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Sunday, April 29, 2001
Article

In defence of the book
By Mohinder Singh

The book will not die, about that Iím sure. Itís the greatest invention of the human race. Books help us think big, in great expanses.

ó Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, speaking at the State Library, Moscow on May 16, 2000.

THE invention of photography, it was thought, would run painters out of business. It actually made better artists out of them. TV, VCR, the Internet, and other electronic media seem to spell ruin for the book ó the one printed on paper and bound into a volume. Yet books are being written and sold in ever larger numbers. Both London and Paris have recently put up monumental buildings for their central libraries. An ambitious library is coming up at Alexandria, to replace the legendary one burnt down centuries ago.

The book ó the most portable information and entertainment product ó has this edge over the screen, an electronic book, or even a laptop computer. You can easily carry your book beneath a tree outside or into the toilet or read it pacing up and down.

 


And you have complete control over the pace of its reading. You can skip duller portions, linger over the interesting ones, stop where you want to (at best needing a bookmark), and begin where you please. Even a VCR in oneís room, which one can start, stop and freeze at will, canít match the readerís control over a book ó the pace at which words and images are delivered on the screen is largely the producerís choice, not the viewerís.

Yet what really distinguishes electronic images from words in a book is that these visuals have no materiality. They are only shadows, and when the light shifts theyíll be gone. Off the screen they do not exist as words. They do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit.

Books, on the other hand, can be lifetime companions. I still have with me my first novel Under Drakeís Flag by G.A. Henty, given as a birthday present 60 years back. The pages have yellowed with age but the binding is intact. The book actually triggered in me a lifelong appetite for reading. In the first flush, I read all the 10 Henty novels someone had ordered for our school library.

As a member of the Book Club for Reprint Society, the post brought me first four volumes of Churchillís war memoirs on May 18, 1955 (the date stands noted on the cover page). Seeing those volumes on the shelf, it takes me back to those four days ó a block of holidays ó when I read all the four, reading from morning late into the night, almost without a break. I canít imagine sitting before a screen all that time.

People who manage to assemble a sort of private library can be deemed lucky. A dwelling with books lining the walls in their bright-coloured jackets can be both beautiful and enriching.

Admittedly a private collection often encounters a problem: the "borrowing" of books by friends. One has books and one has friends, and the two are quite likely to meet. Your worry starts when a guestís calculating eyes shift from title to title "as from girl to girl in an overheated dance hall". Eventually his hand floats up to where his eyes had led it. And with a disarming smile he asks, "May I borrow this book?"

Of course, you agree. But borrowed books rarely return; non-return of borrowed books is a custom as old as the books themselves. And so mysterious is the power of books in our lives that every loss assumes the shape of serious loss.

The idea that the buying of books is an expensive hobby, beyond our middle-class means, is quite widespread. Books are seen to have grown too costly, even paperbacks. But then whatís not costly these days? Indeed, managing a fair collection of books over the years could turn out cheaper than what people commonly spend on smoking or hiring video tapes.

Books can be borrowed from public or department libraries. The borrowed book can take a temporary residence in oneís home. Then there is the fun of making new discoveries about books in an open-shelf, well-endowed library. We share its wealth the way we share the space of a public park. Libraries acquire books we cannot afford, retain the many of which we are ignorant, even harbour neglected ones. The library is meant to satisfy the curiosity of the curious, offer to stuff students with facts, scholarship for the scholarly, handbooks for the handy, and provide a place for the lonely where they may enjoy the companionship of books.

Itís rather unfortunate that the country lacks a wide network of good public libraries. Let alone the numbers, the existing ones are often woefully wanting in terms of new books, seating comfort, upkeep and competent staff support. Perhaps the whole thing awaits a popular library movement, backed by some corporate finance.

Bookstores are another place for book browsing. I, for one, had a fix on bookshops. Must have been to a hundred shops on my book rambles.

Among countries, the USA is way ahead in offering userfriendly bookstores ó the new superstores. Barnes & Noble alone have set up 435 such superstores and are adding another 70-80 every year. Similar ones have been set up by their competitors: Borders, Crown, Books-a-Million.

These stores are cavernous; a typical one extends over a covered area of 25,000 sq ft. The aisles between shelves are as wide as traffic lanes. And there are umpteen reading areas furnished with sofa seats and tables stacked with books. The whole place is elegantly carpeted; you see people flopped on the floor, browsing through books.

You can stay as long as you please, and you are never pressed to make a purchase. These places have first-rate restrooms. And a part of the frontage houses a coffee shop and snack bar. You can take books or magazines into the cafeteria for reading.

"I see the death of reading in America," says the noted American writer Philip Roth, as he finds more and more people, more so youngsters, sitting more and more before computers and neglecting traditional book reading.

Yet the book remains a lively and prominent feature of modern living. Literature is flourishing, especially in the shape of an unending stream of novels and memoirs. And it canít do so without its share of readers. Surely, TV and now the Internet have cut into pleasure reading, but a whole lot still survives.

Cynthia Qzick, a celebrated novelist, counsels people caught up in the crowding of machines: "Get thee to the novel ó the novel, that word-woven submarine, piloted by intimation and intuition, that will dive you to the deeps of the heartís maelstrom." And she feels that if the novel were to wither ó if, say, it metamorphosed altogether into a species of journalism or movies, as many popular novels already have ó then the last trustworthy vessel of inner life (aside from our heads) would crumble away.

Books on politics, economics, history, philosophy and a host of other subjects ó let alone the avalanche of how-to-do books ó are appearing with an astonishing regularity. Indeed most of the ideas for what appears on the small or big screen still emanate from books.

Reading for pleasure is often likened to eating. Readers are said to devour books, to gobble them up, or to have an insatiable appetite for them. Hungry readers, say of formula fiction, are known to wolf them down, skipping duller portions the way an overindulged diner leaves aside that which he doesnít fancy.

It seems, everybody handles a new book in his own way. I, for one, read the first two or three paragraphs; next, if I like the writerís style, I open the book in its middle and read a few pages, and then the last page or two. If I like what I read, I begin the book at page 1 and read all through, but I pay no attention to encomiums on the book jacket.

The traditional book reading, however, is face to face with technological challenges. Whereas technology has made publishing of books easier and more accessible to authors, audio tapes and book CDs have been coming out in ever larger numbers.

Books on tapes or CDs are particularly popular with people on their daily car commuting to work and back. Whatís more, you can now download an increasing number of titles, and that includes popular novels, simply by logging-on a certain website. You donít have to buy or borrow a book. But then thereís the complication; for security purposes, any downloaded material can only be played back on approved equipment.

The sciences, it is said, no longer need books; neither do the professions. What everyone is looking for is data; that encourages us to equate it with knowledge. And data is easier to pick up from electronic media. But then what really matters is how information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what use it is put. Here the book often enjoys an advantage over other sources of information.

Curling up with an exciting book is a pleasure that is hard for the electronic media to match, more so to people of my generation who have grown up with books. And chances are that the traditional book may continue to be a winner, once the electronic novelty starts wearing off.

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