Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know. — John Keats
Afro-american novelist James Baldwin said it best: ‘You think your pain and heart-break are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ Books enable us to put our varied emotions into words. They help us empathise. On National Book Lovers’ Day today, I can’t help reflecting that in this age of smartphones and fleeting attention spans, books may seem anachronistic to many. But their relevance can never be underestimated. RL Stevenson may have believed that books were the bloodless substitutes for life. But these substitutes have the power to stir flesh and blood.
When I was gifted Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi in Farsi on my 14th birthday, the very first line that I read was: Nee ‘iftan tanha, ya zeer tanha (You are alone, if you think you are alone). Those words got embossed on the palimpsest of my heart and mind and I never felt alone.
American psychologist Wayne Pollard believes that ‘books sensitise and mellow us. They open up a plethora of avenues and alleys.’ Books widen our horizons. They mould our thought process and deepen our perceptions. There is an Arabic adage, Niztazik firhaun ul-baatil kitaabaan in afd taakaaynaat (a book brings before you the wisdom of the whole universe in a jiffy). Any good book leaves an everlasting impression on the readers. David Attenborough remained beholden to MK Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth, which gave him a perspective and a direction he never went awry from. He said in an interview that one book that changed his life was Gandhi’s honest autobiography which helped him become humane.
When Sir Edwin Arnold translated Ashvaghosh’s great book in Sanskrit, Buddhacharita, into English as Light of Asia, and wrote in its prelude, ‘Veil after veil will lift but there will be veil after veil behind,’ the academic committee of Oxford University decided to introduce Oriental wisdom to its syllabus of Eastern Philosophy and set the Spalding Chair for Eastern Religions and Ethics, graced by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Bimal Krishna Matilal.
Such can be the impact of a book! Paul Brunton’s A Search in Secret India (1934) and A Hermit in the Himalayas (1936) made condescending westerners look at India with respect and renewed (academic) interest. Sarojini Naidu used to say that great books have answers to all our existential queries. When Albert Camus’ protagonist says in The Outsider: ‘We’re all willing or unwilling spectators to the grand drama of life,’ you will spontaneously agree.
Books are the best medium one can relate to. Every book is a perfumed garden which you carry with you. Read, because there is no substitute to reading. Holding a book and poring over it is an experience that can never be replicated by anything else. Books will never go out of fashion.
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