Can we ever repay our collective debts to books?

Special to Times of Oman

The other day a friend texted: "Why do books often bring tears to my eyes...reading Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Unaccustomed Earth' again!" I wrote back saying it happened to me all the time. I mean being moved to tears by books.

Some books pleasure you; some excite and trouble you and some enlighten and enrich you, transporting you to a whole different world. Some leave you with an out of body experience, transforming you in ways you couldn't imagine. Some books stay with you for life. They grow with you and feel different, read different every time you return to them. You discover something ever new in lines read a zillion times. They speak to us in a language that speaks to our hearts and minds bringing us into communion with the greatest minds of all times and ages.   

In his celebrated essay on reading, Sir Francis Bacon counsels against reading whatever comes our way: "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.  

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."

Many of the books that you and I have read would be frowned upon by the Elizabethan essayist. In his view, many of today's thrillers and bestsellers and what are collectively known as pulp fiction would belong only in a trash basket.

I am not sure what Bacon would think of Jhumpa Lahiri's works. But I have always enjoyed reading her. Indeed, like my friend, I've had the guilty pleasure of reading her again and again.

She is what you would call a good ol' fashioned storyteller and spins a good yarn. No clever creative, literary gimmicks. Simple, straight story that seldom fails to touch readers' lives.

I've read most of her stuff, beginning with her fantastic debut, The Interpreter of Maladies. Indeed, I owe the author a personal favour too.

If Indian Express offered me a job some 17 years ago, one of the factors that apparently clinched it for me was my review of the Interpreter of Maladies that I had presented as part of my clippings during the interview. The paper's Bengali editor told me later that it was not my far from impressive communication skills or confidence as a professional but my take on Lahiri's book that had floored him!

"I haven't read her but my wife is a big fan," he confided. "I intend to read it now though." With that began a life-long relationship with Shantanu Datta, a very fine professional and hard taskmaster.

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity of working with him long. But what I learnt during the brief period that I spent with him would help me in immeasurable ways in times to come.

Books are like human beings in many ways. If they are good, they can be invaluable as friends, teachers and mentors.  What you read and imbibe, consciously or unconsciously, stays with you for life helping you in ways unimaginable. This is perhaps why they say that a book is the best friend that you could have.   

Cicero said that a room without books is like a body without a soul. Charles De Secondat went a step further when he said: "I've never known any trouble that an hour's reading didn't assuage."

Who would know this better than those forced to live in exile, in solitude and away from loved ones? One would totally crack up if it were not for the company of books. They console, comfort and cheer up a deadened heart and soul in the most trying of circumstances and in the most trying times.

There are some books that I often return to again and again, especially when I feel low and lost, which is more often than not.

Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi's 'Zarguzisht' and 'Aab-e-Gum,' always lying on my bedside table, figure in this category. Yusufi hasn't written a great deal, contributing only four books in the span of nearly half a century. But each one of them is worth its weight in gold – and more. It's a rare combination of wit, humour and stylish, extraordinary writing.

Ditto Ibne Insha, another great humorist and stylist, whose 'Urdu Ki Akhri Kitab' and fascinating travelogues, not to mention poetry, have not just enriched Urdu literature but also touched and enlivened millions of lives.

Books may not move mountains or bring about instant revolutions although some are certainly known to have inspired many.  

But they certainly help people like us keep their sanity and often inspire humble, ordinary men and women to transform entire nations and lives of millions of others.  Can our collective debt to books and what they have passed down to us over thousands of years as intellectual heritage and wisdom of ages be ever repaid?

The author is a Gulf based award winning journalist. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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