Books and other places
Picture this: A low window overlooking a looming garden, light peering in through the jigsaw of the canopy to drop gently on the makeshift window seat where you are sitting, and in the light like an inverted cone, dust swirls. Underneath this play of light and shade, you sit cross-legged in your summer shorts, a book lying open in your lap carelessly, soaking up the dust filtering through trees, dust which could almost be the stories in your book unclasping themselves from the yellow hold of paper and taking off in swift, elated flights.
Some of our earliest– and for a few, happiest – memories are those involving books. The sheer thrill of books, their grand potential for escape. Some of us dreamt of an idyllic vacation spent huddling between ominous, grandfatherly shelves sagging under the weight of paper and words, so much of it that they threatened to spill out of wood. Who doesn’t have memories of libraries, time stolen out of a homework hour or a class hour to read a book discreetly tucked away within the folds of pages and pages of boring, handwritten notes? I think, at one time or another, we have all desired the consolation of a finely-spun story, the assuring weight of a novel – illustrated or unillustrated, static and yet so dynamic – to make reality negotiable for one uplifting, ecstatic span of time.
Flash forward to the future present: Time and tense have rearranged your room. The bookshelf which occupied a place of honour has been shifted to make way for a compact, deftly hewn table which accommodates your state-of-the-art computer and its accompanying gadgets. Gradually, where once you heard the rustle of paper, you hear a pervasive electric hum – a repercussion of artificial bees. How unfortunate, you complain, that it suffuses every inch of modern space. What is distressing is this evolution has changed paper, changed the very texture of words, and, in turn, changed even the warmth of a good read. Now there is no escape.
Okay, I’m being dramatic. But there is no denying that the arrival of technology and all this riff-raff (the Kindle, the multitudinous e-book readers, the blogs and what not) has created two worlds – that of the book, and that of the, well, non-book. But the real question is, in the inevitable, ensuing tension between these two worlds, is there a compulsive tug to conform to tradition? To reject the new media completely? Or become converts, give up and transfer to the other side? Perhaps this anxiety is not worryingly tangible yet; people who read books, still read books. Highly tensile beings, we’ve learnt to shuttle between two worlds and pick the best of both. But again, a nagging concern emerges: all these new avenues for obtaining information, the manufacture of such devices has in turn manufactured a new, irrevocable generation of readers who will never know the romance of the book, never understand, why, according to some older readers, you don’t read if you don’t read from a book.
But must our present engagement with books always be so elegiac? Does the transition from the book to the screen have to occur at the cost of the book? Isn’t there some way to find a middle-ground between the two? True, we’re all living in a space where there is no conception of the separate any more – we’re all interconnected – living as if in a giant, pulsating organism, the internet, and it’s sucking all of us in.
But how to let go? There are so many things about the book that I do not want to forget. A book, unlike its modern counterparts, doesn’t light up annoyingly, or crackle and die on you. A book doesn’t beep. A book isn’t cold in your hands.
What I love most about the book is its promise of silence. I’m not just talking about the auditory silence – a book delivers there, too, but more importantly, a book is relevant because it assures solitude – it doesn’t carry the weight of the world with it like the internet does, with its great, dizzying information surge behind each word.
Perhaps, this is all an entirely misplaced nostalgia. Perhaps we will never lose the book. But perhaps it isn’t?
Extraordinarily, though, with the transformation of the page to the screen, our social interactions are becoming increasingly textual. We seem to be moving from the page to the screen and, suddenly, recreating ourselves in words – fragmented and stuttering, mostly, but occasionally reaching a pure frequency, letting words explode into us.
The self-construction is complete. And perhaps, just perhaps, there is some consolation in the fact that now, more than ever, we are so textually volatile we feel an overwhelming sensation that we are constantly reading each other. That we are all, slowly, turning into language.
This piece was written for the Mount Carmel College (Bangalore) annual magazine, 2011.