Saturday, October 23, 2010

The little-used repositories of learning

Let me share with you a couple of thoughts I have in this International School Library Month.

In Chennai, where I was born and bred, there is a 115-year-old public library.  Housed in an architecturally noteworthy building with an ornate Indo-Saracenic interior and a stained glass roof, it has thousands of rare books on different subjects.  You can find in its archives, the oldest in Asia, the despatches of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, sent out from England in 1670, and the very first issue of Madras Courier, an English newspaper published in 1795.  The library is relatively cool even in summer and it is equipped with very comfortable furniture.  In summer, people go there – to sleep.  And in rainy season – when it rains in the season, I mean – the library is found useful again: people enter the building to seek protection from the rain.

What is true of that great library in Chennai is more or less true of any other library.  Libraries are quiet, silent and secluded places for the simple reason that they are unvisited.  Not only libraries; even bookshops – any other place, for that matter, where there are books.  People keep their distance from the place.

Not that I am saying that reading has disappeared.  People do read; in fact, they do a lot of reading.  But the old excitement has gone out of the business.  That's because reading has become business: people have become by and large utilitarian in their reading as they have become commercial in their approach to anything else.  They read not for pleasure but for information.

"Reading" is probably a wrong word in this World of Non-Readers or in this Age of Information Technology; browsing is the mot juste.  You browse through brochures and tables, you browse around bookshops, and you browse the Internet.

Every cloud has a silver lining.  A couple of months ago, a friend of mine, whose name is Gopala Krishna, called to share with me the ecstasies Bipin Pal's autobiography had sent him into.  It reminded me of the ecstasy Keats had experienced when he had first "looked into" Chapman's Homer.  For a good half hour the old man rhapsodized almost like Ruper Hughes:

       Dear little child,
       This little book
       Is less a primer
       Than a key
       To sunder gates
       Where wonder waits
       Your "Open Sesame"!

Libraries exist for a small and vanishing tribe of book-lovers represented by Gopala Krishna.

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