Going by statements made by a judge of the Bombay High Court recently, it would seem that your bookshelf can and will be used against you. Justice Sarang Kotwal in a sedition case, against a well known activist, apparently asked why he had War and Peace – “a book about a war in another country” – on his bookshelf?
To some degree hilarity ensued in the twitterverse but the reading public in general was horrified because such statements imply a turn towards a nightmarish dystopian future. After all War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a celebrated literary work and is recommended reading in schools and colleges across the world. What was even more frightening was that no one doubted that such a statement could have been made. Since it is not the fashion of the day to read, people don’t expect judges, lawyers and investigating authorities to be aware of literature. After all, writers like Tolstoy are the food for thought only of the literati. Surely it is a sign of the times that people are willing to believe the worst in a situation and not question or try to verify what has actually transpired. Since the judge’s statement was reported, garbled clarifications have been made that he was not actually referring to Tolstoy’s book but some other book with a similar title. No one knows what the truth of the matter is because no one is actually willing to clearly state what had happened. Why bother? It’s easier to just make stuff up.
That having been said, the situation does raise the question as to whether our bookshelves actually represent our minds? After all, War and Peace is also about peace but what does one do if only the war in the title is emphasised? What about the Ramayana? That too is about a war in another country. Enid Blyton wrote inflammatory books about elves, witches and menacing little fairies harassing children. Let’s not even talk about the brothers Grimm with their stories full of nasty, evil characters. Harry Potter has been accused in the past of being a satanist. Jane Austen is subversive with her books being full of outspoken women characters. A Tale of Two Cities is about the French Revolution and therefore revolutionary. To Kill a Mockingbird must obviously be about killing defenceless wild life and therefore against the environment. Agatha Christie is all about crime, murder and poisons and we all have at least a few of her books on our shelves. What about a crime fiction writers researching different methods of killing? Can one imagine the kinds of books they might have on their shelves?
Anything can be contorted to suit an argument by people who do not read. But a reader knows that each reader reads differently. Readers understand that the beauty of reading is that we all read the same book but take away different things from it, sometimes things that the author may not have intended. A story, well written, well plotted, with well fleshed out characters and a satisfying ending is all that one looks for in any fiction. The philosophy espoused by the characters is not necessarily what one reads a book for. Ultimately all successful books are about humanity and have to touch the reader on some level. Sometimes we even pick up books, which may be completely contrary to the way we actually think, just to understand a point of view. But that doesn’t mean we convert to that point of view. So the title does not define the book and the book shelf most certainly does not define the reader.
We were going to have a photo of our bookshelves at the head of this post but decided against it as it would be revealing and may be held against us. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 anyone?