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Additional Information
ISBN: 9781949641011
Pages: 174
Size: 4.5 x 7
Publication Date: May 12, 2020
Distributed By: Publishers Group West

On Lighthouses

by Jazmina Barrera
Translated from Spanish by
Christina MacSweeney

“Precise and erudite, Barrera’s writing is as alluring and arresting as the landscapes and stories it conveys. Each piece is crafted with care, imbued with Barrera’s poignant critical sense and her perspicacious ability to unravel the different levels of affect, historicity, and magnificence that constitute the everyday life of each lighthouse.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Lighthouses, the ‘frontier between civilization and nature,’ are places of solitude. But they are also signals of shore and home. This book is a light at the end of the tunnel, showing us places we’ll see and things we’ll do when we can go out again.”—The Paris Review


“After spending sufficient time inside a lighthouse, who wouldn’t begin to hear a song in the sound of the machinery, a voice in the wind or the waves?”

Far from home, in the confines of a dim New York apartment where the oppressive skyscrapers further isolate her, Jazmina Barrera offers a tour of her lighthouses—those structures whose message is “first and foremost, that human beings are here.”

Starting with Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, an engineer charged with illuminating the Scottish coastline, On Lighthouses artfully examines lighthouses from the Spanish to the Oregon coasts and those in the works of Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Ingmar Bergman, and many others.

In trying to “collect” lighthouses by obsessively describing them, Barrera begins to question the nature of writing, collecting, and how, by staring so intently at one thing we are only trying to avoid others. Equal parts personal memoir and literary history, On Lighthouses takes the reader on a desperate flight from raging sea to cold stone—from a hopeless isolation to a meaningful one—concluding at last in a place of peace: the home of a selfless, guiding light.


“Lighthouses, the ‘frontier between civilization and nature,’ are places of solitude. But they are also signals of shore and home. This book is a light at the end of the tunnel, showing us places we’ll see and things we’ll do when we can go out again.”The Paris Review

“[On Lighthouses] appears on the surface to be six poignant personal essays littered with intriguing references to lighthouses, their keepers and their myriad influences on literature and art throughout history, [but] what comes through is a dark and often obsessive meditation on what it feels like to squirrel yourself away from the world and embrace isolation in the name of pursuing a passionsomething beyond just a good-natured study of shipwrecks and their saviors.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Precise and erudite, Barrera’s writing is as alluring and arresting as the landscapes and stories it conveys. Each piece is crafted with care, imbued with Barrera’s poignant critical sense and her perspicacious ability to unravel the different levels of affect, historicity, and magnificence that constitute the everyday life of each lighthouse.” —Ignacio M. Sánchez, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Barrera’s obsession is contagious. Her graceful sentences ensnare tidbits of history and tantalizing glimpses of her own life, accompanied by delicate sketches of lighthouses she’s visited, making this book a refuge from everyday life, a place of enchantment and safety.” —Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“The attentive lyricism of [Barrera’s] self-exploration pulls the reader steadily along the craggy coastlines of the world. Her language, reflected in MacSweeney’s crystal clear translation, is grounded and tranquil, at times contrasting with the turmoil of grief and isolation that Barrera feels throughout her travels.… [On Lighthouses] is a multifaceted collection, vibrant in its constant search for more iterative complexity, meant to be read slowly and considerately.” —Entropy

“Through a genre-bending mix of memoir and literary history, On Lighthouses exhaustively explores the lighthouse’s contradictory figuration as an emblem of escapism, which nonetheless remains firmly rooted in relation to a specific geographic place.” —Carolyn Fornoff, Public Books

“[On Lighthouses] examines literature, history, science, art, music, and the daily, brutal lives of the isolated keepers and their families. . . . These subtle, reflective observations offer delightful insights into the lighthouse mystique.” —Kirkus Reviews

On Lighthouses hypnotizes in all the ways a book ought to, calling to mind the very nature of books. Meek and pale, washed ashore of life’s rapid tides, the reader and her book are already strange figures in our world, lonely spirts drifting for hours alone, outside of time and place. In this sense—in Barrera’s sense—a book is a lighthouse and its reader the sunken-eyed keeper haunting its hollow passages, lighting its searchlight night after night. And we’ve only just stuck our toe in.” —AirMail Weekly

