Hours after I return from Bhutan’s Mountain Echoes literature festival, I find myself rather appropriately elbow-deep in books. The house-painters had moved in. I had promised to empty out my bookshelves before I left. And of course I hadn’t.
It was imperative that I pack my books away myself. This was not a job that could be delegated because the plan was to create a super-organised system that would put Dewey to shame. Out came neatly marked boxes. Indian fiction, non-fiction, yellowing paperbacks (many ruthlessly dispatched to hapless beneficiaries), essays, journalism, books I had read to my kids, travel, reference, translations, classics (an embarrassingly small box), poetry (a surprisingly large one), books written by friends and family and, of course, when patience begins to wear thin, that handy category: misc.
We want to stack books in an order where we can easily find them. Yet, there can be few greater pleasures than stumbling across a book long forgotten. In disorder lies the seed of a magical discovery. Some books defy categorisation. Where does the book-bought-because-it-was-discounted go? Oh, and the Great Author bought only because, well, it was the Great Author but you couldn’t really read beyond two paragraphs? And, then, books gifted by former loved ones that once were angrily shoved into dark corners but now only bring wry remembrance?
People look at books in different ways. A friend whose only extravagance is buying books says he never inscribes his name on them. For him, a book is not a thing to be owned but shared; sometimes it comes back, sometimes it doesn’t. “Words and great ideas can’t be possessed,” he says. We live in different countries and spend the intervening months before we meet setting aside the books we believe we must exchange. I never get mine back.
To rummage through your books is to retrace a life. There was a time when I had to compulsively scrawl my name as soon as I had bought a new book in an unvarying formula that included name, place where purchased and year. I now find myself smiling as I come face to face with a younger self, the self-assurance and arrogance of that sloping slant of a hand-writing I no longer recognise in a name I no longer use. The first Pico Iyer I ever bought (Video Nights in Kathmandu) and then a long succession that continues to this date. The first VS Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas, was required reading for my literature course; the ones that followed were bought for love.
Now I find that I don’t inscribe the books I buy. At 50, I am somewhat wiser and more aware that a book is a gift from someone who has sat up nights and woken early to agonise over the art of stringing 26 letters of the alphabet together. Nor do I ever ask for author signings. When you have the nakedness of a soul bared in a whole book, a signature on the front-page is meaningless.
Of all the human gifts, the art of storytelling is perhaps the most humbling to receivers and certainly the richest to those who possess it. For four days in Thimphu I met more writers and thinkers than I will in the year ahead and the year just past. Delicate story-tellers like Kunzang Choden who has only to finish a tale to leave you greedy for more. The luminescent Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma whose Singing for Freedom and tale of childhood abuse and subsequent redemption will make you weep. The starkness of actor Kelly Dorji’s short story on the sense of abandonment that follows the breakdown of family ties.
To read or write a book is a privilege but a private activity, done in the sanctity of solitude. Literature festivals open windows to seekers of a world that is otherwise closed. For a few days, barriers are down for both writers and readers, united only by their belief that the written word makes the world easier to bear.
The views expressed by the author are personal