A Home for Books
Original photo courtesy Tarika Wickremeratne
For as long as I can remember we have had books in the house. To my child’s eye it seemed that every room was spilling over with books. Books in bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and even bathroom. Most of the books belonged to my father – his study held his law books and his other books were distributed among the other rooms – Dictionaries (the love of his life), classics, spirituality, fiction, art etc. They were housed in various book cupboards, either inherited from his parents or bought from various furniture auctions held on Saturdays and that were common enough during the 60s and 70s. Most of them were of the art deco style, glass fronted wooden cupboards with an abstract wooden design against the glass, others were plain and serviceable. If the book cupboards had keys they were never locked. We were never told which books we could or couldn’t read and all I will say is that I was fairly precocious in my reading matter, having access to all his books. My mother was hooked on biographies and travel books and despite her limited range of reading it was she who chose books for us either from the British Council, when it was housed down Galle Road or the Public Library, before it became the Mayor’s office, which believe it or not were true and decent libraries in those days. A steady stream of Rumer Goddens, Daphne du Maurier, Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, came in and out with our weekly visits to the libraries. For birthdays we always got book vouchers and I still remember trotting off to Lake House in Fort, clutching my stack of vouchers and spending a delighted two hours choosing books. We were a family that was always reading and never far from books.
When I think back, I realize the book cupboards we had were never really adequate to house the books. They were too narrow or too short and just didn’t maximize space, but that was what everybody had those days and I didn’t think there was any option. Any cupboard that was glass fronted was requisitioned to become a book cupboard. During the insurgency of 1971 many people had to give up their guns and as a result their gun cupboards were sold on the market. At one point my father acquired one of those gun cabinets, which we still have, and that too became a book cupboard in lieu of any guns, that in any case we never had.
My sister and I shared a room and a book cupboard until I was fifteen. It was a large cupboard that had books on the top part which had shelves and toys in the bottom part which was just space. My father tells me that it was his book cupboard and toy cupboard as well. He still has it and it must easily be around 80 years old.
After some time, my mother gifted us a pretty book cupboard that she had bought at a Saturday sale. It had shelves without doors and the edge of each shelf had an undulating border. The shelves would fill up pretty quickly with books and once every so often a stack of books would be given to younger cousins, to make room for newer books. When I was a child, there was no real ownership of books. Books were precious and good books were rare. Thus, my sister and I shared all our books. We were taught to revere books, we never stepped on them and if I did accidentally kick a book that had been lying beside my bed I would fervently kiss it as if asking for forgiveness. Sometimes we lent books to friends but an unpleasant incident left me reluctant to do so. I had been given a wonderful illustrated Wizard of Oz for a birthday. One Sunday a friend who came to spend the day saw the book and asked to borrow it. I gave it albeit reluctantly. Every day from Monday to Friday the next week, I asked her for the book back. Each day the answer was: Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. Then came the weekend. The following Monday once again I asked her for the book and the horrifying answer was: I gave it back to you on Friday. Needless to say, I never saw the book again and am loathe to lend books ever since. Today, I am almost military in logging who has my books and who is an errant returner.
When I moved to my own room at fifteen, my parents furnished the room with an unimaginably huge desk and attached cupboard that had shelves for books. I have no idea where they lugged it from. It ran three quarters the length of my room and was dark and forbidding. But I loved it all the more because it was my very own and thus began my love affair with the furniture that house books.
I never knew what happened to it, but on one of my trips back home from Los Angeles, the desk and book rack had vanished. If I did ask, I have forgotten the reply. Today, my parents can barely remember the desk and book rack. It obviously made a greater impression on me. Likewise all our childhood books disappeared one by one and today I don’t have a single book that belonged to me in childhood.
When I was at university in Los Angeles, the accumulation of books began naturally enough. At the beginning of each semester a short trek to the bookstore would reward one with all the books necessary for the term. Unlike when I was in school, university gave me books that I actually wanted to read and more important wanted to keep. Thus with each year in university my heap of books began to grow. Initially my books were housed in little stacks on the floor or they squatted higgledy piggledy on one shelf in the living room for many years, which became two and three shelves as time passed.
From time to time books were culled. School books I didn’t want were sold back to the bookstore and other books were bought from used book shops close by. One bookshop had a wonderful system where they would buy your old books and pay you with book vouchers instead of cash. Of course it defeated the purpose if you wanted more space in your house but to book lovers it was like a drug. Burbank, close to where I lived in Glendale, had three wonderful used bookshops that I would frequent. They were staffed with book lovers who knew all the books they possessed and would inform you on new arrivals that may interest you. One day while browsing in the Sri Lankan section (yes believe it or not, in the 90s they did have a good Sri Lankan section) a book virtually fell onto my head. It was a first edition Lionel Wendt. I later gifted the book to Sam on our wedding day. Another time when my father was visiting me and we had many happy father- daughter moments in bookshops near and far, he found and bought a first edition Caves for a pittance, which he kindly gifted to me. But all this meant that my little collection of books began to grow exponentially. It meant that the small space I called home was crammed with books in every available space, in every possible room. But not a single one was housed in a book case. In fact I didn’t possess a book case or cupboard. My books spilled out of clothes cupboards, filing cupboards, fireplace mantels, and baskets. They lined walls and covered floors and occupied sofas and chairs. It could be maddening to everyone else but to me who loved books it was heaven.