“Barrera’s tight focus provides the binding that holds her book together. The writing itself is characterized by clipped passages and abrupt transitions – not unlike the staccato flashes of light, the unique blink patterns emitted by individual lighthouses. . . . The emotional weight is conveyed in the author’s omissions, the negative spaces created by what is withheld.” —Tara Cheesman, On the Seawall

“Through its fascination with lighthouses: their mythologies, histories, operational minutia, iconic personages (all those anonymous lighthouse keepers of every coast); and also with concise poetic prose about Barrera’s lighthouse-obsessed wanderings, this book will literally enchant you. To read Jazmina Barrera’s extraordinary book is to find a little lighthouse inside yourself, one that will go on emitting a roaming, yearning, beckoning, consoling loveliness.”—Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name

“This is a glorious, beckoning story, catching enlightening glimpses of literature and vivid experience in its flashing beams; beautifully written, it is as evocative and as alluring as a lighthouse glimpsed on a distant headland from a dark and mysterious sea.” —Philip Hoare, author of RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR

“Like a bowerbird constructing its nest, Jazmina Barrera collects microhistories about the hypnotic, geometric light emitted by lighthouses; but when she finds and listens to these histories in the dark intervals, she is a bat hanging upside down in the tower of memory.” —Verónica Gerber Bicecci, author of Empty Set

“Jazmina Barrera’s succeeds in infecting us with her obsession through her unique mix of curiosity and erudition, intimacy and history, autobiography and travel diary. Definitely a book to be read and reread.”—Daniel Saldaña Paris, author of Among Strange Victims

“If my intuition is right, and we are in fact witnessing the emergence of a new encyclopedic passion in Latin American literature, this book will be a benchmark in the future of this movement.”—Patricio Pron, author of My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain

“Jazmina Barrera has woven a narrative that is both poetic and informative, full of bizarre and particular details as well as suggestions that reverberate throughout, much like musical motifs. The lighthouses contained in this notebook are real lighthouses that still light up at night on coasts throughout the world as well as lighthouses that faded centuries ago, and a few lighthouses that never existed, mythological lighthouses and engineers’ projects, lighthouses that are undoubtedly gifted with a symbolism that passed through the history of literature and that seem to be located in a very deep part of our psychological vocabulary, of the catalogue of images that exist just as vividly both in reality and in dreams.”—Antonio Muñoz Molina, author of Sepharad

“This wonderful collection of essays takes a look at lighthouses, venturing into history, literature and so much more. Each essay focuses on a specific lighthouse but veers into unchartered territory, whether it’s birds, books, relationships or vacations. A moving book written in a generous voice.” —Mark Haber, author of Reinhardt’s Garden

“Vivid in its literary, historical, and visual references, On Lighthouses is not reducible to a single category but exists across multiple genres. Intertwining compassionate ruminations on isolation, selfhood, and the different facets of lighthouses, the book is a beautiful expression of how we grow into a life. Jazmina Barrera has crafted a work that reaches a new level of profundity.” —Cristina Rodriguez, Deep Vellum Books (Dallas, TX)

“As much a collection of essays about the act of collecting as an investigation into the function, mythology, and significance of lighthouses, both historically and in present day, On Lighthouses is both a work of detailed, site-specific research and intimate narrative nonfiction. If I wasn’t fascinated with lighthouses before reading this, I am now. If you are fascinated by lighthouses, you will be even more. If you are at all, like many of us, drawn to something for reasons you can’t explain, this is the book to explain it.” –Joe Demes, The Bookstore at the End of the World

“Yes, it’s very much about actual lighthouses—the history, the buildings, the people, the tchotchkes, everything. But it’s also about the lighthouse as a personal totem of something complex and sometimes difficult. It’s a perfect little book.” —Christie Olson Day, Gallery Bookshop (Mendocino, CA)

“Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses is a thoughtful, lovely meditation on isolation and connection. Barrera travels the world, meeting friends and kin and strangers and historical figures, all while seeking out lonely lighthouses and digging deep into her solitary “collecting” process. The book is as liminal as its subject—separate from others, but in service to them; not urgent, but just possibly the single slight thing needed to keep a reader from the rocks.” —Helen Zuckerman, Community Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)

