Paperback Patrol

The World Between Covers

Boi-girl is a repeat offender - she has often chosen books over men, parties or even, ahem, work. With a boi (book) in hand and a cup of cha beside her, she can be spotted somewhere in the south of the country, though her heart lives in two other cities - Delhi and Kolkata. In this column she thinks aloud on books and her experiences with reading. Join her here for more boi-er adda.

Last night, I finished reading a book that it has, unusually, taken me a long time to finish. I say unusually, because if I like a book I tend to get a bit obsessed by it and can’t rest till I complete reading it. It’s the mediocre books, or the ones who stubbornly refuse to engage with me, like children in the playground who will just not be your friend that I take frequent breaks from and punctuate the reading with movie and television binges. But this particular book had had me hooked from the initial pages itself. Yet I lingered over it, stretched out the days of reading, putting it aside after a few pages every day. Yesterday, when I read the last page, the rest of the house was in darkness. A tired child was sleeping next to me, his gentle snores bringing me back to this world. And it set me thinking on the ways in which we approach books and the deep yet transitory relationships we form with them during the process of reading them.

The easiest books to get to know are the thrillers, the mysteries, the romances, the books we read as children. You start reading and before you know it you have rapidly gone from page 1 to page 50, and the clock has barely moved its hands. The story twists and turns, staying just a few steps ahead of you as you try to catch up. Soon you start thinking like the book—guessing what will happen next, who will say what and where both you and the story will end up. To me, these books are like the stranger on the train who will start chatting as soon you have both settled in and tell you all about himself.  A few hours into the ride and the swaying of the train has been forgotten as you are deep in conversation. When it’s time for one of you to leave, perhaps you will exchange numbers or email addresses, but both of you know that the connection you shared on the train will never get replicated in the course of your daily lives. And so these books too—when you read them they are the most interesting thing around you but once the last page is turned you can easily put them aside. Later, you will remember the words but with time the details may vanish and you will say, yes I’ve read that one, x was the murderer…but how exactly did he do it?

Then there are those books that charm you with their words, make you laugh, fill you with a happy feeling as you read them. They are funny and you may read out sentences to those around you just so you can share the joy you are getting from the pages. To me, these are the people who walk up to you at a party and regale you with stories all evening. They are the friends you message late on a Friday evening when you’ve been a grump the whole week and who will then chat with you telling the most outrageous stories and you can go back to the TV feeling happier and less lonely.

And there are the old favourites, the ones you define as classics in your mind, never mind if the scholarly world thinks of them thus or not. Some of them you’ve read when quite young and perhaps not understood in their entirety but they touched some part of your mind or soul and you’ve read and reread finding new meanings, new nuances each time. Like your parents, your siblings or your partner, you feel you know them, that there is nothing that can surprise you about them, yet every few years when you have nothing else to do and no other book on your groaning bookshelf will do you pull down this one and the familiar words are new again. They mean different things now when you are a few years older than the last time you read them and they seem to say, no we are not ink marks on a page, we become what you make of us, come let’s have a conversation and I will soothe or excite your mind—whatever you want from me.

Then finally, there are the books like the one I mentioned I lingered over. It could be the beauty of the words, or a certain character in its pages who brings to mind people you’ve known, or just the way the story unfolds that make you want to prolong the reading. You may need to tease out the meanings of thoughts and events as you read, you need to put it down to just understand what you have read and often find yourself arguing with it in your head. This is the person who you’ve known yet not known, who has remained elusive, enigmatic. A lover who possessed you yet kept a part of himself forever beyond your reach. Like that love, you will perhaps never return to the book again for when you do it may seem somehow different—the connection that you formed once was not to be repeated, or by reading it you lost some part of yourself and in that loss learnt new things about the world.

Are these the musings of a book romantic? Perhaps. But to hold the world in your hands, to turn that first page for the first time, to close it with a satisfied sigh—where else can we get such highs and lows, other than from life itself?

 I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages
in a million bits and pieces
all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever
in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

—Dylan Thomas


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