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 :-)!


spark said...

engeyo poyitte :-)

Suds said...

Hey Archana, I am not a big book reader but if someone recommends I surely read stuff so my next read will be P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories.:) Currently I am reading Good to great.:)

Nice post. Enjoy.

Rahul Obla said...

Nice Post Archana!. Could relate a lot to that. Same age, local library, 3 books at a time, started with Archie, Phantom, Asterix etc....!.Slowly graduated to JA,SS... But somehow, I just cudn't move out of the comic book world! :o). Still a big fan of Asterix, C&H !!.
Heard a lot abt PGW, should read one soon :). Happy Reading !!

spark said...

hey archu,
one brilliant post i liked to read. maybe, i should be inspired by you and write a similar one - the evolution of my reading habits. i guess you won't have read many tamil books. all the same, i've read most of what you've said except pgw. i never seem to get the hype (?) about pgw. i tried readin it some time ago, but never could enjoy it :-)

as for the libraries, i have heard from a guy in nyc about the huge public libraries. so tempting definitely.

enid blyton and sherlock holmes are my favs too. 40 books issued at one time - awesomee. i'm so jealous of you now.

adhu enna ippo ellorume india thirumbure moodle irukkureenga? india shininga?

spark said...

looks like i can't comment enough on this post. just dug this post from my archives :-)

Archana Bahuguna said...

hey, can relate with that ... although my serious reading of books started pretty late :-) and you know I still miss reading comics, those stories of rajas and ranis and all that :-)in panchatantras... chacha choudhury ..etc
And you know, if you cannot find good libraries after you go back to india, u can always buy books ... dont forget that .. just allot some small percentage of our monthly salary for books :-D

Saranya Kishore said...

Hey thats one heck of a post, and thats one heck of a city library. Looks really awesome :)
I usually (used to) hang out at Barnes and Nobles. That was pretty cosy too, with all the new books you get to read , without really buying ;) And the fattening Starbucks.

madsies said...

Very nice post! I got into reading a litte late , and can never forget the comic world(i would like to add to all the mentioned toppers "Supandi" too!)
Anyway, Now i freak out @ the library with my toddler.Books, puzzles, dvd's, storytime and the cookies they offer during storytime!

Ginkgo said...

first things first..

who is P.G. Wodehouse

Why is the spelling of wood' done wrongly... :P

and whats a library..:-D

Shilpa said...


I can relate to everything that u wrote...I simply love books too...

My first novel was when I was in 2nd std; I read the abridged version of Jane Eyre and there has been no looking back since then.

I get really hooked on to reading and do not mind losing my sleep and food till I finish the book.

I want to have a room filled with rows and rows of books @ home;

Archana said...

Spark, I read your first comment and thought you were being sarcastic :-O!! Good you clarified that :-)! Nopes - not ready any Tamil books - I am ashamed to admit that my Tamil-reading skills are almost non-existent :-(! I read your post - nice one - good to know so many young readers were cultivated through Enid Blyton!

Suds, thank you :-)! Do read P.G. Wodehouse - you won't be disappointed!

Rahul, ah, guess which books were among those I picked out from the library this weekend? C&H and Asterix comics :-D. I love reading comics too!

Archana, that's true, I can buy books. I guess since I am earning now it's a different story. My sister has started a building a nice collection of books at home in India and she is my inspiration :-)!

Saranya, thank you :-). Hehehe, I do my "hanging-out" at Borders! The library is really cool. Ennamo naan en rendu kai-aala kattina maadhiri, I always show off the library to the first time visitors to my city ;-)!

Madsies, thank you :-)! I love the way the libraries here entice the young readers and encourage them to read!

Gingko - Here is some education for you ;-)! LOL - here is the definition for library too :-P!

Shilpa - tell me about not sleeping due to an interesting book. Many sleepy days at school/work can be directly traced back to reading nights-out :-)! I am planning on a mini-home-library too...

Thanu said...

I love the libraries here. The benefit on placing on hold and getting a book frm any library sent to the library close to our place. Now I'm reading Amitav Ghosh's Glass Palace.

Rahul said...

I was the proverbial kid in the candy shop when I saw the free libraries here in the US.

Your post certainly got me feeling nostalgic. Growing up, it was tough to get English books in my small town near Mumbai. So the only way was to buy stuff on visits to Mumbai. But if I wanted enough to last till the next trip, then the best bet was the raddiwallah. I remember discovering Alistair McLean's "The Dark Crusader" there. Had never heard of him before, but I think that was the book that moved me to the next grown-up category.

Rahul said...

The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.
- P. G. Wodehouse

More quotes at

Archana said...

Thanu - hmm, haven't read that one yet. Its been on my "to be read" books list for a REALLY long time now!

Rahul - apt analogy :-). Its amazing what good books you can find in the most unlikeliest of places!

I love PGW quotes. Most of them are so hilarious. Ah, your PGW quote just gave me the inspiration for the source of my next post :-D!

S... said...

Check out the Martin Luther King Jr Library in San Jose. You won't be disappointed! It is also a public library!

Saumya said...

Oh god! Same pinch Archana! We must meet - our reading habits and interests are similar too. My mom used to just pick up the whole shelf and bring them home, The next week, she'll take the whole lot back, and bring the next shelf. I just love reading! And *touch wood*, so far my daughter loves sitting around with books and reading too!