To Read is to Fly

Holland House Library after the Blitz in 1940. From Manguel's A History of Reading.

Holland House Library after the Blitz in 1940. From Manguel's A History of Reading.

Being stuck at home with the flu has one major advantage: there is no impediment to reading as much as you like. The right place to begin this brief survey of the books next to my sickbed is Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading.

The Argentinian Manguel has poured all his love and erudition into this delicious account, with chapters such as Ordainers of the Universe, Stealing Books, Being Read To, and The Shape of the Book. I first read it years ago, and the story that stayed with me was the one about Cuban cigar factory workers who paid a "lector" to read to them as they rolled the tobacco leaves. Inevitably, as the popularity of lectors grew, the whole business began to seem subversive to the powers that be. The custom persisted anyway: The Count of Monte Cristo was such a favourite that in 1870 some workers wrote to Dumas to ask his permission to name one of their cigars after the hero.

Being sick lowers the threshold to cry. Kapka Kassabova's Border, A Journey to the Edge of Europe is travel and history writing at its best, and so moving that the hankies need to be kept close at hand. Border weaves together stories of cruelty and kindness, state-led terror and the wondrous mountains where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet. It has been one of the literary sensations of the last half a year, and for a good reason. By chance she was researching and writing in the region right at the time that the trickle of refugees from Syria was turning into a flood. This latest exodus continues a long history of forced repatriations, failed escapes over the iron curtain, repression, mayhem - and spells, honey, well-springs, dance and song.

"...if the mixing of people was the order of empires, and the 'unmixing of peoples' the order of nation-states, what's on the horizon? From the windy balcony of Gusto perched above the plains where East and West come together in a field of sunflowers, it seemed that what was on the horizon was a long column of refugees going east to west. Perhaps the insidious hybrid warfare of our times will have one upside: a new remixing of peoples. Or was the wine making me too optimistic?" 
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William Dalrymple, a Scottish author and historian who settled in India in the late 1980s is one of my favourite authors. Dragging myself from bed to sofa I read in an Indian magazine that his newest has now been published. Excellent news, since he can turn any subject into a riveting tale and a living, breathing visit to a lost place and time.

Since Kohinoor was not yet in my hands, I dug out Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. The idea is simple: he meets, travels and converses with various people - a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a prison warden from Kerala, a goat herd from Rajasthan, a devadasi - and lets them tell about their lives, faith, dreams and sufferings. It is written respectfully and without prejudice. He does not force his interpretations on their lives or on the readers' reflections, but anchors the whole in a sweeping historical and cultural context.

Hari Das, jailer, well-digger and theyyam artist:

'For three months of the year we are gods,' he says. 'Then in March, when the season ends, we pack away our costumes. And after that, at least in my case, it's back to jail.'

"To read is to fly". The title of this post is borrowed from FT's writer A.C. Grayling. And so it is: it doesn't matter that the last few days have been spent bodily in bed. Thanks to tireless and passionate authors, my spirit had the chance to make a grand tour in time and place.