One day that wonderful store called IKEA came to my neighbourhood. Soon I was the proud owner of a large pinewood do it yourself book case, that took one whole day to assemble but was quickly filled with 300 books and then some. Now that they had a home, I realized I needed some order to the books. Weekends were spent categorizing and arranging the books according to a system I devised: fiction, general sociology, women, Islam, Asian fiction etc. Each week the books were dusted and re-arranged which was a distracting process as I would begin to read a book half way through the exercise and forget the rest of the books. When I decided to leave Los Angeles permanently I wondered what I was going to do with my books. Eventually, I decided to ship them through the US postal service book rate direct to the library in Sri Lanka that I was gifting them to. The special ones I sent to my Sri Lankan home address, but they were very few. When I left Los Angeles for good, that was the last I saw of my book case.
Back in Sri Lanka I had the good fortune to work in an organization that loved their books too. The International Center of Ethnic Studies had and still has a fantastic librarian and library. Occupying an air-conditioned room lined with floor to ceiling book cupboards with an excellent filing system and weekly and monthly international newspapers, the library became my second home and the librarian my new best friend. He would order both fiction and non-fiction which brought me back to borrowing books once again, often reading books before they were even categorized and entered into the library system. Bookshops in Sri Lanka were still in the dark ages and my own collection of books was stagnating.
After marriage off I went to live in Geneva, armed with two carpets and one Chinese ginger jar (don’t ask) and not a single book. There, I was English book starved. I was limited to two meager short book racks, and one inadequate English language bookshop that carried expensive English language books which ensured that for a brief time, I didn’t buy books. The neighbourhood library had a paltry selection of English language books and I regressed, borrowing big coffee table books with large pictures of houses, carpets, art and other coffee table subjects and very little text, which in any case was in a foreign language and I found difficult to read. Other activities like walks by the lake, drives through vineyards and local festivities occupied my time, of course I wrote while in Geneva but my reading suffered. A visit to London brought a greedy twenty books and then it was a book drought once again.
When I moved back to Sri Lanka I began to collect books all over again. The process was slow, Sri Lankan bookshops had improved but not vastly but Sri Lankan books began to be popular and I found myself reading only Sri Lankan books for vast stretches of time. Whenever we travelled overseas, though rarely, we brought back books. People began to gift me books once again for birthdays and special occasions. And slowly the book collection began to grow.
Today, each time I walk into a bookshop, especially a large one like Borders or Kinokuniya, I begin to hyperventilate and feel dizzy. So many books, so many choices, so much reading that I have to do. I make lists and limit my purchases. I wait for the Makeens 30% off sale or the Galle Literary Festival to buy featured writers and the pile of books keeps mounting.
I had to wait fourteen years before I could be the proud owner of another bookcase that could house all my books. In the time between, my books were kept on warped and rickety book cases in my small apartment, housed in my parents’ book cupboards in their home and stuffed in cupboards that were donated to our office. When I had to look for a book that I knew I possessed but had forgotten where I had put, I would run between all three locations looking and re-looking until I found it. Just recently, I spent two days looking for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty that I eventually found in the office cupboard, that had previously been a friend’s clothes cupboard, and which was sandwiched between Vikram Chandra’s corpulent Sacred Games and Regi Siriwardena’s Literature and the Arts.
Quite a contrast to my father who would send my sister and me to look for a particular book with precise directions: Go to my study, the third book cupboard on the right hand side wall, second shelf from the top, eighth book from the left… He does it even now!
Eventually, I was forced to have a system for my books: Unread books, religious books, dictionaries, erotica and a signed copy of each of our publications were upstairs in our apartment. Older fiction and books on Islam were housed in the cupboard in my parents’ house. Newer fiction, Sri Lankan fiction and our publications were distributed among three book cupboards in our office. Coffee table books were put into a large blue metal trunk that doubled as a coffee table in our living room. Recipe books were put on a rack of shelves that straddle the kitchen and dining room and also housed 25 blank art canvases, ten cans of Thai beer, the weighing scale and all my prayer water that I kept for emergencies. There haven’t been many.
As each year passed and I acquired more and more books, I would long for a proper book cupboard. Actually, I craved, desired, lusted, yearned and hungered for proper book cases and cupboards. I designed them in my head, stared for many minutes at a state of the art book cupboard or rack in magazines and sometimes even had heavenly dreams of owning a house that was all study – lined with books from floor to ceiling, swank silver ladders that ran noiselessly on smooth gliders, had Bose speakers that played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, while I dressed in a flowing Armani like gown floated among my books, neatly categorized and ordered for my reading pleasure. Alas! The real world is less kind.
