As those of you who continue to buy paper books know, there is a point you reach where you run out of space to store them. My husband and I are both holdouts against electronic books. But that comes at a price. Our shelves (all 12 of them!) are so packed that there isn’t the tiniest space left to squeeze more books in, even horizontally. So now the new books now go into a large shopping bag in our study. There is only one solution: we have to give some away.
But it’s never easy to part with books. However, I have identified a few—some that I know I won’t read (which makes me feel guilty) and others I know I won’t miss. But so many of them have become old friends. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury—a collection of poetry that was a gift from my brother and sister-in-law, Dalip and Nandini—has been my companion since the early 1970s. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which opened my eyes to a new way of writing about India. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow, which introduced me to African magic realism. My father’s copy of the Oxford Book of Quotations, which I’ve spent many happy hours browsing through. And Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which gave me a sense of emotional liberation at a difficult time, when I most needed it.
But there is more to books. They are also overlaid with memories of the time and place we read them. The Strangers and Brothers novels that my husband, Saj, bought me in the early years of our marriage because he enjoyed reading them in Delhi. The novels take him back to that city and its smoky winters whereas I always associate them with our first apartment in Geneva. The old, worn copy of The Summer of 42 that Saj associates with the sound of trains because he read it on the mountain trains that we took when we went hiking. Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde that I read in a chalet in Zermatt during a cold, snowy winter. I could go on.
The point I’m trying to make is that books are magical: they transport you to new worlds and more. As you read them, you unconsciously invest them with your memories. Those memories come alive every time you leaf through the book. I still remember, after reading the Narnia novels as a child, burrowing into the back of my mother’s cupboard or going to the bottom of our garden, determined to find the magic portal that would allow me into another world. What I didn’t realize then was that these magic portals are all around us. All I had to do was open a book.