Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sumanth Prabhaker, On Reading

"I know I must have read at least some books when I was little, because the public library in our city had really good air conditioning during the summers, so we were there all the time. My parents would sit in adjacent armchairs, reading periodicals and different newspapers, and my brother and I would be told to wander around until it was time for lunch. I know I read a lot because there wasn't much else to do in the library, at the time, and I know I loved many of those books, but I have very few memories of actually reading -- actually going up to a shelf and selecting something and finding a clean place to sit and read. It's really only the stories that I remember, like I just at certain points added their content to my brain.

When I remember first being very conscious of the act of reading were the few times my parents took me to visit their parents in India. Down the road from my father's parents' house was a little lending library made of scrap aluminum siding, three walls and a kind of roof, and the owner sat outside on a wooden stool. My father, a stranger to jetlag, would get up early during these trips and eat idlis at the table with his parents while my mother got herself out of bed, and my brother and I would walk down the dirt road and see what was to be had at the lending library that day. You could probably fit three full-sized people in there if they all stood facing the same direction. I don't know how this can be true, but I remember using empty Coke bottles in some kind of transaction for the books I got. I remember getting these books and taking them back to the house with me and I remember reading them way up close to the electric fan, which my grandparents brought out specially for me during these visits: the Famous Five and Secret Seven, Asterix and Obelix, and as much Tintin as my arms could carry.

Before they were collected in the hardcover editions seen in most bookstores now, Tintin comics were oversized and thin and a little unwieldy to hold; they were always there, on the walk back to my grandparents' house, and spread out on the carpet before me. You had to hold them with both hands to get a good view of the page, and the layout of the panels defied the easier left-to-right reading of the books I kept busy with at my hometown library. They were my favorite things. During the schoolyear, my father sometimes traveled to India on his own, and Tintin was part of what made it so exciting and dramatic for me when he returned home -- he would open his big suitcase on the floor and make separate piles of the treats he'd brought back for each of us, and at some point there would be a bright new comic for me, buried beneath some shirts. For a while it seemed to me that there was no other way to access these stories than by flying across the world and exchanging currencies.

The cities in India all have new names now, and the lending library has since shut down or moved, and the whole Herge library can be purchased online and often locally. I still prefer Tintin comics to pretty much everything else, but I think I was very lucky to have been introduced to them in this particular way, with the dirt road and possible Coke bottles. They were books that required work both to get and to consume, which made the story of reading them important to the story within them, or maybe the other way around."

Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press, a non-profit publisher of individually bound short stories and novella-length booklets that donates its proceeds to charitable organizations selected by the authors. His novella A Mere Pittance was among the inaugural titles to be released last winter, benefiting Helping Hands, a program that trains capuchin monkeys to become live-in helpers to people with disabilities. For more information, visit Madras Press here.}

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this account of reading :) I had not read TinTin until I was in college and I was dating an animation buff who read TinTin comics. We still have an issue but I wonder how hard they are to find now?

    Your publishing company sounds wonderful as well :)