Five years of my schooling life were spent in Bombay at my uncle’s, so that I could get a better education in Bombay. There were other reasons too, but that is for another blog. I was put up in St. Gregorios High School, and those are one of my most memorable times I have had. One of the two life changing classes that I had over there was Library. Like all other subjects, we had a ‘Library’ class once per week. During this period we were to sit in the library, and return the book we had previously issued so that another one of our choice could be issued to us. Quite simple actually.
I was indifferent to reading books before that, and didn’t bother much except for the text books or the mandatory book we had to issue every week. Our librarian saw this, and I will be ever so thankful that she started recommending books. It started with ‘Great Illustrated Classics’, which are classic books like Oliver Twist, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Frankenstein, Black Beauty, Alice in wonderland and so on. These have a large font print one side and an illustration on the other. They soon had my attention. Once I had exhausted the entire series, I was told to select other books myself. When our names were called, we were encouraged to spend time in front of the books, read their jackets and pick one that we liked.
As we got into higher classes (standard 6 and above, I think) the books we could choose from increased to include Goosebumps, and Shivers. They were such a wonderful read. However the incident that made me passionate about reading took place soon. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were popular in our school, and the library had a huge collection. Generally boys read Hardy Boys, and girls read Nancy Drew. As part of a bet I had to take up Nancy Drew. The librarian saw my sheepish look when I asked for a Nancy Drew, and asked me what was going on. When I explained, she just laughed and told me that for a good book, it doesn’t matter if the characters were male or female. She put me at ease and I started with ‘Nancy Drew and the secret of the slumber party’. I was hooked. I was now issuing books by the day instead of the regular weekly Library period. Every day, I would come back early from the evening games and finish my studies so that I could read Nancy Drew. The next day I would finish lunch quickly so that I could exchange the book for another.
And then Harry Potter happened. My friends were already into it. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is book 3 of the series was already out. I started with that, worked back to book 1 and then read the lot in sequence. I was hooked. We would spend our day discussing the book, challenging each other with trivia questions, or who could remember more spells. Newspapers were hounded for any news of the release dates of the next book. Since the school library would get limited copies of the book, we had a waiting list which went across classes. The list was public, and it was common knowledge as to who was reading the book and the next person in waiting would be after them to read it faster. We were playing a Harry Potter Trivia session in the bus, when we had gone to Bangalore for an interschool event. (We had gone by train, and the bus was for travel within Bangalore.) The principal happened to hear us go at it, and told us that if read our syllabus books with even fifth of this much devotion we would all be getting full marks.
We were encouraged to write reviews for the books we read, and the better of the lot were put up in the bulletin board. It was not an official contest or event, but we felt a pang of pride if our review was put up on the library bulletin board. We had classes only weekdays, but were allowed to come to the school library and read periodicals, Nat Geo, encyclopedias and other books that were not issued to be taken home.
As I grew up, many people told me that Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are two books which are a must read. When I asked them why, nobody could give me a satisfactory answer but just said that these were mind blowing books. Why and how the books did blew their minds, they didn’t know. Their minds were blown because they were told that was the reaction they were supposed to have. When I was doing my internship at General Motors (where I work now), my mentor told me that I remind him of Howard Roark. When I asked who, he told me about the Fountainhead and offered to loan me his copy. I said no. With the limited pocket money I had, I purchased a second hand copy of it for myself.
Reading that book for the first time had been an interesting experience. There were times I was nodding in agreement at what I read, there were lines which I had said myself. Same in essence, and a little different in the choice of word. There were also things that I only hoped I had the courage to do should the time came. Quite naturally Ayn Rand had my interest and I read Atlas Shrugged as well. It was an experience similar to Fountainhead, only more profound. Soon I had a job, so I ended up with all of her books that I could find. If you do want to read her fiction works, then read them in order of Anthem, We the living, Fountainhead, and finally Atlas Shrugged. It makes for an interesting study in not only the objectivist philosophy, but also in Rand as a writer. With each book you can see how her characters evolve, how the plot has more depth, and how the plot arcs reach out and meet each other.
Sometime last year, I was re-reading Atlas Shrugged. I had a strong reaction and felt like hurling the book across the room. I was going through a particularly difficult time, and was reading how the characters were dealing with their own lives in the book. Part of me thought that how could they manage to hold through through much tougher things when they only had themselves. The idea that they’re fictional characters and not real also came to me, at which I was about to throw the book. However I also thought that it was not who I was, and the characters were the kind I always wanted to be. Even before I had read or even knew of the book. Better sense prevailed.
As practice, we never called the librarian in school by name or as a librarian. She was to be conferred with as much respect as we gave our class teachers. Which is why we addressed her as ‘Ma’am’. In retrospect she has taught me as much, if not more, as any other teacher I have ever had. It is she who gave me the love for reading.