My hankering for book cupboards became an obsession. My friends did not know that as I visited their homes and houses I would look around to see where their books were kept. Soon, I recognized that my friends who were lawyers or worked in NGOs or at the university had the best designed book cupboards. One friend has a rather clever stack of boxes that line the four walls of a whole room. Each box is categorized according to genre and within that is alphabetized. Another friend has all her books in a cupboard and she has catalogued them according to arrival. If a book goes missing in between, the next book to arrive duly fills the missing space and it is entered into the log. It is almost as if, the missing book never existed. I didn’t think that would work for me, I would truly mourn any book that I lost. A third person had a gorgeous custom made book cupboard made with glass doors. Her books are alphabetized regardless of genre. Some had their book cupboards make out of teak, others of mahogany, those on a budget went for ginisapu, and then there was the king of woods – jak! Next, you had the aesthetics of the book cupboard. Natural or painted. Glass fronted or paneled. Tall or short. One door or two. On and on it went. But of course nothing could be done just as yet for my initial queries were soon squashed as I realized that I needed to save up for my book cupboards, they had become very expensive things.
End of last year my parents made me a generous cash gift for my birthday. At last I could afford a book cupboard. But now that the finances were sorted, it became all about the design. First, I contacted regular established furniture makers, most of whom tried to sell me overpriced slick looking cupboards that were meant for everything else but books.
Travelling back from Galle after the Literary Festival, I stopped at all the antique shops to look at their cupboards. In varying states of disrepair, I checked each and everyone of them critically and subjectively. They were of jak, teak, mahogany, calamander woods and were crockery cupboards, clothes cupboards, ornament cupboards but none were specifically book cupboards. It was a disaster. Those I could afford, I didn’t like, those I liked I couldn’t afford. That was that. I looked for a brief moment at MDF cupboards which were staggeringly almost as expensive as wood cupboards and I was outraged to be paying top rupee for squashed wood.
Finally, after much discussion, I decided if I was going to spend so much of money I would custom make the cupboards. First I had to decide on the space the cupboards would inhabit. After much measuring and debating and discussing, I decided that cupboards would be made to fit a little quirky alcove in the publishing house office. I called for quotations from various highly recommended furniture companies and carpenters. They were astonishingly expensive if it was in teak or mahogany and impossible if I wanted it out of kohomba. For yes, I had developed an idée fixe regarding my cupboards. They had to be of kohomba wood. I had been told that kohomba would keep insects away from my books and after growing up in a house where you would often open a book to find it richly decorated with the calling cards of silverfish, I wanted an insect proof book cupboard.
Just when it was becoming obvious that my book cupboards were yet another impossible dream Sampath came into my life. A causal comment about book cupboards to my contractor brought in a young long haired man who wore ill fitting jeans and a reluctant smile. He measured, he looked, he waggled his head and groaned when I told him about my choice of wood but he didn’t say no. A nail biting week later, I was told the wood was sourced. A nail biting minute later, I was told the cost. It was shockingly affordable. Not cheap, but happily within my budget.
One month later my kohomba custom made cupboards were delivered. Right through the assembly a stream of visitors admired, commented and gave advice on how the cupboards should be fitted. Even my father dropped by for a few minutes. One hitch, they had forgotten the handles. A quick scramble through the house delivered 8 mismatched ceramic knobs. Sampath was not happy but I prevailed and the knobs went on.
Then followed a happy week when I trotted through the various locations where my books were housed and brought them all to reside in the new book cupboard. Yesterday, my friend C came to visit. She found me pottering around the books re-arranging yet again. She asked me if I had a strategy. I elaborated: Sri Lankan fiction on one shelf; Sri Lankan authors living abroad and Sri Lankan non-fiction on another shelf; Books on Islam on one shelf; books on Muslim women on another shelf; poetry, short stories and anthologies on one shelf; memoirs, religion and travel on another shelf; short books on the two short shelves regardless of topic; Western fiction on one shelf; all other fiction on two shelves; too tall books that lie flat on two shelves; and a favourite books shelf. Fourteen shelves of heaven! (Erotica and signed copies of our publications still reside upstairs) At last my books have a home. Now, my father wants his own custom made kohomba book case too!
In this day and age, with houses getting smaller and space becoming an issue, with E-books being the rage in the West, and Kindles and i-pads common enough in Colombo, I begin to wonder the future of books and without books of what use would be book cupboards. It is a purely personal view but to me no sleek state of the art gadget, however easy it may be to store 300 books, have a back light that makes it easy to read, have the capacity to enlarge the font, be able to tuck it into your pocket, or carry it in your hand bag can make up for the pure pleasure of entering a bookshop filled with books, thumbing through prospective purchases, then coming home with your purchase, smelling the book, looking throughout your read at the cover and then after the book has been read, sliding it into its new home. Perhaps owning books and book-cupboards will soon be an archaic habit. But till that happens I will belong to that breed of dinosaur that thinks all books should have a home and it should be in a book cupboard of any shape, size or form.
Editors note: Ameena Hussein is an award winning writer. She was trained as a sociologist and is a publisher and fiction writer. She worked for a number of years at the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, Colombo. She is the co-founder of the Perera Hussein Publishing House, that was established in 2003 to enable and encourage talented South Asian fiction writers to gain exposure and recognition. In 2005 she attended the prestigious International Writers Program conducted by the University of Iowa. She was the editor of Nethra from 2004-2007. She lives in Sri Lanka.