Book Review

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera

some notes on a book of notes about lighthouses

On Lighthouses is a recent publication written by Jazmina Barrera and originally published in Spanish as Cuaderno de faros.

The eagle-eyed hispanohablantes amongst the TriumphoftheNow.com readership will immediately see that the original title translates literally not as On Lighthouses, but rather as Lighthouses Notebook or Notebook of Lighthouses, both of which are much more appropriate and accurate titles than the rather grandiose On Lighthouses, which implies a coherence, a set of conclusions, and a tighter text overall than what is actually there.

The text of On Lighthouses is not a treaty on lighthouses, rather it is very much a notebook, and this is why it’s a great, energetic, frenetic read, but given the promise of solidity implied by the title, means it could easily be seen as frustrating.

I don’t know if I mean that, really…

I don’t think the fault of the book’s potential frustratingness (frustration?) lies with either the author or the translator (Christina MacSweeney), as the title would likely have been selected by the publisher (Two Lines Press), who probably chose this title to try and make the book appear to have come from a pre-“creative nonfiction” landscape, when it doesn’t.

Of all the books I’ve read in my life (over 10), the one this most reminded me of was EM Forster’s Commonplace Book.

A commonplace book, for those who don’t know, is a particular type of notebook/ scrapbook that was popular a long time ago, though EM Forster’s is the only one I’ve ever read.

Forster’s text, now out of print, collates several decades’ worth of notes, quotations, ideas, sketches, and so on, that were never meant to be considered finalised works.

On Lighthouses, feels similar to this: it feels unrefined, like a notebook: which is fine and good and great when that’s acknowledged in the title, but when it isn’t, well, it isn’t. Maybe?

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Barrera has a long-standing interest in lighthouses, as symbols, as architectural structures, as object of civil engineering, as sociological objects of study that originate in the ancient world, and have long had a potent grasp on popular culture. This is evidenced by the later (the original publication of the book was in 2017) release of the Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson film, The Lighthouse, (dir. Robert Eggers, 2019). The public consciousness continues to connect lighthouses with insanity.

Barrera writes about people who went mad in lighthouses, people who built lighthouses when lighthouse were suspicious things, and – of course – she references Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse many many times. She looks at other high modernist texts, too, with Ulysses recurring (although not the scene set inside a lighthouse), and also repeatedly comes back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel journals about a trip he made with his grandfather revisiting the coastline where he (the grandfather) had been a senior engineer during the first major state-backed lighthouse building programme in Scotland.

Barrera also narrates personal travel experiences from across the Northern hemisphere and various moments in her childhood and adulthood when she was proximate to lighthouses. For example, she visits a lighthouse on the Hudson when living in New York City for a while, she journeys on the west coast of America with an aunt and visits a French lighthouse with a different aunt.

Lighthouses function as positive affirmations of humanity using technology and ingenuity to make the ocean safer for whoever happens to be on it, and it’s this equanimity and generosity that seems/seemed to be treated suspiciously, especially within capitalist America’s “freedom means never getting nothin’ for free” mantra.

On Lighthouses is super interesting, full of ideas, full of digressions and asides exploring culture, geography, geology, civil engineering and social/political history, yet it is a series of sketches, rather than a coherent singular piece. A title like Notes on Lighthouses or Sketches of Lighthouses would have been far more appropriate.

I liked it a lot, but it wasn’t what I was expecting and I feel like it’s something that many people wouldn’t love because of that.

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