When I was eleven years old, one of my favourite places was the Nielson Hays Library in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a huge building, with tall ceilings and white-washed walls. On days when my Mother needed the car, the driver would collect me from school and leave me at the Library to spend an hour or two on my own.
Nielson Hays Library, Bangkok (Photo: neilsonhayslibrary.com)
That library had a special room just for children’s books. It was a tiny building with wooden walls, tiled roof and polished-wood floor, surrounded by water, like a moat. You had to step across a little bridge to get inside. It was like being inside a castle made for books. I planned to read every book in there, in alphabetical order! But of course, I soon decided against that because I preferred some kinds of books to others. The main thing I liked was the silence, with no one to hurry me along and hardly ever any other children. I could dip into as many books I liked, before selecting three to take home.
One of the pleasures of being in a library is that you see a range of books, arranged by subject and by the author. Some books with boring covers have really exciting interiors while other books with flashy covers are quite silly to read. I used to think that if a book had a map printed inside the covers, I was almost certain to love it. Good illustrations were also a sign that a book was likely to be memorable. I remember reading all 28 of the Wizard of Oz books, one after the other. Sometimes the next one in the series had been borrowed out and I would have to wait one week before returning to pick it up. But even the anticipation was fun.
Libraries used to be a great way to spend time surrounded by the creative ideas and thoughts and scholarship of thousands of people. The USIS in Bombay was one such place in the 1970s and also the British Council libraries in Bombay and in Madras. It was like going out to a restaurant, but instead of eating food, we ate ideas! Then afterwards, on the way home, we would pick up a yummy pastry from Spencer’s to eat with our tea.
British Council, Chennai (Photo: britishcouncil.in)
Those were the days when seeing films meant buying tickets – in advance, if you wanted to be sure of a seat – and going out to the cinema. There was no other way to see movies. In a very real sense, books and magazines were the primary sources of our entertainment alongside going to the Club or to parties. Almost every activity involved being in the company of lots of other people, whether it was in the theatre or at the circus (remember those?) or on the beach or at a stadium. By contrast, much of what we “consume” as entertainment today is literally in our own hands, in the form of phones and tablets or on TV and on our computers.
It’s such a very different world that there’s no point making a good-versus-bad comparison. The primary difference is that our experiences today are non-linear as well as solitary. When we’re at home, we tend to watch films at our own pace, taking intervals whenever we wish, going back to repeat a scene or fast-forwarding past the nasty bits. Similarly, with a digital book we are more likely to skip back and forth in the narrative rather than turn the pages in serial order. We order them online rather than by spending time in a cool air-conditioned room, alongside dozens of other members at the library. We’re no longer browsing the spines of books on shelves, subliminally conscious of other browsers standing alongside us or on the other side of the same shelf. Instead, we choose what we want to read in solitude and we plunge in alone. There’s never any question of finding coffee-stains left behind by a messy reader or someone’s laundry list used as a bookmark and forgotten within the pages of a library book!
A digital book is pristine, with no history of the previous readership left on its pages. The author’s words and ideas reach us in an intimate one-on-one encounter. Audiobooks can be even more so because we’re listening to a warm human voice, complete with pauses and expression. One recent book I heard was Lab Girl read out by the author, Hope Jahren. There were a couple of places where she was overcome by emotion, her voice breathy with tears. Some books are narrated by well-known actors. If you listen to them on headphones, it’s like having a famous person whispering directly into your own brain! Very cool.
I’m appreciative of the digital world we now live in and mildly nostalgic for the lovely libraries of my past. While writing this piece, I Googled “Nielson Hays Library, Bangkok, Thailand”. It’s still there! So the wheel has turned full circle: via the internet I’ve managed to touch base with my eleven-year-old self, in 1964. That’s what I call miraculous.