Love Books!
Books are Lovely!
We Must Love Books!
And now… Bookish love!

Where is this stream of ideas about love and books being birthed? And how do these ideas flow into dominant talk?

Who dare says, “Bookish love – huh?! Humbug!” And who is brave enough to cast this stone as naysayers? What has bookish love done for humanity and what has bookish love or love for books or any combination of the words ‘love and books’ done for those who do not read and declare that they do not like the act of reading?

Where is the space for those of us who struggle with the written word in languages we barely understand?  For those of us who have never seen anyone with their heads buried in a book, unless within the classroom and closely watched? Can any of us raise our heads and hands and say, ‘we condemn bookish love?”

This bookish love has become more troubling in recent years. We are up-in-arms at the alarmingly low reading levels everywhere and are pushing reading of books into schools. Publishers are rushing to the bank after producing colourful books to lure reluctant readers to this paradise of bookish love. And educators /librarians/ teachers of our kind are strutting around – touting made up terms like bookish love and feeling righteous about it all.

Woe upon the young child who walks out during a story read aloud in the library. Our own bookish love clouds our accepting minds. And the children who choose to not come to the library make us hitch up our book jholas and go after them purposively, telling ourselves, they must find love and it is in books! Schools without libraries and collections of books are being declared unfriendly spaces. Towns without good bookstores are being lamented upon in alternate media, obscure reading groups are gaining popularity because it seems culturally relevant. And we are becoming rather righteous about it all, taking matters to heart with a whole issue on Torchlight around bookish love!


This theme of bookish love has me thinking of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people in the world – could it even be a million or more? –  who have lived lives of absolute love in the absence of books. It makes me think how full we are of ourselves in imagining that this is the only way.

I am troubled by the agenda I am seeking to drive, around books and their worthiness. If something is worthwhile to me does it have to be worthwhile to everyone else? If the answer to that is “yes” then one has to pause and wonder a bit, as to what are the obstacles in the path of this seamless integration into bookish love. Why is it so hard for so many, many children to fall in love with books? Do we have books where books are not a seamless entry point to love? I wonder.

So, like my kind of bookish people I turned towards the shelves of the library, recognising how ironical and almost ridiculous this argument is because I seek books to explain what I do not understand, because I’m reposing my faith in the written word to represent this non-bookish love.  It was a far more complicated exercise than I imagined, because in this quest I have got lost in bookish love again. I am amazed at the ways in which writers and illustrators and book-makers privilege reading and how simple it is to fall for the bookish love act because it represents a good act to the one already in love with books!  This is a messy kind of love.

Through my searching in the true spirit of bookish people, I feel compelled to share some picture books that resonated with my disquiet for reasons I express further.  I would be delighted to hear from other educators about this dilemma so that we restore a balance even as we seek to engender bookish love.

The Girl Who Hated Books, Manjusha Pawagi and Leanne Franson. Published by Jyotsna Prakashan.

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A title of hope for my frame of mind around questioning bookish love. To find hate and books on the cover of a book means that someone out there resonates with my doubts and questions. The book has been picked up by educators, teachers, librarians and children to fairly positive acclaim and it is a book that resonates with the reluctant reader at almost any age. The reasons I suspect are, because it comes from the premise that a book hater is legitimate and can exist. The illustrations are endearing, and the text does not take the premise too seriously enabling us to enter without fear and damnation.

It however leaves us with a book hater growing interested in bookish – love, and so I continued my seeking.

The Librarian of Black Lagoon, by Mike Thaler, Illustrated by Jared Lee. Published by Scholastic

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If you are not yet familiar with this series of books, you must become familiar with them. The premise is formulaic after the 2nd or 3rd in the series, but I have watched readers reach for these books because they always begin with the hate / fear/ detestation/ the negative reaction and dramatically and with great humour lead us into an alternate reality. I imagined the real test for Mark Thaler and Jared Lee would be The Reader from Black Lagoon, but until then the librarian allows us to enter into the minds of a rather reluctant reader who fears the mighty librarian. Humour is a powerful trope in these books, brought alive through the illustrations that will allow a book-hater to feel affirmed. But I was not yet sure that my quest was being resolved, so I continued.

