When I was in Class Six, we had a story titled ‘Too Many Books’ in our English textbook. Here is what I remember of the story. It was about a man avidly fond of collecting books; he had only to like the look of a book to purchase it and bring it home. Then, when his house began overflowing with books, his wife got furious with him and forbade him from bringing home any more books. But, collecting books being more of an obsession with him than a habit, he couldn’t resist buying a splendid-looking brown leather-covered book, with gold lettering on it. His wife flew into a rage when she saw it and threw it out of the window. Later, she felt sorry for her actions and mended the book, and while doing so, she found a very valuable stamp in it. The couple sold the stamp for a huge sum of money, and bought themselves a bigger house, with a room exclusively for books in it.
What brought back memories of this story was the state my room was in a couple of days ago. Having just finished shopping at Crossword, all the books we’d bought were strewn around on the sofa and the table. Added to them were three of my textbooks, and two of my mother’s magazines. Naturally, my mother was not very happy with the condition of the room. When we began sorting everything out, we had to move some books out of the bookcase to make room for the new ones. It is a constant process. The new books keep supplanting the older ones, thanks to their bright covers and unsoiled, fresh pages.
I love the smell of a book. I like to open a book, hold it by its spine, and bury my nose into its pages. I like every kind of book, even the old, rotting ones whose pages come loose at the slightest touch. My copy of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is one of the oldest books I’ve ever seen; half of its pages are grey, the rest are yellow. Which makes it really attractive to me. Yellowing, musty-smelling books are an absolute delight. How I wish I could stumble upon an attic with a trunkful of ancient books, and browse through them one by one, losing track of time. Sadly, such romantic things never happen in real life; they are only the substance of books.
What joy it is to lose oneself in a book. Sometimes, finishing a book is rather a painful experience as it brings along the burden of having to say goodbye to the characters who have populated my mind for a few days and filled every free waking hour with their own dreams and lives. But books can be re-read; anytime I like, I can go back to the world that captivated me and made life more pleasant. Often, the characters of a book spill into my dreams and leave me with something to ponder over the next morning. If I have a long day ahead, I get through it thinking of the book waiting for me at bedtime. I remember the nightmares I had when I was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’- something akin to the Nazgul haunted my sleep, and I must admit, I did spend a few uncomfortable nights. But what is a little bit of inconvenience to the joy of being able to read a good book? And, in fact, the ‘real’ experiences serve to make the book more enjoyable.
Much as I care for what is inside a book, I am always particular its appearance. I don’t like it when books have dog-eared corners, and when their pages are scribbled upon. I don’t approve of people folding the corner of a page so they can remember where they left off. Why don’t they use bookmarks instead? And one of the things that people just cannot do properly is turn pages with a gentle hand. Instead of turning a page tenderly by the corner, they place four sweaty fingers on the page, grip it with a sweaty thumb, and turn it so roughly that the very thought repels me no end. Another detestable, most despicable habit is to lick a finger and then use it to turn a page. I never trust other people with my books. All my life, I have lent books to only three people, who know my habits extremely well, and would never hurt my feelings, or the book’s.
And that brings me to the subject of borrowing and lending. I often come across a person reading a book that I have been longing to read, but I don’t ask to borrow it. Because I know what a possessive book lover is like, and I don’t want to be politely rebuffed. There are people who ask me for books. And I tell them,”Sorry, I’ve misplaced it, but I’ll look for it.” When the question is repeated, so is the answer. Some people get the message, but there is the odd stubborn person who does not, or will not, understand. But I can be stubborn too, and this is one matter where I really stand my ground, and let my natural inclination towards politeness go for a walk.
I have often wished, for instance before an exam, that I was born a plant or a doe, or a Stone Age caveman, but then I realise how much I would have missed. It is true, you don’t feel the absence of something unless you actually know about it. Even so, I wouldn’t exchange my book-loving self for anything else in the world.