Those who managed to log into the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF 2021) virtual sessions were in for a treat this weekend. It was a smorgasbord of Who’s Who in literary circles – from Jhumpa Lahiri speaking on writing in Italian and having it translated into English to Amin Maalouf speaking lyrically with Ahmed Rashid about how literature fills a void due to the shortcomings of history. One can access it all online and now spend time with any or all of these writers at one’s leisure.
One of the sessions I chanced upon was Richard Ovenden, Director of Oxford’s Bodleian library, on attacks on libraries and archives with another historian Shrabani Basu. He spoke of his latest book Burning the Books – the History of Knowledge under attack. He knows first hand the value of collections, what to keep and what to discard – the Bodleian houses millions of rare manuscripts and in order to access this sacrosanct place, new readers are still have to sign a formal declaration as follows:
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library”. The Latin version is much more sonorous if intelligible. But it has been translated into over fifty languages.
The Bodleian has existed for 700 years. It and similar libraries do more than preserve documents and books. In many countries, they are the keepers of history. In that way, they preserve art, history and culture in addition to laws, records and people’s reading habits. Francis Bacon described the creation by Sir Thomas Bodley of the Bodleian in the 1590s as “an ark to save learning from the deluge” – referring to the Reformation when thousands of books were burnt. Though this is difficult at a personal level – when someone dies, books and diaries are often disposed of and one loses the knowledge of that person’s life with them. When one translates this at a national level or societal level, this can seem like a criminal act.
Ovenden notes that archives are central to social order, to the order of history, and to the expression of national and cultural identity. Burning or destroying these means that one destroys history, whether in sixteenth-century England or more recently in Sarajevo or Iraq.
In many countries though books still exist, much reading has transitioned online and particularly with the younger generation. During COVID, I have been heavily reliant on Amazon. The fact that it remains one of the Fortune 500 companies that has doubled its profits and increased its work force by 250,000 people during the pandemic testifies to Bezos’ true foresight. Bezos is now valued at over US$200 billion in terms of personal net worth.
As Ovenden notes, the great libraries of the world have preserved knowledge over centuries which tech companies are now taking advantage of. There is a difference between companies which maintain data for different reasons than institutions which preserve the health of societies. He suggests a memory tax on Big Techs such as Amazon, Google who store huge amounts of data.
Donating books to libraries or others does not give me joy –
in fact it causes me physical pain and anxiety
My nearest neighbourhood book store in DC ironically happens to be the Amazon book store. Amazon sells books in addition to timed egg cookers (who ever heard of such a ridiculous thing?) but there it stands proudly with all the other gadgets that people have begun stock piling during the pandemic – along with air friers, instapots and slow cookers.
The Amazon store is the most unlikely of book stores – books are rotated at a dizzying speed – from the highly rated, to most popular in DC etc because they can track people’s buying habits. You can never find the same book in the same place. Traditional book stores are perfect if you suffer from biblosimia – the underrated art of smelling tomes or longing for the aroma of old books.
My early childhood memories were of weekly outings with my father to the book store – then the large Ferozsons on Lahore’s Mall Road where I would be allowed to buy one Ladybird classic which I would finish during the week. That habit remains almost fifty years later so that upon each visit to Lahore, we visit the trinity of bookshops – Readings, Liberty Books and the Last Word. One can almost overdose on the aroma of old books at Readings.
What is so wonderful about book buying? As in all other things in my life, the answer seems to lie in Japan and the word for it is “tsundoku”, dating back to 1879 in print and referring to doku as in the verb reading and the origin of the word “Tsumo” as in things piling up. But don’t fear, there is no negative connotation in Japan to the books piling up without being read unlike the highly judgmental English equivalent of bibliomania – the act of being unable to stop collecting literature. Most of my family suffer from this affliction – books piled where ever the eye can see. According to the other Japanese goddess, Marie Kondo, one should only keep things that give us joy – the Kondomari method which has become a bible on how to declutter (along with its bingeable Netflix series).
I watch it whenever I attempt to declutter the house -and a guilty secret of these monthly purges is never to give away the books (not even the fourth or fifth copy).
Donating books to libraries or others does not give me joy – in fact it causes me physical pain and anxiety. I would happily part with thousands of clothes, shoes and designer bags rather than books or paintings. Many book lovers rebuked Kondo strongly on social media when she compared books to clutter. Even the Queen of Clean had to issue an apology stating that her words had been taken out of context. One can give books to libraries or to those who enjoy them more. I thoroughly agree. I have often been the recipient of a friend’s purges – when they move country or town or just downsize. I not only have my own book clutter but also from those whose interests parallel mine – whether an Indian friend’s collection of PG Wodehouse or a deceased family friend’s collection of old cook books from her years spent in the Middle East and North Africa.
Taking a chapter from the Ovenden book and my flights of fancy over the weekend, I have recast my self worth not as a collector of books but a battle against books disappearing – at least from my own home. At home l I will not wage battle against clutter – but more to save manuscripts, books and knowledge from fast disappearing. Perhaps I may categorise them by colour like one of my friends. Even at a personal level, there is much to preserve. And in doing so I join the battle with Ovenden as to why books, libraries and more importantly literature festivals, whether virtual or not, are so essential to our pandemic life.