For the love of logos
This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.
Logophilia is a lovely word. Try to roll it around in your mouth. It is a large word, a complex word, but something that slips out of your mouth easily. You are a bit puzzled as any "philia" is generally considered to be bad and rare, but to be logophilic, it definitely rare and is definitely not bad. It stands for somebody who loves reading above and beyond the call of duty. So if your reading extends to reading the morning newspaper and daily emails, then you are literate but not logophilic. However if you have books piled up in the loo; read while walking; have a to-be-read pile which fairly screams at you and a to-be-purchased list which is gobsmacking; have seriously considered taking up a job as a librarian; spend a disgraceful amount of money on books; and most importantly - have actually lost something valuable due to the love or reading (a loved one, a job, educational attainment, etc.), then you are a logophile. This essay contains some totally unrelated thoughts on this strange mental disease.
Let me get the initial bits out of the way and admit to my personal affliction of being logophilic with a bibliophile bent. Many people have some books and many people have many books. The last category lends you to be called as a bibliophile, a lover of books. Many people have read some books and even fewer have read many books (and I am using books loosely, it can mean pamphlets, newspapers, papyrus rolls, reports, manuscripts, etc.). If you love reading with a vengeance, then you are most probably logophilic. And if you have both, then you will end up with worst of both worlds. Not only do your loved ones complain about having dusty books all over the place, but also the fact that you don't devote sufficient time to them because your nose is buried deep in a book.
So let me take my personal example. I have books piled up in the main loo, the downstairs loo, couple of books next to the armchair, some on the dining table, many on the desk and I always have two in my bag. Oh! Let us not forget the furtive book piles on the office shelves and in the drawers. I frequently read while walking. I do it on my blackberry, PDA or just holding a novel and that causes many an accident, at least once every week. It might not be an accident, but something like missing trains or train stops is a favourite. I would be busy reading on the platform and my train will come and go. I would be busy reading on the train and forget to get off at my station. I would walk off the train reading and stumble on the ledge. Or I would try to get out of the station while wielding my credit card instead of the train ticket.
The to-be-read pile is now more than 200 or so books high and now I have to consciously and deliberately control my book purchases. I have been threatened with dispossession and had to construct another long shed to contain the overflow from inside the house. So now the outside shed-library contains fiction, while the inhouse library contains the non-fiction ones. And the downside of the large to-be-read pile is that my wish-list on Amazon is growing by leaps and bounds despite me trying to control that list as well. But that's just being a bibliophile. I have actually lost educational attainments due to this unhealthy desire for reading. My mother actually locked up all the books in our house in huge trunks when I was a schoolboy. This was because I was too busy reading other things when I was supposed to be reading my school books. With the sad result that I was walloped for sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to read the medical information inserts from inside medicine boxes for lack of anything else to read. This kind of thinking did impact my career and perhaps I would have gone down a more classical mathematical or engineering background if it was not for my logophilia.
Questionnaires and market surveys are generally not considered to be good uses of my time, but over the last year or so, I am participating enthusiastically in the surveys run by the Economist. You know why? Because they promise a gift on completion of the questionnaire and you get to choose between three very interesting books. One of the books which I got recently was called as "The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett. I came home very tired and was handed this rather small book by my little daughter. It was hardly 3x5 inches, about a hundred pages and therefore, by dint of its size, automatically became the property of my little girl. So thankfully, after lying to her through my teeth about how I just want to check it out and then after settling her down, spent about an hour or so reading it.
It is a simple book. No doubt about it, very easy to read and the language used is uncomplicated, flowing and marks the author out as somebody who is linguistically gifted, almost Gibbonesque. It is about the Queen of England, a darling lady whom I love and adore, who picked up the habit of reading from a chance encounter with a mobile library. It talks about her trials and tribulations. But who wants to have a queen who is so well read? When Her Majesty wants to talk about Thomas Hardy in her Christmas Message, the Prime Minister gets totally discombobulated. The satirical somewhat sarcastic ironic tone which peeks out in unexpected places is just brilliant. Such as the response from the Prime Minister, "I'm not sure that is a message the government would feel able to endorse." After all, the public "must not be allowed to think the world could not be managed. That way lay chaos. Or defeat at the polls, which was the same thing." The satire is in the right amount and just perfectly positioned.
The book shows how she spends her time doing official functions, but then rushes back to read. How she asks her people about books and suddenly they are all confused and startled. The sense that well read people are so rare and misplaced in today's society comes across brilliantly. It is also ironic that this is set in a country which apparently has the highest proportion of writers, poets and authors. It is strange, I did not like "her" choices at all. They are boring classics, modern authors and I have hardly read any of the books on "her" reading lists. But I am drawn to her nonetheless, the feeling of empathy with a fellow logophile is just too strong and perhaps that is why so many of my deep and strong relationships are with people who are fellow logophiles (despite them, for example, loving, reading and discussing hair hurting and eye bubbling medieval historiography tomes).
