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OP-ED: To all the books I’ve never read

  • Published at 12:27 pm June 5th, 2020
Books library education knowledge

Making peace with my anti-library

Tired of binge-watching shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime in the coronavirus-inflicted lockdown, I opened up Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, when I heard what was, undoubtedly, a large cheer going up from a corner of my bookshelf. 

A collection of books lying unread in a corner of my library -- what noted scholar Nassim Taleb describes as an anti-library, or one’s collection of unread books -- heaved a sigh of relief at seeing one of their own finally being read; indeed, despite repeated attempts, I simply failed to go beyond a few chapters of Shantaram, having bought the book more than half a decade ago. 

My library isn’t big enough to boast about -- just a few books lined up on the narrow shelves on one side of my room, where generations of writers come together. My mother’s collection of Arthur Hailey’s rest against my old Hardy Boys from school days; while Jeffrey Archers and adventures of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, and Psmith from my days as an engineering student brush against my more recent acquisitions -- the works of Gulzar, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh.

And piled neatly on top of a small table are the business books I brought back from business school -- mistaken that I would read them again. As a school-going child, I loved visiting the library and devouring whatever books I came across. 

While others abhorred looking at the hardbound, ancient books that all looked the same with their protective brown paper, I enjoyed going through the treasures that were hidden in their yellow, musty pages. And this love affair with books continued when we bought a family membership of the newly opened British Library in Chandigarh more than a decade ago, which had a virtually infinite collection of books for all ages.

With my interests running amok over the last few years, the books I’ve read have greatly varied from crime non-fiction to brutal self-help books. So, while my library has grown incrementally, my anti-library too, has grown by leaps and bounds as a result of me succumbing to an innate desire of reading the latest Jeffrey Archer, or the latest tell-it-all by a former top cop. 

In the current, digital age, and more recently the lockdown, which has made delivery or shopping of books impossible, my digital library on Kindle has grown rapidly -- leading me to conveniently ignore the books piling up in my anti-library.

Although I would prefer reading a real, physical book any day, reading on the Kindle has not been an entirely unpleasant experience even if it is now a necessity. But whenever I start reading a new book, especially on my Kindle, I feel unread books from my anti-library crying their pages out, asking me -- what about us, were we not enough? And whenever I pick up a book from my anti-library, I hear them rejoice, their hopes going up -- maybe we will be read next. 

Yet, sadly, rarely does a book from the anti-library join the other corner housing the books that have been read.

But in these past weeks of forced retrospection and introspection, I have now made a rule to be fairer and just towards my anti-library -- for every two new books that I read, I have started reading at least one book from my anti-library. Following this hasn’t been easy, but the current lockdown has helped, although even my grit cannot stand up to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which has slowly moved to the back of my anti-library over the last decade, and become almost invisible at first glance. 

But I have stopped worrying too much about my anti-library. Noted Italian writer Umberto Eco once mentioned how the anti-library is supposed to be cherished, and not be treated as sword hanging constantly on our heads. And if Mr Eco didn’t mind his anti-library, then a simple nobody like me can definitely make my peace with his. 

Rishabh Kochhar is a freelance contributor.

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