As we cautiously emerged into the post-circuit-breaker phase of life with Covid, husband rushed to the gym and daughters planned outings with four of their closest friends. I went for a long-pending haircut and a much-needed massage, hoping these activities would help me look and feel better. But something was amiss. Life still didn’t feel normal. Until the library opened.
I didn’t have access to libraries while growing up in Mumbai. My school had a sparse, highly curated collection that was incapable of supplying the number or variety of books to cater to my voracious reading appetite. But reading materials were always within reach; daily newspapers, monthly editions of Reader’s Digest, and a random selection of magazines, some new, some dated, some left behind by visitors. I bartered books with friends. Occasionally I spent my pocket money on yellow, tattered copies of books sold in heaps on footpaths.
But the largest source of books spilled out of cheap, hole-in-the-wall shops with vast collections of comics and paperbacks, poky stores that doubled as libraries. For a minimal deposit, I could rent and return award-winning books and skim through racy novels. Books and rupees hastily exchanged across narrow counters in cramped spaces with zero ambience served as preludes to the thrilling reading encounters that followed.
The unpretentious store owner did not know the difference between high-brow literature and pulp fiction. Neither did I. This lack of sophistication enabled me to sample a wide range of books with equal interest, intrigued by a good story regardless of literary merit or author credentials.
It wasn’t until I lived in the US that I began to appreciate the blessings of well-stocked libraries. What I considered to be the best perk of living in a developed country was an ordinary entitlement that was assumed as their right by taxpayers! Reading for leisure became a top priority in the years that I lived there.
When I moved to Singapore, I was delighted to once again be surrounded by a network of libraries. Although the smaller branches were closer to home, I preferred Jurong Regional Library. With four floors of precisely labeled, accurately catalogued books arranged in neat rows, this modern building was book heaven. Desks lined the length of tall glass windows. Comfortable sofas in the enclosed “quiet reading area” provided a safe space to browse or drowse. And for a quick break or bite, a café was conveniently located at the entrance.
The well-stocked book racks were too tempting for my feeble will. Seeing my huge haul, my husband cheekily enquired if I was preparing for war.
Who knew then that a day would soon arrive when an invisible virus would make the world huddle indoors for months?
In response to the announcement of the circuit breaker, people flocked to supermarkets to stock up on food staples. I raced to the library.
When I ran out of physical books after the first month. I studied the bookshelves in my own home, filled with unread books purchased on a recommendation or a whim, gifts from friends, and legacies from family members. The books themselves, like the words in them, were gems hiding in plain sight, a treasure I may not have discovered had it not been for the constraints posed by this enforced seclusion. Later, I moved to ebooks and audiobooks.
The words of authors from different countries brought me new stories and ideas despite being marooned, reminding me of the words of Pulitzer-prize-winning author Anna Quindlen who said “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. ”
But a library is more than a well-organised warehouse for books. It is also a communal space for gathering, for learning. I missed the monthly writing workshops at Toa Payoh library and meet-the-author sessions at the Central library. Finally the libraries reopened.
I set out on a weekday afternoon with my large pile of ‘to be returned’ books to Jurong Regional. There were new procedures for entry. Safe check-in, of course, but also a colored sticker with instructions to exit in thirty minutes. Deserted desks and taped up sofas lined the tall glass windows. No youngsters with headphones staring at screens. No seniors scanning newspapers. No queue at the checkout kiosk. The entire floor was eerily silent. A library is meant to be quiet, but this silence was different.
Without the reassuring background buzz, it was no longer a social space. I felt a twinge of sadness. Not just for the occasional big ticket activities that I had cancelled or deferred, but for the small things that I had always taken for granted. When was the last time I had seen the face of a stranger without a mask, or shared a cup of coffee with office colleagues?
Life and change are synonymous. Sometimes we choose change and other times, it is thrust upon us. I thought back to all the ways in which my book consumption habits had changed over the years. From cheap paperbacks in roadside stalls to eclectic collections in elegant libraries, from physical books to ebooks and audiobooks, I had adapted to change pretty well.
For the foreseeable future, I was stuck on a tiny island. But I had access to the library. I scanned my books with the NLB phone app and stepped out. In my hand was a heavy bag and behind my mask, a big smile.
Originally published in Straits Times, Singapore.