the Library of Congress.