That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet. - Jhumpa Lahiri
When I started reading The Devil in the White City, I realised that just a couple of weeks earlier I had spent a few days in exactly the same era — the end of the 19th century. Just that it is Chicago this time while earlier it was Panama when I was reading The Path Between the Seas. While the French were struggling to build a canal in Panama, people in Chicago were getting ready to host the World Fair and trying to outdo the French who had hosted one earlier in Paris where the Eiffel Tower was showcased. The same sense of excitement for building something new and big existed in both cases — an extremely difficult canal to build in one while the Ferris wheel in another — and both comparing and borrowing from the existing mega-structures such as the Eiffel Tower and the Central Park in New York. The fear of diseases was equally prominent on the people’s mind in both places.
The journey with books can take you to places you have never seen, and at times when you didn’t exist or wouldn’t exist. A journey taking you long distances in the future or in the past.
Exactly like the wormholes that allow travel in space and time.
How easy or hard it is to get in and out of these wormholes defines how good the book is. There are some that are really hard to get into, but harder to get out. These are the ones that give you a literary hangover. But you never really get out completely. You always carry some bits of this journey with you for the rest of your life.
Selecting a book is much more than selecting an author or genre. It’s like picking up a place on the map when you are deciding where to go next. Just that here you also get to choose the time, weather, mood and companions!
When I am done with the history of the World Fair in 1893 and want a change in time while still in Chicago, I will enter the dystopian Chicago world of Beatrice Prior again. Frankly, it would be like getting off the highway and driving on country roads, but who cares as long as I am still exploring the city in a different light. If I get tired of the destruction of structures that took men years of hard work to build, I would take a calm and poetic cloud ride with Murakimi into the mountains of Hokkaido and count sheep on the way. When I am rejuvenated and want to meet some real people, I would walk the streets of Kabul with Khaled Hosseini. When I have seen a fair amount of suffering, I would go on a hike with Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail.
Books create a parallel universe that exists alongside your real world for a few days. And it’s not just about exploring different places and times. You get to do things that in the real world you may never be able to. One day you could be investigating a murder in the English countryside with Hercule Poirot, and on another day you could be arguing a case in front of jury in the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi. Sipping a cup of afternoon tea with Bilbo Baggins in the Shire, or scared to your wits sitting alone in a room inside the Bran Castle.
If anyone can chronicle their journey using these wormholes while traversing through the galaxy of books, I would happily use that as a guide when I am hitchhiking next.
from the pages of The Hindu, 13 December 2016