This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on September 1, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
I work at a college. One morning talking books with a friend, I realize that although I read a lot of crime fiction – set everywhere from Laos to Iceland – I have yet to read Dashiell Hammett, the master of American noir. At lunch, I stop by the library and pick up Hammett’s Complete Novels. Within a week I devour three, including The Maltese Falcon. When the next reading whim arrives, satisfying it might be just as simple.
I appreciate my access to libraries. It’s easy to take for granted. Life reminds otherwise.
When I first came here, back in 1972, to begin college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, what thrilled me most was discovering the university library. I couldn’t afford to purchase books, but who needed to buy when there was a building filled with treasure a few blocks away? I went there for news – updates from Bangladesh were hard to come by and I eagerly waited for months-old periodicals from Asia. Homeward I returned with books.
Until then what had been my experience with libraries?
At St Joseph’s school, we were lucky to have one even if the books were discards donated by the public library in Akron, Ohio. The selection was limited, but for a teenager it was a delight to read The Hardy Boys or Tom Swift series. Science and mystery and adventure. There were also books about making things – enchanting the tinkerer in me. Once I developed traveling legs – via bicycle wheels – I could reach the British Council and the U.S. Information Service. They carried a wider selection, including contemporary titles.
Many books I read for pleasure. Others, and not just library acquisitions, fed into shaping my approach to the world. In our teens, as we rush towards adulthood, we often read not just for enjoyment but also to develop philosophies of life. For me, that meant sampling Bertrand Russell’s skepticism, Tagore’s educational thinking, and doses of left-wing ideas from British socialism and the American New Left.
After the war, feeling far from home in Oklahoma, and not quite sure how to relate to the quietude around me, the library became my refuge. Its open stacks allowed me to traipse from history to philosophy to biography. In the year after the war, I don’t remember reading much fiction. In those ‘tough’ times, somewhere in my mind I probably thought fiction was not relevant.
The library led me towards a different America. Emma Goldman, the early 20th century anarchist, introduced me to the labor movement. From Peter Matthiessen I learned of the California farm workers movement. Though still a skeptic I read theology; I was trying to make sense of a world turned over by the cruelty of war. I looked up the teachings of the Buddha; I found my way to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Catholics of a kind I never encountered at St Joseph’s. More than others, the French existentialists drew me in. I don’t know how well I understood their complicated writings – I learned to accept that the world could be brutally random in distributing tragedy but a person still had to find one’s way to a life of commitment.
There would be other libraries and books in later years, but in the early 90s, my reading shifted back to fiction. Through the world of make-believe, I gained insight into how humans think, feel, and live around the globe. In hindsight I see that it prepared me to begin writing fiction myself.
On a train returning to Detroit from Chicago, I sat next to a black literature student who threw out names of writers I had never heard of: Buchi Emecheta, Maryse Condé, Jamaica Kincaid. Women from Africa and the Caribbean. I made a date with the Detroit Public Library which had an extensive global collection. One of the joys of open stacks is what you discover next to what you might be looking for. Searching for Amitav Ghosh, I discovered Zulfikar Ghose who was born in Sialkot but whose novels are set in Latin America.
Fast forward to 2006 when I moved to Dhaka for several years. Some books I brought with me, others I acquired at Nilkhet, Aziz Market, or Boi Mela. I explored local libraries. Some neighborhoods had shops lending popular fiction. A mobile library from Bishwa Shahityo Kendra sometimes stopped near my building. The Central Public Library’s collections were sadly dated. The British Council had vastly reduced the bookshelves I remembered from my teens. The American Center was behind too many walls.
One Sunday morning, I opened Prothom Alo’s “Dhakae Thaki” back page. I was intrigued to learn that the Dhaka City Corporation had a network of 23 neighborhood libraries. As I read the article by Millat Hossain and Obaidur Rahman Masum, I wanted to cry.
When they went looking for these libraries, they discovered that eighteen didn’t exist or were closed or ‘provisioned’ for other purposes. In two cases, the buildings carried foundation stones about libraries inaugurated by the Mayor but no libraries had in fact been built. Five were occupied by the RAB or the army.
Only five were operational – barely. Two had a smattering of books and newspapers, the others had one or the other. In one instance, books were caged in locked cabinets.
I do not expect libraries in a developing country like Bangladesh to be stocked like even the budget-strapped public libraries in the U.S. But what does it say about a capital city that allocates budgets for libraries but in fact only installs signboards? What does this say about Bangladesh as a modern state?
We sing the glories of Rabindranath and Nazrul, we hold a book fair frequented by multitudes, we have writers who, despite little reward, persist in writing prose and poetry. Yet we cannot make books accessible to those who cannot afford private collections.
Libraries are not places where visitors magically become lovers of literature, filled with wisdom. What they can do is ensure that those who enter will find material to read. Some will read for pleasure, others will read to figure out who they are or seek practical knowledge. A few may become writers.
Those without money should be able to gain access to books – a society that wants to be democratic must provide this. Otherwise, put the big words away and just tell the truth: books are meant for the elite few.
I am fortunate that throughout my life there have been libraries around me, helping me become who I am. I wish it was true for everyone.