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Growing old with books

I have grown old with books, my creaking joints and dimming eyes keeping pace with their breaking spines and brittle pages, with heavily underscored lines and margins crowded with comment. The much-thumbed pages snap open where they were read, reread and revelled in, an occasional bookmark popping out, carrying the past.

There’s Huckleberry Finn, Tom Browns School Days, and How Green was my Valley, looking in on me from my childhood and teens, when the world was really green and my scholastic years were never about killjoy learning but an adventure, opening new doors. I see PG Wodehouse’s Thank You Jeeves and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat winking and nodding with their inimitable laugh lines that turned our lives lighter unburdening them from the rituals of homework and examinations.

Then there were Tess of the D’urbervilles, Jane Eyre and my much loved school text Mill on the Floss and the travails of their characters, their pages stained with ardent adolescent tears. The mannered drawing rooms of Jane Austen and the airless tower blocks of 1984 have taught me about human nature.

As I grew up and turned to the literature of the world there were the realism of Balzac’s My Cousin Bette, the magic realism of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the epic sagas of War and Peace and Anna Karenina of Tolstoy, and the powerful short stories of Chekhov, their humanitarian ideals, spiritual yearning, love of fellow beings. R.K. Narayan’s mellifluous prose in Man Eaters of Malgudi had the solace of a running river. I have dreamed their dreams and tried to live their meaning. The comfort of these classics has sustained me in the deepest moments of sorrow and puzzlement. Many would have read them, after all books are canonised by the power of the people who read them just as temples are sanctified with the footfall of devotees.

Then there was always the Bard, forever contemporary and timeless in his appeal, and his lines come with every trigger of sorrow or joy and sometimes even unbidden. With his gentle searchlight on man’s flaws and foibles, his nobility and grace, Shakespeare seems to lead us on like a kindly light. I turn to him during moments of difficulty, self-doubt and introspection and find the journey a little less arduous. I recall the words of the good pastor in The Vicar of Wakefield who comforts his daughter Olivia in her sorrow. "I armed her against the censures of the world; showed her that books were sweet, unreproaching companions to the miserable, and that if they could not bring us to enjoy life, they would at least teach us to endure it."

I ponder on their life lessons and a humbling realisation comes that just a few have been given the opportunity to live by the word and say something universal about the human condition. These books have been family, community, hope and reassurance in the face of confusion. My books will come with me when the exit beckons, not to be burned or cremated but travel with me as part of my fading consciousness. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges says, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 8:38:48 PM |

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