Miss Malarkey Leaves no Reader Behind by Kevin O’Malley and Judy Finschler. Published by Scholastic.

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This book was taking me further along. Here was Miss Malarkey determined to turn her most reluctant student into a reader. He was protesting, he was resisting until the very end when, like many of us bookish love evangelists, Miss Malarkey found the one book that held out for this young person and he succumbed.I was beginning to get desperate, the books were starting out well, affirming negative stances

towards reading and books and then in sixteen well-constructed, illustrated pages they would turn the plot around! I found Beatrice Doesn’t Want to by Laura Numerous and Lynn Munsinger, published by Scholastic and I Will Not Read This Book by Cece Meng, illustrated by Joy Ang and published by Clarion Books. Both hopefuls began with young ones protesting about the act of reading and ended with the protagonist finally reading. So, it seemed like the conspiracy was larger than that of my mind… bookish love is being affirmed all the time.

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In That Book Woman by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small and published by Atheneum Books, the narrator Cal refers to books as “paper with chicken scratch” and I could immediately see how thousands of children who struggle with print will resonate with that line if it is brought to them. But he too, slowly falls prey to the lure of the printed word and leaves me staring at shelf upon shelf of texts that affirm reading.

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As my seeking continued, I recalled a slim book titled Payal Kho Gai, published by Eklavya, written by  Shivani and Maheen and illustrated by Kanak Shashi. In this book, the context is markedly different from the Euro-centric literary settings of my earlier shortlist. Children are playing in what is represented as a slum or basti and everyone is looking for Payal in the most likely places. They look for her near a tree, around the water tap and such and the book ends with Payal, a wee girl of 8 – 9 years lying on the floor behind a dwelling, reading a book. The surprise finding at the end meets with markedly different reactions. To book-loving evangelists like myself it affirms that bookish love is contagious.  We must simply seek children, show them these treasures and they will immerse themselves. To others, the ending seemed constructed. Would a poor, urban slum dwelling child escape to read a book?

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We bookish people appear to hold onto elite ideas around the act of reading. Can it be spread, should it be spread and are all human beings worthy?  If we subscribe to the former, we are bound to belong to the flag-bearing bookish love army who talk amongst themselves about books, keep their loves swirling in closed circles and look at the world as bookish love people and others. But if we truly believe in bookish love as a transcendental act that can stand on its own with diverse readers, contexts and imaginations – then we are moving to a more universal understanding.

My quest continues. I want to find books that show a balance, a world where not all of us are bookish love people and that it is okay to not be one, as long as we have the choice and we are aware of this possibility about books and the love they engender.

For now, there are clearly a significant number of books that stand by bookish love, as do thousands – perhaps millions – of people. Perhaps it is something worth catching. This may be why some of us despite our confusions, questions, doubts set out to spread this love.  My book jhola is now packed with these texts, my head is high and my eyes have a glint, I am not looking for bookish love – I have it. I am looking for the one I can bring it to… so be aware!


Bookish Love? Bah!

  1. Dear Scrooge, Even Dickens could not resist the turn around -the happy ending. Powerful piece. But it seems to me that in so many of the books you quote, there was a person who communicated the bookish love she or he had. Isn’t that the crux? You can’t share something you don’t own. For me That Book Woman has been a mind-changer -even more than all the other librarian centred books. When I go to my shop around the corner and find the man’s children in his cooped up space, fretting and irritable, I bring them back home to sit and look at my books and take home some of them. An auto rickshaw driver with whom I have had a chat about reading on our journey waits while I run indoors to find him a couple of Urdu books for his child.
    Is that bookish love?
    Much love. Usha

  2. Thanks Sujata for this piece. During days I spent in the tribal villages in the Narmada valley amidst non literate communities, full of wisdom and practice on equality and sustainability I have always wondered if we make too much of virtue and need of ‘literacy’. While we want all children to have access to good quality schooling, is schooling mostly focusing on academic really the need for the world? When ‘reading’ books on sustainability does not seem to take us any closer to creating a sustainable world, are we making too much out of the need for literacy? Your piece took me back to some of these questions that I continue to carry in my head. I wonder if stories are fundamental and universal to human societies and our need to understand, express, explore and form – written or oral is incidental? I don’t know.

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