A Labour of Love

You go to a bookstore and buy a couple of books. You are so excited to read them but the vagaries of daily life intervene. Dust gathers on these paperbacks stuffed hastily into whatever little space there is left on the overcrowded shelf. Then one day, you decide to sort out your bookshelves that are toeing the fine line between an aesthetic disarray and irrevocable chaos. As you haul these huge volumes out and stop to catch your breath, you are fascinated by all these alluring tomes your family has managed to procure throughout a lifetime. This is a still-growing collection that leaves imprints everywhere around the house- books lie about on the bed, on the tables, on the sofa, and in wardrobes and bags. They seem to accompany us wherever we go. What a beautiful legacy to leave!

You sit down and caress the ones that you haven’t read: they seem to hold irressistible mysteries within their faded covers. You make yet another promise to yourself to definitely read them soon. A promise that you probably won’t be able to keep; but what matters is the joy of discovery, the momentary clutch of excitement.

In these 18 years of your life, you have also managed to read a significant number of these books. You have added titles: the random Agatha Christie and Jane Austen, along with the customary collection of teenage dystopian fiction and the lone John Green that you feel a bit embarassed about enjoying. As each generation habituates into the practice of reading, the collection gradually changes to reflect contemporary tastes. With your brother ravenously devouring fantasy thrillers, there is an explosion of Percy Jackson and hitherto unheard of authors.

Each book that you have read brings up a flurry of memories. You laugh at how you read Erich Segal’s Man, Woman and Child when you were nine years old- and shake your head at your strange impulses when you remember reading it again a couple of years ago. The Alchemist starts you thinking about the belief in dreams and omens- it all seems a bit too naive now. The heart skips a beat when you recall how reading Adultery when you were 15 seemed the ultimate transgression – you only felt at peace after you texted your mom at work that you read it and you didn’t actually like it that much! What an innocent child you were in those days 🙂 You smile coyly to yourself at your little adventure of trying to read Neruda’s twenty love poems and a song of despair, and returning it to its sweet spot because it felt like a secret your heart wasn’t yet ready to uncover.

Some books are milestones. The English Patient taught you what sensuality was and the brilliant things that a writer could do with sparse words. Passion and intensity were all words that you learnt to use in relation with writing through this book. You always found it difficult to choose a favourite book; with its sheer beauty, this novel solved the issue for you. Banville’s The Sea introduced you to other loving things that could be done with words- how sorrow and pain and memory could be conveyed through simple but striking imagery. You feel like you didn’t really comprehend this book though you write and talk about it- you make a mental note to read it carefully again.

Other books give you life goals. You have been wanting to get lost in Calcutta’s back streets, browsing titles in one of those musty second hand bookstores. ever since you read Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books; Eagleton’s How to Read Literature influenced your interest in English Literature a great deal- you are thankful for that spark even if you have no idea what you’re doing studying this course in college. You want to live a glorious life like that of Richard Feynman and write a smashing account of the same; you want to write history like Dalrymple and describe beautifully like Anita Desai, and your biggest dream in life is to be able to write about reading and books and writers like Manguel in With Borges.

Yet other books in the collection remind you of broken goals, failures, and shortcomings. You have been reading Crime and Punishment from class 9 but still haven’t even come to the punishment part; you gave up on Foucault’s Pendulum long ago. With your absolute lack of geographical sense, Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads has confounded you time and again. You didn’t persist through Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies because you found the slang too hard, and you reprimand yourself for giving up too easily. But then, Murakami is always there to comfort you with his defiance of meaning itself.

You impatiently gave up so many other books as you grew older- you were constantly distracted by other books. It is indeed surprising then, that you were quite a tenacious reader when young. Was there something about black letters on a paper that fascinated you so much that meaning did not matter? Dad’s favourite anecdote is of you reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull at the age of 7; but you remember reading Tale of Two Cities and the Hunch-Back of Notre-Dame when you were around 10 years old. Of course you did not understand anything, but you completed these books nevertheless. But make no mistake, you could be quite stubborn too. You have still not read Oliver Twist because the first few pages didn’t quite catch your fancy when you first read them.

Some of the most cherished books in this collection are those that invoke shared memories. You had a book swap event at college and thought of giving away the second copy of Love Story; but it struck you as one of those precious memories that have to be preserved. For you, it was just a cute love story, but you have heard both your parents and others in book club meetings speak about it in raptures, and gradually, some of that legacy seems to have rubbed off on you. Stacking the Immortals of Meluha trilogy, you remember how it was one of those rare books that everyone in the family had read at around the same time; the memory of that collective excitement puts a smile on your lips in the sultry heat of this afternoon. Suddenly, with a huge smile, your mom picks up Richard Bach’s A Bridge Across Forever and says that you definitely have to read it. When you reply that you have, a beautiful moment ensues: you smile radiantly at each other. with the mutual joy of acknowledging a fellow romantic. These are the fleeting moments that become deeply memorable later on.

Some of the titles never cease to amuse you every time you chance upon them. At least, when you were younger, they evoked a sort of amused curiosity; now as you grow older and more irreverent, they elicit mocking peals of laughter at the ways of ‘the old generation’. Titles that have this honour of critical engagement include: Rich Dad, Poor Dad; How to Win Friends and Influence People; What Harvard Business School Doesn’t Teach You; The Power of Now: A Spiritual Revolution; Winners Never Cheat; Street Smart; Simplicity (I don’t remember the exact name); A Biography of Ambani Brothers; How to Improve your Vocabulary; and a couple about business tactics or something. Oh, there also seems to have been a thwarted ambition of becoming a freelance journalist- otherwise why would you have a whole book on that? But the ultimate seat of honour goes to Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus– you have always wondered what it was about, and today you finally found out!

But let’s be serious for a moment. Not all of these books were acquired directly for the personal library; some were brought by relatives who left them when they went way (and conveniently wrote their names to make it easier for you to make fun of them!). Others have been borrowed from professional libraries and never returned- the one on vocabulary was borrowed from the Spic Office Library according to the seal that’s still visible. You can almost visualize a young, up-and-coming officer who wants to make a mark on the world, and as a first step, spends nights poring over complex words with an effort to master them. These efforts deserve respect.

But what you’re interested about in this is not only the opportunity to mock your parents (as appealing as that is), but also how the ambitions of a generation is refracted through these texts. These are indicative of both financial and interpersonal goals- as young professionals, people wanted to succeed in their careers and sought inspiration from ‘self-made millionaires’ and business babus; at the same time, they wanted to key in on the growing movements towards simplicity, an uncluttered life aided by spirituality- not as contradictory as it seems at first sight. While focusing on their careers, they also want to be happily married and settle in life: cue spouse communication advice. They want to be such devoted spouses that they read books on spouse communication before even getting married. But they also need to make friends at work and outside so that they can attend conferences, build connections and hold their own in a conversation. Vocabulary texts and Dale Carnegie come to the rescue. Books can really help you succeed in life.

As you go through this lockdown attempting to channelize your own emotional turmoils into deriding Madame Bovary’s foolish decisions, while marvelling at the breathtaking beauty that shines through in Flaubert’s writing at unexpected places (‘the ineffable allure of virtue succumbing’), this afternoon proved to be an enjoyable diversion. A personal library which evokes so much laughter and joy is simply an excellent labour of love.