May 2, 2016

Of 'The Girl Who Ate Books,' Bookstores, and Browsing

Last week, I finally got around to ordering a bunch of books I had been wanting to read for a long while; one of them happened to be the acclaimed journalist, author, and columnist, Nilanjana Roy's book, The Girl Who Ate Books. I had heard a great deal about Ms. Roy and had even seen her in person, moderating a panel which included Taslima Nasreen among other authors at the Times Literature Festival held in Delhi last December. Yet, it was one thing to hear of and read an author in a column and another to read their book, which happens to be a series of superlative, elegantly written essays about being a bibliophagist (and quite literally so!), house of books (in her case, her grandmother's ancestral Calcutta home, where books were scattered, stacked, and shelved in every possible space), reading, encounters with authors and poets, her own writing, sensitive, thoughtful notes on plagiarism and more. The last time I had read such a nuanced treatise and musings on reading was when I read Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, which incidentally is a book that Ms. Roy also refers to in her own.

It made me deeply think about reading: how and why I read - and of course, books which have played a central role in my life. Reading about Ms. Roy's childhood reading experiences and bookshops she frequented over the years, I journeyed back into my own childhood in Oman and how I acquired my books and satiated my voracious reading appetite. I read a lot and there were only so many outlets from where I could replenish the constantly diminishing stack of books I consumed. There being not much of a reading culture in Oman, there was only one local bookshop chain, Family Bookshop, where the limited range of books in the few branches gleamed shiny, new-smelling, and very expensive, as everything imported in Oman was. While I borrowed a huge number of books from our school library (one year, the librarian informed me, I was the student who had borrowed the highest number of books that year: 333, to be precise!), we also had the option of ordering books through publishers' catalogues such as a British children's imprint of Penguin, Puffin and an American children publishing house, Scholastic. The books arrived by sea-mail and took months to arrive and I almost forgot that I had ordered them until a huge box would turn up in our class room - and you remembered all those books, awaiting to be read. I would devour the books within hours of acquiring them before immediately re-reading them, a habit that still persists till this day with many of the books I read. They would finally be given a precious place of honor in my shrine of books, the book-shelf  - and indeed, many of the books I read as a child still remain in my bookshelves at my parents' home.

Other than that, I bought a lot of books at school fests or book sales or especially when we traveled to India or abroad, where I literally had to be pried away from the bookstores; for example, when I was thirteen and a cousin of mine took me to Borders bookshop in a suburban New Jersey mall, it took me a long time to delightedly comprehend that there was a store where you could sit down and read  books - and no one would be around to shake their head or ask you to stop reading. It was probably my most favorite store that I encountered during that trip.

What always pierced through me while browsing at the bookshops was the dizzying incredible realisation that there were so many books waiting to be read and I had gotten around to reading just a few. There is a scene in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy where the two protagonists, Lata and Kabir meet in a bookstore and Lata and Kabir's eye collide when Lata, who normally gravitates towards poetry, particularly Tennyson, is lost in the mysteries of mathematics; Seth particularly emphasizes her awe at the multiple continents of knowledge waiting to be discovered and explored. As I grow older, I have to admit that I have a disappointing habit of stubbornly remaining within my reading comfort zones; however, once I do venture out of them, I happily lose myself into a novel which delights in playing with toys of language or transplants me in a meticulously re-created historical era and ethos. A few years ago, when I was still living in Oman, a group of neighborhood ladies and I would meet for monthly book-club evenings, where we would bring our favorite books and exchange them with the others; given the paucity of bookshops in Oman, it was a god-send to discover authors and books that I would never have otherwise heard of.

I have to confess that it was not until recently when I was reading about the demise of some much-loved bookstores in Delhi that I realised I had both forgotten the act of browsing as well as the joy I derived from them, thanks to so much online book-shopping I now indulge in and which is my primary mode of purchasing books nowadays. When I lived in Pittsburgh and greedily ransacked the Carnegie Library every week to borrow books, I would still browse but didn't linger too much, always eager to rush home and start reading the books I had borrowed, knowing that I would have to return them soon. However, when I found myself in bookshops, knowing that I was going to actually invest in a book, knowing that it would be mine and which would decorate my shelves or bedside table for years to come, I would deliciously linger over the browsing, taking my time to leaf through the books. And so, when I had some time to myself weeks ago, I slipped into a bookstore and took my time walking around the store, pulling out a book or two, flipping through the pages, allowing an eloquently written passage to brand my memory. I had taken this luxury for granted, unknowing it was a luxury until it became one.

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