But real life intrudes far too frequently both into Her Majesty's reading-life and into ours, poor logophiles. The book ends in a most amazing and thought-provoking manner, but I wont spoil it for you. For me, someone who has to put food on the table and a roof over the head of the extended family, spending time just reading books is not an option. I have flirted sometimes with the idea of becoming a librarian. What a wonderful life that would be, a great way to live and work amongst books, be with people who are studying and reading, be able to guide people to those zillions of mysterious doors lining the book-shelves. Now that's a wonderful life.
But how about the aroma of books? Have you realised that books have different smells? Books in different countries smell differently. Books of different ages also smell differently. I do not like the new bookstores; they are more like cafés with some bookshelves or like a department store. But go into a second hand bookstore, preferably one with wooden mismatched shelves and piles of books all over the place where you have to navigate carefully and it is a totally different experience. You turn a corner and bump into another fellow logophile, whose beady eyes are wandering around reverently and madly, like a child in a candy store, not knowing where to start and where to begin. And how every book alley has a different aroma, some acidic sharp, some dusty, some mouldy, and some giving strange smells ranging from cabbage to old musty socks.
Then you dig out an old leather bound book from behind a row of books and two little silverfish bugs will scuttle out and run for their lives. You will turn the book over tenderly like you were holding a baby and then gently, ever so slowly, like you were sniffing the neck of a beautiful woman; open the cover to read the first page. Like the first tentative steps of a baby, you read the faded cursive writing saying, "To dear Emma, hope this book of ancient Sumerian myths provides you with as many hours of happiness and mystery as you have given me" and the date says May8th, 1848. And suddenly, between the dust, the dim lighting and silverfish, a link has been made between two logophiles across the ages.
Or how about the irritation when you are interrupted in your reading by squalling kids, nagging spouses, door to door salesmen, friends wanting to have a chat or having to go to work or to cook or to do any of the thousand and one obstructions to a wonderful reading time? The way you sign, snap, growl, bellow, think up excuses or what have you, and then you fold down the top of the page, or insert a book mark and gently lay the book down on the table, get up, and while getting up, touch the top of the book as if you are apologising for letting real life interrupt the book reading worshipping ritual and then a lingering caress over the spine as if a promise that you will be back with the book as soon as those horrible mean people / tasks have been dealt with.
How about books as gifts? I love giving books as gifts. I love to understand the recipients, their thoughts, emotions, loves and hates and how they feel and then go look for a book which might appeal to them. The entire exercise is lovely, to keep your loved one in your mind while you are browsing, think about their reaction when they open the package, or when they start reading and after they finish it and when the book adorns one of their bookshelves. Unlike a dog which is only for a dog's life, a book is not only for your life but for your descendant's as well. When my grandfather died, I got part of his library which included books by Peter Cheney, Agatha Christie, Pearl S. Buck, etc. Similarly, I got many western cowboy books (Louis L'Armour mainly) when an uncle died. And so on and so forth. We put books into our kids' party bags or give them as Christmas presents.
But we are ill to expect others to love them the way we do. For many others the lovingly selected gifts for your friends and family lie on their bookshelf, not even opened once. The books that you are desperate to get are nothing but rubbish paper and only fit to be recycled or junked. Back in India, so many times, Ma and I would actually stop the garbage paper wallah (the chap who goes around buying waste books and newspapers off households and then sells it to the envelope and bag manufacturers) and purchase books off his trolley. The parents of my son's friends think of us as slightly weird, for giving books as gifts. Apparently they are immediately chucked into the corner. My son protested that giving books is a waste, as they have a very indeterminate value in the complicated teenage game of "status". If you give a Playstation or HALO game, then you are top of the heap, while if you give a board game, you are bottom of the heap, cash and vouchers are somewhere in the middle, but books are strange, they cannot figure out where they fit in.
But I have gone on long enough; I hope that talking about being a bibliophile and a logophile can give you a glimpse of this mental affliction. I wished my children are blessed with the same affliction and thank all the Gods and particularly Ganesh, both love reading books. If you have this condition, you will know what being logophilic means (also see the photo on the top right hand side corner of my daily blog here. If you do not have it, then you will learn to appreciate the signs of it and make suitable allowances for us poor sufferers.
I end with a quote, "Like dreaming, reading performs the prodigious task of carrying us off to other worlds. But reading is not dreaming because books, unlike dreams, are subject to our will: they envelop us in alternative realities only because we give them explicit permission to do so. Books are the dreams we would most like to have, and, like dreams, they have the power to change consciousness, turning sadness to laughter and anxious introspection to the relaxed contemplation of some other time and place". Victor Null, South African educator.
All this to be taken with a grain of salt.