Monday, 31 August 2009
Recently, I bought myself an iPhone. Having already possessed a motley collection of 21st-century digital gadgets, others would be forgiven for thinking me self-indulgent or, like most Jakartans, plain consumerist. But I do have some excuse that should absolve me from charges of profligacy.
When I was very small, my father’s study was my favorite place to play, and when he was not around I would go through his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to look for books with pictures in them so I could surreptitiously cut them out and paste them in my scrapbook. (My father’s copies of The Reader’s Digest were my regular victims of violation as they were full of interesting looking cartoons that appealed to my childish eyes.)
Fortunately, as I grew older my passion for books took on a less destructive form, especially since my mother, who was a librarian, would bring home children’s books with pictures in them, though mostly in a language that I couldn’t understand. I learned that books were to be read and appreciated, not defaced by scribbles from my uncouth hand.
On the special occasions that she took me to work, I would wander around in awe, not only at the huge number of books in the room, but because on top of that I had to be quiet as a mouse. The library became a hallowed place for me — a place where people sat quietly perusing books or moved about with great deference.
My first prized possession was in the form of a library card from the local library in North London, where my family was living. With this little card bearing my name, I was allowed to take out a handful of books of my choice for a couple of weeks and return them in the same condition.
The Saturday trip to the local library became the highlight of my weekend, and I would spend hours agonizing over which books to borrow. I devoured practically everything that came in my path. From Br’er Rabbit to Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, E. Nesbitt and Laura Ingalls Wilder, then onto the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and a bunch of silly romantic novels with forgettable titles as I grew older.
At the university, the library was no longer just a source of entertainment. It became my source of knowledge and the center of my life as a student whose weekly reading list ran into a few A4-sized pages. You’d have to be quick to grab your mandatory textbooks from the library, as they would fly off the shelf quicker than you could say “Dostoyevsky.”
Being back in Indonesia, the library and all its pleasures ceased to exist for me. In Jakarta, I hardly know of any convenient local library, the nearest reading spot being the bookstores where books cost you an arm and a leg. I cannot remember the last time I was able to gaze up and down rows of bookshelves looking for the works of my favorite authors or check out an armful of hardbacks that would be prohibitively expensive were I to pay for them. Until, that is, I got hold of that sleek, elegant, mouth-wateringly coveted thing of beauty with the apple logo on it, the iPhone.
Now, as you probably know, this gadget has a lot of really cool applications you can download from the Internet. One of them is an electronic reader that allows you to download digital books that you can read directly from the phone. (You can even “turn” the pages with your finger, just like a real book).
Not only that, you can create your own library by downloading for free or for next to nothing practically any book you can think of (or, as in my case, have always wanted to read but haven’t had the space to keep them).
Connecting to my favorite site, Project Gutenberg, for instance, allows me access to more than 25,000 books for absolutely nothing. Imagine the size of the library if they were in printed form.
Already on my bookshelf are some of the most popular books in the world, including “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” everything by Charles Dickens, the sayings of Confucius and all those titles that brought me back to my student days. The difference is that I can fit this library into the palm of my hand.
The other difference is that I no longer have the time to read them.
(Desi Anwar: first published in The Jakarta Globe)