I’ve mentioned a few times how my memories of books are strongly influenced by the atmosphere they were read in. Pleasant or not, they form a part of the experience.
For instance, I read Lord Jim on the long bus rides to and from college during my engineering days. In my head, this book is all dim light and dancing letters, plus plenty of German words. For some reason now, the protagonist (or one of the other characters) reminds me greatly of Zorba the Greek. My memories of this book are very hazy partly because it was my first year of college and I was trying to escape the riotous ragging at the back, and also because the bus I travelled on was of the battered tin-can variety. I remember one particularly rainy morning when the girls in the seat behind me had to hold up an umbrella to avoid getting drenched.
Four years of bus rides provided plenty of scope for reading. The books had to be compact or easy to read on the bus. This was when I got through all the Ludlum I’ve ever read, The Guns of Navarone and Most Secret among other books- note the spy thriller/war tilt, I must go back to some action soon. I read a lot of forgettable paperbacks- Hot Rod Fury, a few romance novels whose names I don’t remember. The worst of the lot- thankfully, I didn’t try to finish it- was Cashelmara, which featured a very old, lascivious man whose greatest interest in life was his eighteen-year-old wife. She was of the retrogressive, easily fainting variety, who spent her free hours (of which she had about sixteen everyday) planning how to get pregnant. It is the most awful book I have ever tried to read- hundreds of pages long- and it beats The Slap by a mile for its propensity to be dreadfully dull and annoying.
Surprisingly, I’ve come across the books I enjoyed best during the run-up to various exams. I like to think it was sheer coincidence, and not because I was desperately seeking an escape from gruelling exam work and ready to lose myself in just about anything. I read and loved Rob Roy, The Call of the Wild, Exodus and Somerset Maugham’s short stories. I spent four glorious months over The Lord of the Rings, looking forward all day to this bedtime treat and reading late into the night till my parents realised that the light in my room was still on. Picture this- a commonplace life, to college and back, sitting through dull lectures, cutting yourself in tinsmithy class, feeling ridiculously stupid when asked to write a program or design a finite state machine- but putting on a brave face through it all. You know that Middle Earth is waiting for you in a nice, thick book at home. Even so, standing up to extremely unromantic, pragmatic people when you are always outnumbered is no mean feat.
I couldn’t have got through all those crazy, stressful years without books. Even now, as I write my dissertation, I rely on fiction for the support and to bribe myself to work. Writing this paper isn’t half as stressful as the engineering entrance or the various exams at college- I can’t look back at them without a shudder. But you know you’ve earned your keep when, at the end of a day of inspired work, you know you can drift off to sleep with a book in bed. I finished The Bell Jar a couple of months ago and liked it; I’m 90 pages from the end of On the Road and I can’t wait to finish it. I find it slightly ironic that I’m currently reading a book about setting oneself free, all the while studying for a Masters degree partly because employers ask for it.
I have a little over two weeks left to hand in my dissertation. My bedside table is piled high with “temptation reading”, most of which has to go back to the library soon. A friend’s copy of In Patagonia jeers at me from this bundle. That’s right, stay put in your cosy room and read books about people travelling to the most far-flung locations. Study hard, find a job, make money, and all the while try to stay young, because by the time you do have enough saved up to travel around the world, your ready enthusiasm and heady independence might have deserted you. Just try and remember that Dean Moriarty’s life-lessons are more important than any exam in the world.