I come from a place and a time where the experience of seeking books was a mixed one. On the one hand, I met the last representatives of a generation for whom the public library was of tremendous significance. Some of these people had even collaborated to set up the first public libraries in my part of the world. On the other, I grew up at a time when reading had been compartmentalized into syllabi and mandated material, and books (read: textbooks) were keys to employment. Within my own generation, public libraries withered away.
My school encouraged borrowing from the library, and in my neighbourhood was the biggest library in the Northeast, so these were valuable resources for me. We also had, in our city, a rare bird — the only library meant exclusively for children. It had children’s literature but also a lot of general reading which was convenient for me because nobody ever told me, back then, that I had to read age-appropriate books. Grownups, I remember, were actually barred from membership, and those who were interested in children’s books and couldn’t find them in local bookshops — as they were bound not to — would ask us, very politely, if we could get this or that book for them. It was a very welcome role reversal, and I remember recommending good books to the big folk.
Illustration by Alia Sinha
Around the time I was leaving school, I began what would eventually be the longest quest I have ever been on. I wanted to gather all the books from which excerpts had been mentioned in all the English rapid readers we’d had, from class I to X. It began with me wanting to read the rest of the story after the excerpted bit. Natural curiosity. I was trying to cart my childhood along, in my head.
I ended up with a list of 37 books, including novels and anthologies. It was also an exercise in memory, for recalling an excerpt from a book in class I ten or fifteen years later is not easy.
Locating them, now that was a daunting task. Several were so obscure that I have met very few who have read them. Others were out of print. But along the way, out of regard for that old children’s-only library, I wanted to see how many were still to be found in such libraries in the places I visited. I wanted to see what memories children were forming in the generations after me.
Twenty years on, I am happy to report that I completed the quest a few weeks ago. I finally located The Last Book, as I call it. The one that got away. Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water (1960), of which I read an excerpt in class VI, a year which archaeologists now say was part of the Early Stone Age. My best friend, who knows what I cart along in my mind, found a wonderfully illustrated edition, dug it up from the depths of the internet, as it were, and so my longest quest became a collaborative one.
But in these years, as I hunted the books and poked around in libraries, I have also realised the importance of editions. Specifically, when a book transcends the pleasure of reading it and becomes a priceless physical object, one begins looking for its first edition. In a way, it contains within it the joy that the author must have felt in holding her work in her hands for the first time.
And first editions of books emotionally significant for you are exceedingly difficult to find, not to mention expensive. I believe that while introducing a child to the experience of reading, and the joys of exploring lending libraries, we could also introduce them to the physicality of books, to the nature of editions, and even to manuscripts, to the handwritten form, to primary sources. Not all children who read want to become authors. Some may want to be artists and understand, by themselves, the richness of original art. Others may want to be historians and want to read original manuscripts, preserved with great care in other, perhaps bigger libraries.
This process can be greatly aided by digital platforms. As a student of medieval history some years ago, I found myself spending more time in the digital archives of libraries than in the physical. Virtually all the manuscripts I have been researching on in the years afterwards have been carefully digitised and are excellent resources. So if a child were to love a book, and were to grapple with the larger history of it, introducing her to the first edition, or to original artwork, all stored and digitised and readily available, would be a priceless experience.
Imagine if a child were to walk into a school library today and pick up a copy of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, because, like me with another book, in a different age, she found an excerpt in a rapid reader. Or perhaps she is even more fortunate, and her mother mentioned it to her. Imagine her reading and loving the book and the characters. Now imagine her discussing the work with her family and friends and being introduced, perhaps by a teacher as wonderful as Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988), to the story behind the creation of Peter Rabbit. Imagine the little girl seeking a first edition of the book, and drafts of Potter’s illustrations. That first edition was in 1902, and today, unlike in my time, the little girl can access digital copies of the edition and the draft artwork.
So libraries like the one I knew would be an invaluable resource if they also had a digital section of editions and artwork which may be difficult to access in physical form. Such facilities could infinitely increase the joy, the overall experience of reading, for children.
And someday these children, grown up and on their own quests, could find, with their best friends, a priceless book at the end of the online rainbow.