“Lighthouses are an object of perennial fascination, complex symbols that are too often reduced to kitsch. Jazmina Barrera’s study of her obsession with these beacons beautifully avoids cliche in favor of a fresh approach that blends memoir, nautical history, and remarkable insight into just why so many of us are drawn to the lights.” —Stephen Sparks, Point Reyes Books (Point Reyes, CA)

“A charming collection of how lighthouses are both mysterious solitary structures and places where people gather. Through Barrera’s journey around the world’s lighthouses, we see how personal and literary history has shaped each shore.” —Katie Kenney, Bank Square Books (Mystic, CT)

“Jazmina Barrera’s deceptively quiet book On Lighthouses guides the reader through little histories of various lighthouses, both real and literary, while offering a deeply satisfying look at what it means to indulge an obsession, to follow our fascinations down whatever rabbit hole they wish to take us.” —Emma Ramadan, riffraff (Providence, RI)
“This perfect little book contemplates lighthouses in a symbolic, metaphorical, and literal sense. What are they for? What do they represent? What do they mean? Barrera’s personal experience mixes with her obsessive research on the subject in a deeply philosophical yet utterly approachable volume.” —Annie Metcalf, Magers & Quinn (Minneapolis, MN)

“Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses is the book I’ve been waiting for since the summer of 2019 when I visited the Hooper Strait Lighthouse at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in Saint Michaels, Maryland. Ever since this visit, lighthouses have been at the back of my mind. Who would live in one? What is it about the image of a lighthouse that seems to linger. Barrera explores this and so much more in her beautiful book. Its wonderfully simple title invites you in but then Barrera sets you adrift within lighthouse history, culture, and her own musings. An extraordinary work that I read slowly because I didn’t want it to end.” —Michael Triebwasser, Politics & Prose (Washington D.C.)

“On Lighthouses is a sitter, meaning it was not appropriate to race through it, meaning I kept looking up from its pages to chew on what Barrera was herself mulling, meaning the ways in which Barrera connects lighthouses to one another and to her own life and relationships continue to affect me and come to mind, weeks after having finished the book. It’s a book of essays, or perhaps just one long essay, in the truest, most Montaigne-level sense of the word — it’s an essai, or they’re essais, attempts, journeys, connections between people, places, and objects that don’t come to definitive ends, because the route of the connection is the point as opposed to the result. Stating repeatedly that she’s “obsessed” by lighthouses, her “madness” for them manifests textually as a solemn drive to experience them (figuratively or literally) as opposed to a total mental takeover. And yet the author is never pedantic or pretentious—through clear, sonorous, deceptively simple prose, she’s simply looking for her points de repères. Some folks say that thanks to Barrera’s book, they’ll never look at lighthouses the same — for me, thanks to Barrera’s book, I’ll never look at my obsessions, major or minor, the same ever again.” —Anna Weber, White Whale Bookstore (Pittsburgh, PA)

“The author’s lifelong fascination with lighthouses bears rich fruit in this extended meditation on solitude, the collector’s urge, and the lure of the beacon keeper’s life. For Barrera, lighthouses are a source of solace against life’s vicissitudes, and On Lighthouses is itself a balm, a book to keep near and return to. Beautifully done!” —Peter Sherman, Wellesley Books (Wellesley, MA)

On Lighthouses is less of a book, and more of an ongoing conversation between the author and the reader. Part memoir, part history, part meditation; Jazmina Barrerra has written a book that belongs in every proper study, tucked away on a bookshelf, waiting to be discovered by the next reader. This is a beautiful gift book that will be a pleasure to hand sell.” —Mary (LaGrange) OMalley, Anderson’s Bookshop (Naperville, IL)

“At once tour guide and tale spinner, Barrera leads the reader safely down a rocky path toward some weathered and charming stone structure. Her characters, whether literary, historical or personal, all share a fascination with lighthouses and readers will find themselves swept up in her enthusiasm for the dreamy idea of lighthouses as well as the physical bodies themselves. This little book should be shelved with those other books that seem more like friends. Books too can be beacons, sharing light in times of darkness, offering safe passage for troubled minds and heavy hearts.” —Mara Lynn Luther, Chapter One Bookstore (Hamilton, MT)

