Saturday, March 18, 2006
Of books, reading and libraries
When I eventually move back to India, the one thing I will miss the most about the USA is the library. I love reading and any place with a lot of readable books (I enjoy the so called "heavy" books from time to time, but the "simple" books of the kind Florence Craye* will never persuade Bertie Wooster to read appeals to me the most) is like paradise to me. Just the sight of rows upon rows of books fills me with happiness and I can spend ages together in a library without getting bored.
My immediate family is filled with book-lovers. From childhood, reading was the indoor recreation activity of choice in my home - I mostly saw my parents reading rather than watch TV when we weren't doing anything else. It was only natural for me to assume that reading is the ultimate "fun" indoor-activity :-). Till date, though I have participated in full-fledged TV-watching marathons from time to time, I prefer reading a good book to watching TV.
The very first books I remember reading are the "Tinkle, amar chitra katha, phantom, mandrake, superman etc." comics. Basically I used to read anything which had lots of pictures in them because these were much easier to follow than full fledged novels. I used to wonder at how people were able to read books without pictures. That would be so boring!
When I was 8 years old, we moved to Calcutta. Right across the street from my apartment was a lending library. During the summer vacation, my mom enrolled me and my sis in the library. The lending library allowed us to take 3-books at a time. My first three books were all archie comics. Then I saw my sis taking "grown-up" non-comics books. That was it!When I was younger, like countless other hapless younger siblings, I wanted to do everything that my big sister did. So I decided to borrow "grown-up" books too. I remember my first novel - it was "Five get into a fix" by Enid Blyton. I really LOVED that book and the rest, as they say, is history. I was hooked. It was just a matter of time before I went through the entire Famous-five, Secret-seven, Five-Find-outers, Malory Towes, St.Clares....and so on series. If there is a special writers heaven, I am sure Enid Blyton would have gotten the most premium spot in it. I think she single-handedly inspired scores of Indian children to take up reading as a hobby. I still enjoy reading Enid Blyton books. Surprisingly, I don't find them too often in American libraries. I wonder why and I feel sorry for the kids who haven't gotten a chance to experience her magic!
As I grew older, from Enid Blyton, the logical progression was to the more "teenager" kind of books - Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Three investigators etc. Those novels were my first glimpse into American life (besides Archie comics). At that age, it was the first introduction to "romance" of any kind in books. The characters in the novels had *gasp* girl-friends/boy-friends!! Wow! Even at that age though, I found Nancy Drew stories incredibly unbelievable. Hello, smart girl is okay but 18-year-old Ms.Drew seemed to know everything from driving a tractor and flying a jetplane to single-handedly defusing bombs. Even my rather gullible 11-year-old mind couldn't digest stories about such super-gifted persons :-D!
On the side I discovered Sherlock Holmes (still one of my favorite detective series ever), Agatha Christie, Jeffrey Archer, Robin Cook, R.K.Narayanan and the classics. Little Women and Pride and Prejudice still rank as my most favorite classics of all time. As I grew older, I was finally started learning to appreciate the writing rather than just the story contained in a book. I don't remember exactly when I got introduced to "The Master" - P.G. Wodehouse. But I do remember the first PGW book I read - "Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit". I laughed so much and realized that subtle humor can be as or even more hilarious than slapstick comedy. I remain a staunch P.G.Wodehouse fan to this day and reading a PGW novel never fails to brighten up my mood!
Surprisingly, I was in 11th grade by the time I read my first Sidney Sheldon novel. All the books I had read till that point were always completely "clean" - my parents saw to that! But of course, when friends started talking about Sidney Sheldon, I had to know what on earth it was all about and my first Sidney Sheldon book "Sands of Time" was sneaked home from the school library. I never finished reading that book - though I did read his other books. And yes, I finally know what the fuss was about :-)! Hmm, I guess I was a pretty naive kid back then!
While I was consuming books by "popular" authors, it was also time to delve into more thought-provoking stuff. I started reading people's autobiographies, books about riots, the big bang and a whole bunch of other myriad topics. I discovered a lot more good authors who wrote on "light" topics - both fiction and non-fiction. My favorite kind of fiction is the kind which combines facts into a good story - like the kind written by Frederick Forsyth and Michael Crichton. That way I get to learn new things even as I get the entertainment of reading a story :-).
These days, other than dead-on serious and high-brow stuff, I pretty much enjoy all kinds of books. My family (especially my sister) and my friends often give me pointers to good books. I try to read them all but somehow always manage to forget most of the names when I get to the library unless I write them down :-(.
While in India it was not a very easy task to get my hands onto all kinds of books. Lending libraries typically stocked only the most popular authors. School/colleges mostly catered to the academic needs of students. And somehow (okay, I admit, I was lazy) I never became a member at any other library. So the supply of books mostly came from borrowing or rarely, buying them.
When I came to Davis, I completed the formalities for using the university library on the very first day of my arrival. We could borrow 3 books at a time and the UCD library had quite a decent collection of non-academic books too - yippee! I used it fully and well the 2 years that I was there.
It was then time to move to the bay area. When I first arrived here, I barely knew anybody. It did not help that my first roomie was hardly ever at home. It looked like I was going to die a slow death due to boredom.Then I learnt from a friend that the city library was just a short walk away from my apartment. So, at the first opportunity I got, I set off to the library. The "short" walk turned out to be a brisk 25 minutes away from my house. By the time I reached the library in the hot August sunshine, I was panting and on the verge of collapse. That is, until I put my foot inside the building. Looking at all those books was like having a sudden shot of caffeine injected into me! I soon found out that membership was free (you've got to be kidding me) and though I would be allowed only 3 items (books/cds/dvds etc) on my first borrowal, I could borrow upto 40 (jaw dropped - can anyone borrow so many things at once) items from the next time onwards. I could barely contain my glee. My first three books were read and returned in exactly three days. From then on, going to the library was a weekly pilgrimage. Though I took the bus at times (this was during my pre-car-owning days), I mostly just walked there. As long as I got my books, I couldn't care less about the excessive exercise.
The library has since moved to bigger and better location. When my family visited me last year, they too were thrilled with the library. I made full use of my card and we did manage to check out 40 items at once at some point too :-D!!
Considering that there are so many facilities in the library - internet, study kiosks, magazine sections, discussion rooms and so on, its very nice to know that all this just a free community service. This is the one place where I don't mind being "fined" when I forget to renew on time. And to think that most counties in the USA have their own libraries for use by their residents. Something so wholly done for the comfort and well-being of the public - that's just so incredible. I have spent many a happy afternoon at the library. One of my favorite library activities is to get a good book and sit reading on a couch facing the park. Time just flies.
I will miss this place for sure when I get back to India. Not just the books - the whole atmosphere is something I will cherish!
p.s. I am currently sitting with my laptop, typing this post out in the library. Today is another one of my happy, while-away-at-the-library afternoons :-D! I think that also kinda explains why this post is soooooooo long ;-)!
p.s.1. All the photos are those of my city library :-)!
* If you don't know who Florence Craye and Bertie Wooster are, please to read P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories. You won't regret it :-)!