A room without a book is like a body without a soul

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Alfred Russel Wallace. — Photo from Wikimedia Commons/London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company

SOME months ago, a visiting friend of some junior years and I found ourselves standing together in my modest library. We both stood in silence contemplating the huge number of books on display.

“Have you read any of these?” he asked, pulling a random tome from its position.

“Of course!” I replied, pushing the book back neatly into its rightful place.

“Really?” There was a look of doubt evident on his face.

“Really!” I retorted. “Why would one buy a book if they don’t intend to read it?”

Our conversation moved on to other things and we soon parted but his words resonated within me as I wondered just how many books go unread.

My ‘library’, as I like to call it, is simply a room within my house but to me it is a magical place. A place where I can retreat after a long day when I find myself in need of a distraction. Perhaps today I will visit old Singapore, past the opium dens that line the narrow streets crowded with a million people, all travelling to and from somewhere in haste. All busy lives now long passed.

Perhaps I will linger a while on the white beaches of Raja Ampat and stroll ankle deep in clear waters, hoping to catch a glance of a bird of paradise. Yes… there it is. Its red and yellow plumage gives me a fleeting glimpse of its undeniable beauty.

The shelves groan under the weight, overloaded with books on every topic that I hold dear to me. Within these closed pages I can marvel at animals and insects, meet people from every continent, some real, some drawn from the imagination of eclectic minds, but all will be as real to me as the postman that once again knocks upon my door to deliver yet another volume to add to my already burgeoning shelves.

A row of Lonely Planet guides sit tightly closed, now silent, patiently awaiting the day that their master will once again open them and peruse their pages as he plans yet another adventure. Yet, I fear they must linger a while longer and watch from on high as the remnants of this vile pandemic continues to rage beyond my sanctuary, threatening to rise again. Rest assured old friends your day will come once more.

Books have been my life, my passion, and even my salvation in the long dark days of enforced lockdown. I sat and simply stared at them on dark wet days trying to decide to which new place I should travel or ponder on whether I should simply retread old ground. Today, I stand and mindfully wander along the shelves before me. At first nothing screams “read me”, for most of the books in my collection are already well thumbed and have been enjoyed by many before me.

If one should catch my eye, I will simply pull it out from its resting place and leave it standing to attention. There it will sit in anticipation hoping that it might be chosen over the next. I continue my quest until another and then another catches my eye. Eventually after much deliberation, I decide on a single volume and pull it from its resting place. In my mind I imagine I hear those proud volumes that I had rejected groan with disappointment as they return to their ranks.

Sitting in my comfy armchair, conveniently placed in the center of the room, I carefully study the cover of the book that I have selected. One should never be hasty to delve within. I linger for a moment and enjoy its feel and scent.

The cover tells one much about its contents. I wonder where its life began? From whence did the author draw his inspiration? Who has it met on its journey through life? Whose hands have held this work and whose hopes and aspirations lie within? With the same excitement that I felt when I purchased the book, I slowly opened the cover. The letter plate glued to the inside page tells me that this particular work was awarded to 11-year-old Arthur Henderson for his achievements in science and that it gave the headmaster George Weatherfield, “the greatest of pleasures to make such an award”.

This is a second edition and the publication date is 1898. The dedication is written in the most beautiful copper plate script now slowly fading. I wonder what happened to Arthur? Did he indeed become a man of science or did his life end abruptly like so many others on the bloody battlefields of the Somme such a short time later? What became of George Weatherfield that most fastidious of men? Just how many more children did he inspire to set forth and just how many of his pupils never achieved their dreams. Alas, I fear, I will never know but it is worth remembering that not all stories in a book are written by the author.

I begin to turn the pages carefully, for this book is over 100 years old and deserves my respect. The cover is bound in a gold embossed green cloth and the pages of the work have gold leaf to their edges, as was the practice of the day. Inside the first plate is a black and white photograph of the author. A distinguished bearded Victorian gentleman stares back at me. I turn another page to find a profanity scrawled across the title page. It seems that not all owners of the book have been as earnest as young Arthur. A sad indictment of modern times I’m afraid but nevertheless still part of its chequered journey. Of course, I know not when or by whom this word was written but I am sure at the time the moving finger wrote and having written, moved on.

The day disappears quickly as I become engrossed in its contents and, after three hours of uninterrupted bliss, I find myself on the last chapter of the work as the light outside begins to fade leaving the room in a dull twilight. It is entitled ‘The Plunder of the Earth – Conclusions’. At this point I feel a chill in the room for I sense the long-departed author has joined me and now he looks over my shoulder solemnly shaking his head as he despairs as to the path man has taken since he wrote his prophetic words so long ago.

The chapter begins with the paragraph: “The struggle for wealth has been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable forests of hundreds of years have been cleared away… and the mineral treasures of the earth are exhausted.”

It makes for somber reading considering the age of the book. Did this man really have such vision as to see the future and the problems that it would bring? I deem the book to have been a good choice and close it slowly. Its title is ‘The Wonderful Century’ and tells of the man’s greatest and, sadly, his most disastrous achievements throughout the 19th century.

Photo shows ‘The Wonderful Century’ on a shelf of Ray Hale’s library.

I wonder if a similar book written today will tell our great grandchildren of our errors since this tome was written. I silently replace the book in its place. Turning off the light the room falls into darkness and as I close the door, I fancy I hear a voice within wishing me a good evening.

“Good night, Alfred Russel Wallace for I am sure we will meet again.”