It was Saul Bellow who said that people can lose their lives in libraries and ought to be warned before they entered one. As someone who did lose her life in the library down the road in my childhood, I can only agree. It is an enchantment never to be shaken off. A visit to a government-funded public library in Singapore, recently refurbished, meticulously planned, beautifully designed (turned me green with envy, if truth be told), made me think of the place of libraries, of places where knowledge was made available to everyone. As with Germaine Greer and anyone else who loves books, I too feel that ‘In any library in the world I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.’ And this was a library to make anyone feel at home. It was with great reluctance that my companions and I left the library which we had accidentally entered. Our hands were itching to pick up the books and sit in one of the spaces provided and just read to our hearts’ content. But the demands of the world outside could not be denied that day.
You see, this library was well-funded by the Singapore Government. It was free. No one demanded money for a membership, a library card or an identity card. All these were needed only if you wanted to check out books. If you had the time and the inclination, you could wander in, pick up a book, sit on chairs, steps, cushioned seats, carpeted areas, bare floor and just read. It was clean, full of light, and so welcoming. The children’s books were placed where they could reach them without the help of adults and were not stacked with only spines showing, but placed with their backs to the walls, visible, attractive, accessible. I found small children curled up all over the steps inside the building with picture books and small books, unchecked and undisturbed by adults and thought nothing much could be wrong with a world where such things happened. Or, perhaps, it is because there is much wrong with the world, that this sight, this free access to knowledge being enjoyed by people of all ages, was so important.
It is not without reason that conquerors ransacked and burnt the libraries of the nations they conquered. They knew that they could conquer everything other than ideas and the repositories of these ideas were the libraries. Even now, one hears of such acts of vandalism by people who have gained control over some territory. Of course, any tyrant of whatever colour rightly fears the knowledge of the conquered people more than he fears their military might or political rebellion. After all, it is from reading, from acquisition of knowledge by one’s own self, rather than through the agency of a teacher, that self-awareness and awareness of the world around is most easily acquired.
If only such places could be made available to all children in the country, we may not have to worry so much about falling standards in education and lack of knowledge in school children. I don’t really know who taught me my first alphabets and whether there was, probably there was, a formal initiation into the reading and writing. But I cannot remember a time when letters did not take on meanings. I have found when I tried to teach children even of high school classes that the form of the letter, its sound and its meaning were all disconnected for them. If they read, if books came to be of interest to them, if reading became fun, a process of discovery rather than a chore, such a disconnect would not exist. Reading would not only acquaint them with letters, ideas and information, it would also set their imagination free and let them dream, let them see the whole world as a place they could explore, feel at home in.
Maybe a movement to set up accessible libraries with interesting books, without too much stress of suitability (it is more fun to read books in the original even if you stumble over words, than to read badly compiled, shortened versions) in schools could be a project that the government, educational institutions, other institutions that are involved in education in some way, could take up and implement. Contributions of books and time from interested people could make this viable. A dream, true, but from dreams comes reality.