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If I were a book… all is fair

Hunger for books Crowds at the Chennai Book Fair.

Hunger for books Crowds at the Chennai Book Fair.  

The printed word has tamed technology, shaped the forces of change

Stepping into the massive makeshift pavilion of the Chennai Book Fair last week, I wondered where I was. No train station, mela, temple or exhibition I visited in recent times was so packed.

A huge number of stalls with ever newer publishers was confidently vying for the attention of readers.

The people selling entry tickets were peeling off slips and handing them out without even looking up. Such a rush! For books! What was thrilling to watch was small children looking about excitedly and asking for this or that book. Calls of “See? This is what I want!”, “Get me that!”, “There is a discount here!” filled the air.

I thought of a beautiful painting by Jose Jorge Letria. A book-lion. The tail and paws of a lion (no head — who needs one when it is under the covers of a book?) with a book for its body. The inscription reads, “If I were a book, I’d like to have my own magical place in every child’s imagination.”

I thought of all those wonderful quotes about books and book collectors. How John Ruskin said to someone whom he noticed coming in every day to a bookshop to read a portion of a particular volume, “If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying”; how Rob Kaplan was once so engrossed in browsing through the shelves of a second-hand book shop in New York that it took him a few moments to recognise that the man standing in front of him was his father; how Thomas Jefferson said, “I cannot live without books”; and how Desiderius Erasmus wrote, “When I have a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothing.”

Book rebellion

Some time ago, my translator sent me an article about the book smugglers of Lithuania. They were the first “soldiers” of the rebellion against Tsarist Russia in the 19th century when Russian scholars suggested a “Russification” of the conquered population by banning Latin primers, transliterating the Lithuanian language into Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet and forcing it on Lithuanian children.

Though their tiny population (one million) was no match for the might of Russia, Lithuanian intelligentsia thought of a plan. They continued to print books in Latin outside Lithuania and smuggled them back into their country. “Book carriers”, or Knygnesiai, would conceal their forbidden goods in covered wagons and deliver them to safe houses. People from all walks of life participated. It was a hidden national movement. Women hid books in food baskets under cheese, bread and potatoes, and “fat” working class men stuffed books down their shirts and waddled about. For a hundred years, the language and culture of tiny Lithuania was kept alive by its book smugglers.

Words and books have tamed technology, shaped the forces of change and confronted the power of princes. A most unusual work on books is Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books (1694) in which the books themselves (ideas and writers, ancient vs modern) lead the attack.

If you were to line up five books from the pre-Independence era to face five from post-Independence India, which ones would they be? Would you have to visit a book fair to decide?

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 7:53:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/if-i-were-a-book-all-is-fair/article30652000.ece

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