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Time to Read


KarunaEzara Parikh on her magical affair with books
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

BY NILANJAN DAS  

I GIVE PEOPLE books like they're going out of style. Actually, I give people books because they're going out of style.

I've made 'book-giving' a sort of personal crusade. I don't simply give to friends who read with hunger, I give them to everyone. I give people books in the hope that they will come over to the dark side.

I gift books with the confident knowledge that if they read the book that made me think of them, their lives (even if already perfect) will be just that tiny bit better. Because that's what books do for me.

I'm like the annoying old aunt who gives you what she wants for Christmas, no matter what you asked for. I strive to make it something you will enjoy-magical short stories for my sister, Dalai Lama biographies for the spiritual, Japanese fiction for the quirky-but it is always a book.

I no longer buy books online. I know it's cheaper and it's easier too, but I actually like going to a bookstore. I like the pilgrimage: You pick a day, ask a friend, drive there, enter the cool, silent space, run your hands over spines, settle in for an hour or two, nodding to old friends ("Oh, hello there, Lolita new edition!") and making some new ones along the way.

Perhaps you find my crusade extreme, but let me spell out Delhi's literary losses over the last few years: It started with the closing of The Bookworm in Connaught Place and Yodakin in HauzKhas Village. Then, last year, it was Fact & Fiction,Spell & Bound, Timeless Arts Book Studio and ED Galgotia& Sons. You can't blame me for feeling it is the end of an era. Not simply the era of booksellers and patient old fools, but the end of The Age of Reading itself.

I wonder if words will eventually be lost; whole words, paragraphs, texts-gone forever from collective memory. Because if we stop reading them, they cease to exist. Words are given life only by being read. Else, books become nothing but sacrificed forests where ink makes its final grave.

BOOKS NEED PEOPLE,and I am not the only one who feels this way. If you look up 'book club', you come up with names like The Pulpwood Queens from East Texas and 34 million+ Google results (in 2003 this was 400,000), so people are clearly reading, but where are they?

As the world's fifth largest publisher of books, with a 2014 international report claiming our citizens read a winning 10 hours and 42 minutes a week (the British clocked 5.18 hours/week), why India doesn't have anything as big or recognizable as Oprah's Book Club or Richard and Judy is beyond me.

To bridge the gap, my friends Mihika and Diya started a small book club and called it, rather deliciously, Between The Covers. Once upon a time I thought of book clubs as a cheesy, 'mom' thing to do-now I find it's the only way to meet like-minded people.

It's been a wonderful thing to be a part of. Together we've managed four books over eight months, linking people in at least five different countries. Individually we've read a lot more, and finally have an identifiable group to share those stories with. But it's a small tribe. Our Facebook page has 30 people; our last Skype meeting had three. Some members aren't even managing to finish the required reading-a book every two months.

The most common excuse I hear for not reading is: "I would if I had more time." It always interests me, because the truth is no one has time. But the trick isn't having it or finding it. It's making it. You have to make time like a clay pot, and then you fill it. You can fill it with Facebook or repeats of a television show you don't really care for, a game on your phone involving fruits or talking to a friend. Or you can fill it with reading. And like with anything, reading well takes practice.

While visiting a friend recently, I noticed her living room had the most beautiful bookshelves, going all the way up to the ceiling. 'You've read all of them?' I asked. She's an avid reader, but no, she hadn't. In fact, she said, the books were not even hers. They belonged to the father of the man who owned the apartment, who had recently passed away. 'So what happens to them?' I asked, waving my hand at the books. Everyone in the room shrugged. These are people who love books. They read them and own them and understand them. We all sat in silence then someone poured a little wine. The next time I visited her I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the bookshelves. "Did you rearrange the books by colour?' I asked.'You noticed!' she exclaimed.'It was for a film my housemate was shooting.'

I WONDER HOW all those books felt about being shuffled about that way, little orphans. Perhaps they felt relevant again-'Oh hey, we're being dusted off, fancy that!' Perhaps they were annoyed at being de-slumbered. Maybe A Midsummer Night's Dream was edgy at being placed by The Bonfire of the Vanities. Maybe Sartre appeared next to Camus again and said,'Now, finally, back to that old debate.'

Maybe this is what will become of books upon bookshelves eventually. They will become the exquisite art of once-literate families. Over the years, books, the actual pages, are going to cease to matter.

Ironically, while we still fight for global literacy, the literate use less and less the tools that make them literate. And if they do, it is in electronic format.
Our children will have no use for writing, except to sign their names at the bottom of cheques, on forms and files. 'Handwritten' will become an antique term, a rare concept. And over the years, people will struggle to decipher the curls and curves of their ancestors' love letters, and an entire way of loving will be forgotten.

TSUNDOKU IS A Japanese word for buying books when you already have enough unread ones, and then letting them pile up amorously along your shelves. I am guilty of tsundokunot just because I love books, but because I am deeply, pathetically in love with bookshops and booksellers. I cannot walk into a bookshop and leave empty-handed. When I heard this word, two things happened. For starters, I was reassured (I'm not alone, it's a condition!). And then, I made peace with the fact that when I die I will most likely have a small blossom of books at my bedside, unread.

I have no shame in admitting this. If I did, it would mean I have given up hope altogether. Once upon a time, I treasured the idea that I would some day finish every book I owned, and simply begin reading them all over again.

But exasperatingly and ever so thankfully, I know now that there will always be another book to read. Even if all the writers in the world stopped their pens right this moment forevermore, I would still not be able to finish reading all the things I want to.

AND THAT IS THE MAGIC OF IT. SO YOU'D BEST BEGIN RIGHT AWAY.    

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