As important as food?

If asked to list the necessities of life, invariably it’s food and shelter that vie for the top spot. But physical needs are not the only needs. After all, we are a thinking animal and the mind needs sustenance as much as the body. In very dire circumstances, in times of stress or even just needing comfort at the end of an exhausting day, physical refuge is not alone sufficient; the mind too needs a refuge.

As readers we totally understand this and therefore an article in the newspaper about a bookstore themed hotel in Tokyo called Book and Bed made perfect sense to us. Normally the idea of those little capsule hotels makes one hyperventilate with claustrophobia at the mere thought.  But the thought of bunking down after a hectic day in a large city behind a bookshelf and with a book, somehow feels cozy and comforting. 

One of the most interesting human stories we read last year was about a secret library in the Damascus suburb of Darraya. In the midst of all the danger, bombing and fighting a bunch of students had gone around the city collecting undamaged books from bombed out sites and kept them at an underground location for others to freely access. The deputy librarian was 14 years old! Children and students, at great risk to themselves would make their way to the library to borrow books or just to sit and read while the world around them was going to hell. Those who had been interviewed felt that the soul needs books like the body needs food. It kind of reminded us of Marcus Zusak’s book The Book Thief, about a little girl in Nazi Germany who went around stealing and rescuing books from being burnt by the authorities. There is comfort in absorbing oneself in a book when all else is devoid of hope. 

In a world that is rapidly changing around us with so many points of friction and walls being put up, one can always turn to books for sanity, for enlightenment, for the beauty to be found in words, for a different point of view. Or to just take us to a different world for some time and shut out this one. Lord Macaulay’s poem Lines Written in August had the spirit of literature appropriately saying:

‘I brought the wise and brave of ancient days

To cheer the cell where Raleigh pined alone: 

I lighted Milton’s darkness with my blaze

Of the bright ranks that guard the eternal throne. ‘ 

When on restless night dawns cheerless morrow

When weary soul and wasting body pine

Thine am I still, in danger, sickness, sorrow,

In conflict, obloquy, want, exile,thine.

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