“Jazmina Barrera’s musings on lighthouses take the reader on a journey into her obsession, but also into the comfort that comes from a thing so familiar, so comforting, yet so very ethereal and spectral. This is a book to be read, then read again and again.” —Angie Tally, The Country Bookshop (Southern Pines, NC)

Jazmina Barrera was born in Mexico City in 1988. She was a fellow at the Foundation for Mexican Letters. Her book of essays Cuerpo extraño (Foreign Body) was awarded the Latin American Voices prize from Literal Publishing in 2013. She has published her work in various print and digital media, such as Nexos, Este País, Dossier, Vice, El Malpensante, Letras Libres and Tierra Adentro. She has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing in Spanish from New York University, which she completed with the support of a Fulbright grant. She was a grantee of the Young Creators program at FONCA. She is editor and co-founder of Ediciones Antílope. She lives in Mexico City.
Christina MacSweeney received the 2016 Valle Inclan prize for her translation of Valeria Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth, and Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña París was a finalist in the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Among the other authors she has translated are: Elvira Navarro (A Working Woman), Verónica Gerber Bicecci (Empty Set, Palabras migrantes/Migrant Words), and Julián Herbert (Tomb Song, The House of the Pain of Others).

There are experiences that are lived in a historical present for as long as their memory is evoked, with the full knowledge that the memory will be revisited in the future. It was a twenty-minute drive to the Yaquina Head Light, followed by a ten-minute walk from the parking lot. Formerly known as the Cape Foulweather Lighthouse, it is a twenty-eight-meter white tower with a black tip.

The lighthouse comes slowly into view between hills covered by a patchwork of, yellow and white flowers, and those grasses that move in the wind, which Virginia Woolf might say always on the point of fleeing “into some moon country, uninhabited of men.” It grows, closes in, and shows first its tip, then the lens with its copper belly, followed by the observation platform, the tower, and the door to the house beneath. Woolf describes her lighthouse as “distant, austere.” And she goes on to write, “So much depends…upon distance,” From afar, a lighthouse is a ghost, or rather a myth, a symbol. At close quarters it is a beautiful building. Once you’re inside, it ceases to be that, because a lighthouse is direction and never a point of arrival. Even when I was inside, I continued moving, up the iron spiral staircase leading to the tip, where the Fresnel lens, whose light is visible at a distance of thirty-one kilometers, was located.

The Pharos, the faro, the phare, the farol, the far: the house that is not only home to and protector of the light, but also transforms it into language. Its light speaks. Gives warning of points of danger, sandbanks, reefs; it signals a nearby port; tells how far away it is and identifies itself by its blink pattern. The Yaquina Head Light flashes two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on, fourteen seconds off. The lighthouse that Mrs. Ramsay sees in Woolf’s novel has two short flashes followed by a single long one.

We spent only a few minutes inside the lighthouse. Once back in the open air, we were stopped by a sign saying, “Look for Whales!” And scarcely a minute had gone by before we saw two (or were there three or four?) humpbacks. Gray on gray: the whales, the waves. I’ve read that no one knows for certain why they leap from the water, and I’d like that to always remain the case.

We then went down to a small beach replete with perfectly smooth black pebbles and strings of green seaweed. There are two photographs of me sitting on a large rock on that beach. My face isn’t visible; I’m looking out toward a horizon outside the frame of the photo. I wonder, now, what was there. Clouds? Ships? I seem to recall some black birds hopping nearby on the rocks.

What I definitely remember is turning to look at the lighthouse and having the sensation that it was very distant. As if it had never been there. Because even when you reach the observation deck look out over the vast ocean to the horizon, there by the light source itself, one never reaches the lighthouse. And neither did James, who was disillusioned to find that the one he finally visited didn’t match his childhood imagining. Experience sometimes falls short of memory, and sometimes it’s memory that can’t achieve the heights of experience. The memory of this trip, my words telling what I recall, will fall short of what it was. The preposition in the title to Woolf’s novel contains the whole of story, always approaching the lighthouse, which is above all an ideal, memory, promise: the inaccessible. What moves us.