On Lighthouses

"Even before I ever saw a lighthouse, I dreamed of one," writes Mexico City writer Jazmina Barrera in her luminous, wistful book of essays, On Lighthouses. "Obsession," she explains, "is a form of mental collecting," and Barrera's obsession leads her "to research the history of lighthouses, the stories surrounding them... it was like falling in love."

She's not alone. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson and Robert Louis Stevenson are only a few of the writers who share her passion; Herman Melville launches her journey, noting how "human beings 'share a natural attraction to water.' " Mariners lured by the sea were guided home by "fire indicating the sea's end," telling them, "human beings are here."

"I live on an island," Barrera says, in a dark apartment where she hungers for glimpses of the sky. "Humans absorb light through their skin, they eat light." Lighthouses become sources of nourishment that are almost maternal, offering protection and guidance. "The lighthouse looks and searches, as a human being looks." Barrera gives an enticing view of life within a lighthouse and then tempers it by saying there are 300 lighthouse keepers in Mexico--and they "often go mad." There's a price to pay for that romantic solitude with its view of sea and sky.

Still, 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. --Janet Brown, author and former bookseller

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