Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Of Libraries and Library Books



For me, library visits mean a lot as can be seen from my trademark huge bags that can carry huge tomes and a slight damage to the right shoulder from carrying them around regularly. So are the constant mind-fogs that come from having too many things on the mind such as the home and the heart, the things to buy and the things to get rid of. 

Libraries and I have a long history of events- finding them, losing them, misplacing them and of reading them so much at the cost of eyesight and a sense of reality. When I was doing my M.Phil, I had placed a book on the Automatic Book Return Kiosk in the Central Library, only the find that the machine refused to read the book and it was a kind-looking staff who enlightened me that the book belonged to the College Library and not to the Central Library. 

I had my excuse that I was juggling a baby, a thesis and a household and that it was difficult to keep track of all the library books that I had taken. Those were the days of the late returns and heavy dues and mind-fogs resulting from having too much on my hands. 

It was in the same library that I had a spat with a guy who formed a new parallel queue for a pretty little thing and called my attention to it, when I have been standing in a straight queue for around fifteen minutes. However, I was too embarrassed after my mercurial outburst, that too in English that I had not gone to the library for a few months.  

For someone who spends a good deal of time in the library, it is at times a little disappointing to see a new notice on fresh arrivals: “Writing or marking on books is a punishable offence”. On seeing this notice the first time, I could not help thinking of my college days, when I was more or less an accidental scholar who found the right books at the nick of time, on the eve of the exam and gorged upon them as if there was all the time in the world to read them. 

Studying English literature was no fun as most people believe. I have had so many relatives and friends tell me, “Oh! All you have to do is read novels”. Sadly, it was not true as I discovered during the second and third years of my graduate study. Buying all books needed was out of the question as most of them were unavailable or way too expensive. So, hunting for books in the library was part of the routine and with time, I was familiar with most of the shelves and what they held. 

The city libraries were part of these book-hunting trips though most of what I read was books that were no part of the syllabus. Only at the beginning and the end of a semester did I think of text books; otherwise it was all Agatha Christie and all the readable ones. But at the end of each semester, on my serious visits to the library, I was always fascinated by the comments and notes on the margins made by some previous reader and at times, I even recognised the handwritings of my teachers in some books. 

Yes, I love it when my number is stamped as the first user on fresh arrival. There is certainly a pleasure in handling a new book: the fresh smell of crisp pages and the ideas that look new and inviting but a much-used and well-thumbed library book offers much more for a reader and student. Just like the books that I had seen in those days, the books left traces of the ones who had read them before- markings, numberings, explanations, critical comments and more not phone numbers as feared by present day librarians. The meanings written next to difficult words or the names of poetic devices with explanations, these texts were most probably used by teachers for their classes. 

In the present age and its demand of annotated editions (that say more than the writer), the ordinary library books on English literature could supply easy reading just by the fact that they were read through the minds of good scholars who could chew and digest the work by marking key words and underlining what was important. But I do remember a girl who studied with me, who had seen me underline a sentence in a library book and screamed “That’s a library book!” in the same tone as “That’s my boyfriend!” 

May be I am just a little zany; but as a teacher, I will be honoured if any day, if a student comes across my handwriting in the pages and recognises it as part of a painstaking but rewarding procedure of preparation for classes and feels the same way as I felt when I had seen those writings, numberings and markings against the margins made in a familiar hand. For someone, whose heaven is a library, whose dreams include having a coffee counter inside the library; finding a new book to read is a pleasure but reading a well-thumbed and annotated one is an even more enjoyable experience. 

When I was a teenager, I had read this story named “An Evening in Grand Central”, in which a man falls in love with a woman just from the comments that she had written in a book that he comes across. The book is a second hand copy of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and when they decide to meet she tells him that she will wear a red rose on her lapel. On the day of the meeting, he comes across an old woman wearing a red rose while a beautiful girl in a green dress walks by like “the springtime come alive”. But he decides to talk to the lady only to find that his love is none other than the girl in green dress and that she is waiting for him in a restaurant across the road. May be she was too shy to meet him in person, God knows!



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