— Swami Narasimhananda —
When you walk by the rows of books in a library, you feel that the wisdom of the world across ages is looking down upon you. It could be a well-classified library. The collection might start with encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and other collations of knowledge. Looking at these massive tomes one realises that there is so much to know. One realises that the known is not even a drop from the ocean of knowledge. Things, objects, events, and persons from the human past invite you to a conversation with them. When you respond to this invitation, you start talking with books. You have heard many truisms, proverbs, and sayings about how books are the best companions. To understand the drift of this message, you need to drown in a volume of such creations of human intellect. Indeed, books are the best companions. And as one does with a good companion, one needs to give time to them. Often, books are like the irritant catalyst introduced into the mother of pearl. Books bring irritant, disturbing, enlightening, informing, confusing, agitating, clarifying, catalyst of human knowledge. They create the pearl of wisdom within the reader. The humaneness of a human being is brought out by the pathos of a well-written story. Particularly, if the story touches on the myriad facets of human emotions. A biography, autobiography, or memoir immerses the reader’s heart in a grand vision of a great person. It inspires the reader to follow suit. From the philosophy shelves, many thinkers look at the visitor to the library. They expect an illuminating and scintillating conversation. The Sophists want to engage in polemical debates. Acharya Shankara tells that this world in its manifold names and forms is unreal. He reminds us that we are fools in not trying to understand the Reality. Gautama Buddha shares his wisdom of the path to freedom from suffering. Swami Vivekananda gives the clarion call to everyone to realise their innate divinity. His guru Sri Ramakrishna taught him this. It is better to celebrate the birthdays of these thinkers by talking with them through books.
Books are not a collection of ink and paper.
They are different personalities.
Roman history teaches us that even great empires fall. Indian Freedom Movement’s history tells the tale of many unsung heroes. In the French Revolution lies the lessons of mass awakening. Human beings’ evolution shows how recent they are. Information technology’s marvels fascinate us. Stories of galaxies intrigue us. Kalidasa and Shakespeare sing their captivating lyrics. The struggles of discoverers and inventors baffle us. Before visiting a library, you never knew that some subjects existed. Rocks have histories. Snakes have disciplines of research. There are birds and bees and the wisdom about them. There are even books about reading books! There are books about increasing your reading speed. There are books telling you the uselessness of books. There are books about making books.
We are living in uncertain times. The pandemic coronavirus disease covid-19 has given us a jolting shock. It has made us question the basic presumptions of our life and being. How dependent are we on other human beings? How dependent are we on technology? There are endless debates on the wisdom of lockdowns and physical distancing. Yes, it is better to call it that than ‘social distancing’. Social media has already brought social distancing. There are endless discussions on the effect on economy. But, very few seem to speak on the need for some soul-searching and contemplation. This is the time to reflect upon the human past. This is the time to ponder upon the understanding, struggles, and wisdom of our ancestors. This is a great time to get immersed in books.
One might object that reading distances from reality and makes you impractical. Reading books without interaction with people could make one like that. A person who works with people gets much better in dealing with them with the wisdom of people who lived before. With the knowledge of the failures of previous leaders, an administrator becomes better. A bad administrator does not learn lessons from history. The adage ‘history repeats itself’ is quite true. That is why it is important that we study and learn from history. That way we can avoid many mistakes.
A book is a journey. When one talks with a book she or he sets on a journey with that book. Like every journey, the journey of talking with a book has stops for refreshment. It has bumps, obstacles, reversing, full speed, slow speed, and traffic lights! Every book wants to tell something to the reader. Listening to that something and getting the crux of it is the secret of talking with books. It is an art to let one’s obsessions and identities melt away into the words of the book. It is a talent to let the book unfold its story. It is a greater skill to listen to that story without disturbing it. The reading should be without inserting one’s biases or leanings. It should be without interpreting the book in any particular manner. Listening to a book speak is listening to human past.
Every book tells us about its inspirations. One book inspires another. Follow the inspiration from one book to the other. Then, you would traverse the criss-cross of human knowledge. A book elaborates a thought. It gives the link from one thought to another. Thus, it creates a sequence of thought-images in your mind. This leads to a collage of human understanding. Talking with books makes us go into the depths of the nature surrounding us. It enables us to dive deep into the nature of our fellow human beings. And that is the reason why we need to talk with books: to understand other people.
You enjoy the company of a work of fiction when it plays scene after scene in front of the eyes of your mind. You enjoy the company of a book on science when it unravels mysteries after mysteries of nature. You enjoy a philosopher’s writing when it brings in new perspectives to your mind. You sit in a cosy spot inside your house or outside in a natural setting. You sip a choice beverage and pore through pages of dead wood. That gives a pleasurable knowledge. It is an experience unparalleled by any other human endeavour. Conversations with a book do not end. They can start over and again. A book that you finished a decade ago gives you a different light when read today.
We deny ourselves a great facet of the human world when we see a book only as number of pages bound between covers. Books are not a collection of ink and paper. They are not a combination of words. They are different personalities. Often, they are a cross section of human beings. They display a cross section of human understanding. Books are people and need appropriate treatment. Conversing with books makes us better human beings. Talking with books makes us rooted in humaneness. Why wait? Start a conversation with a book right now! You never know what you will listen.