I was recently entrusted with finding new homes for a large personal collection of books, and a more modest one belonging to two Parsi families. Although I knew neither of the families personally, going through their books I felt I got to know them. The first one is a doctor, with a deep interest in politics, history, literature, travel and music. The other one is an avid reader of historical fiction, including wartime escapades and colourful Raj tales. Personal libraries can be like a diary of one’s life. Serious collectors usually start in their teenage years, with a few well-thumbed books, that grow into larger collections, reflecting the collector’s changing interests as life unfolds.

One cannot but feel an almost overwhelming sadness when libraries of deceased people are fragmented, however practical or altruistic the reasons may be. Perhaps one should think of it as spreading the ashes of the dead to become part of new lives, new inspirations and new collections.

Libraries have a history as old as the invention of writing, the first being preserved clay tablets of Ugarit in Syria and ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq. But along with state libraries, that existed in every civilisation, scholars developed personal libraries.

The personal libraries of Aristotle and Plato were accessible to their students. Fatima El-Fihriya’s al-Qarawiyyan library in Fez is the world’s oldest continuously working library. Emperor Humayun had his own library in Sher Mandal. The largest personal library in Pakistan is said to be the Mansur Jhandir Library in a small town in Punjab.

The most unexpected people have maintained large personal libraries: designer Karl Lagerfeld’s 300,000-volume library is legendary and pop musician Michael Jackson was an avid reader with an extensive personal library.

While the publication and reading of books has remained high, there has been a dramatic drop in visitors to public libraries. Perhaps the slow process of checking out library books is at odds with the fast pace of life and access to books on Kindle allows people to read on the move.

The value of a library is not just its books but as “place” — an almost magical space of unexplored possibilities and of silent congregation.

The entrance to the library of Ramses II, had “Healing place of the soul” inscribed above it. Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins suggests that libraries should adapt to the changing nature of public spaces, which are increasingly becoming event-based, with lectures, debates, readings, plays, musical events and coffee shops. Frere Hall, one of Karachi’s most successful public spaces, is a good example of a space that combined events and reading rooms.

Reading rooms developed in the late 19th century, were intended to allow access to knowledge to those who could not afford to buy books. Karachi had a number of well-attended reading rooms and a few still exist today. There is still a romance associated with libraries: Hogwarts library, the Star Wars’ Jedi libraries, The Abbey library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and the darker image of the burning of books in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, where people memorised books to keep them alive.

Book shelves have taken on a new importance as the visual backdrop for online meetings necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, earning the sobriquet of “shelfies.” A two-day conference was organised by the History of Books and Reading (HOBAR) research collaboration based in the Department of English & Creative Writing, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) in England on ‘Bookshelves in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic.’

Websites advise on bookshelf décor to achieve what The New York Times calls, the “Credibility Bookcase.” A UK minister faced criticism from the public for having a book on his shelf by Holocaust-denier David Irvine. Noor Sobers-Khan made a point of using an empty bookshelf as a background to her online meetings.

As journalist Jerry Davich says, “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you may be able to better judge someone by their book collection.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 20th, 2020

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