x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

You can't judge a book by looking at its reader

All book readers know how sensitive - even prickly - we become about the books we read, or are seen reading.

"It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it." - Oscar Wilde This, I have to admit, is one of my favourite quotations, and by one of my favourite authors, too. All book readers know how sensitive - even prickly - we become about the books we read, or are seen reading. I recall how defensive I once became over a book found on my bookshelf by a guest staying over at my place.

"It was given to me as a present, I didn't pick it," I found myself saying. It was a book about Napoleon, and it was given to me by one of my high-school teachers who believed that Bonaparte's story would be an inspiration to me. "It proves that you can do anything if you believe in yourself," were her words as she handed me the book. It was very sweet of her, but the truth is that it was the kind of book I would never have chosen myself. I don't even remember now why I felt so defensive about it, but it probably had something to do with me not wanting to appear "geeky". I was a teenager then: enough said. I finally got round to reading the book last year on a train journey in Europe and it actually triggered conversation with some of the other passengers.

I began thinking about why we are so touchy about our books, and why we don't like people making judgments about us based on what we have on our bookshelves - or even the ones we are seen browsing through at the book shop - after something that happened in a book store in Abu Dhabi the other day. I was browsing the shelves when I "caught" a young Emirati man buying several romantic novels. I smiled and teased him about his books, and he blushed as he said: "No, no, I never read these. They are for my wife." A likely story - but I would have come up with something similar myself if I had just been caught with six romantic novels.

The reverse of being embarrassed by a book is that sense of connection you feel when you see a stranger reading one of your own favourites. I am sure you have given the person a second look, or even started a conversation with them. At the risk of sounding girlie, I have to admit to having a particularly soft spot for Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Tens years on, my former classmates and I - who have remained in touch despite living on different continents - make references to the novel and even use some of its expressions in our daily lives. Wherever I travel, I take my school copy and revisit the lines I underlined and the pages I marked. You can rediscover yourself through the books you collect.

There is something comforting about looking at bookshelves filled with volumes that you have read. And there is no feeling worse than when the shelves are full and you have to throw some of the books out. Perhaps it is because reading actually isn't a passive activity: you have to put a considerable amount of yourself into it - you have to visualise the main characters, hear their voices, picture the scenes. It's why seeing the film of the book is always disappointing; it can never be as vivid as your own imagination.

And once you've done all that, it's difficult to simply discard the book, or give it to someone else. You want to keep it. I saw Oprah talking about the "Kindle", the digital book launched by Amazon in 2007, which lets you download books via the internet. I was horrified. It might save paper and reduces the weight of carrying books, but there is nothing that can compare with an old book; the feel, the smell, and the markings left behind by its previous owners. I found one of my father's school books, Tolstoy's classic War and Peace, and I cherish it for it is packed with scrawled comments made by a very much younger Mr Ghazal.

Books, in their various forms, are one of the oldest forms of both entertainment and education. They have been through many evolutions over the centuries - from scrolls, to handwritten, to printed, to paperbacks - and I guess we'll get used to digital books in time, though I don't think they will ever compete with the musty, slightly yellowing volumes on my shelves. A particular book I cherish is one I bought for a mere three riyals (Dhs3), that was smuggled into school by a friend of mine in her pink "My little Pony" lunch box. I kept the book about a princess and her friend the lion safe until I reached home. I gave up a chocolate bar for that book.

There is an old Arabic proverb that sums up my feelings totally: "He who lends a book is an idiot and He who returns the book is more of an idiot." But perhaps, the essence of book reading culture is best captured by the words of one wise leader: "Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all." - Abraham Lincoln rghazal@thenational.ae