What will happen when a bookworm set out to clean his library?

One of the drawbacks of having tons of physical books is that you have to lavish a lot of tender loving care on them to ensure that they stay ship shape and bristol fashion. This is one of two aspects in which ebooks have it over physical books. One is that ebooks are easy to carry around. You can carry several hundreds around on your Kindle, iPad or tablet. The second is that you don’t need to spend time on their care and maintenance. In all other aspects, I feel that physical books win over ebooks in a first-round knockout. It’s like a match-up between Stan Laurel and Mike Tyson, no contest. Tyson will not even have to resort to biting.

Every couple of months I get into library cleaning mode. I get nightmares of schools of silverfish taking up residence in my beloved vintage paperbacks and hardcovers. Or even worse, termites, of which we sometimes have infestations during the damp monsoon months. Moreover, the humid climate down south in Kerala is conducive to mold and other fungal infestations. These infestations appear to take an absolutely vindictive pleasure in seeking out and clinging onto my rarest and most favourite books. A regular cleaning routine is imperative, but this is easier said than done as you will understand as you read on.

On a cleaning mission 

A few days back I decided to embark on my periodic cleaning routine. I started with one end of the room where the shelves house my collection of juvenile fiction. Opening up a shelf I started to remove the books from within, carefully flipping through each to ensure no unwanted visitors had taken up residence. I had removed a handful when I stopped short. The book in my hand was the Readers Digest compilation of ‘The World’s Best Fairy Tales’. 

This is a two-volume set. There was a set with a blue cover, the one that I remembered from my childhood, and a later larger-sized reprint with beige covers. As I leafed through the set with blue covers a flood of memories rolled in. Here was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, exterminator extraordinaire. A few pages into the book we had Little Red Riding Hood meeting up with the Big Bad Wolf. Secretly I always thought Red Riding Hood was an irritating little twit and hoped the nice wolf would make a meal of her but unfortunately, the tale did not oblige. The Little Mermaid, Puss in Boots and his fictional master The Marquis of Carabas, Tom Thumb, The Ugly Duckling, Jack that inveterate climber of Beanstalks, Snow White, and the seven vertically challenged persons were all old friends I was glad to meet again. As I revisited these childhood favourites I started leafing through other books I had loved at age six and seven. 

Where Peter Rabbit meets Mowgli

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and friends, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and his friends Piglet and Eeyore. Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline who was an exception to my firm belief that while little boys were made of sugar and spice and everything nice, those irritating little girls were made of frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails. Here were Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys journeying to Neverland. I again lost myself in the misadventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall in ‘The Wind in the Willows’, rendered immortal not only by Kenneth Grahame’s silken prose but also by E.H.Shepard’s wonderfully evocative illustrations. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and Kipling’s Jungle book were up next, as I frolicked in the jungle with Mowgli and Baloo while Bagheera kept an eye out for the ever-present danger of Shere Khan the tiger and that slithering menace, Kaa the python.

I lost myself among these old friends while still going through the motions of dusting and cleaning. The second shelf was home to the good Dr. Dolittle who could talk to animals and had several animal friends including Too Too the mathematical owl, Dab Dab the duck, Gub Gub the pig and the incredible Pushmi Pullyu. Norman Hunter’s eccentric genius Professor Branestawm was hard at work on another of his bizarre inventions, bound to go awry and bring down the house. I always laugh myself silly at those wonderful illustrations by W. Heath Robinson, bringing Prof. Theophilus Branestawm’s contraptions to life. 

The next shelf yielded further delights and brought more bosom buddies to light. Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, Famous Five, Five Find Outers, Barney and friends, the kids from the Secret series and Philip, Jack Dinah and Lucy Ann from the adventure series crowded around along with other favourites Noddy, Mister Twiddle and Brer Rabbit.

The world of William

Richmal Crompton’s William peered out from behind a row of books, perpetual frown in place, cap askew. He was accompanied by his ‘outlaws’ Henry Douglas and Ginger and tagging along was his bête noire, the seven-year-old Violet Elizabeth Bott, her of the cute curls and lisp and bossy disposition ( ‘I’ll thcream and I’ll thcream till I make myself thick’). Jennings and Darbishire were creating mayhem at Linbury Court Prep School trying to implement another of Jennings’ ‘wizard’ schemes that always seemed to come unstuck. I especially empathized with Darbishire. He was bespectacled, of slight build and of a timid disposition, just like I was at the time. He was fiercely loyal though and stuck by his more enterprising pal through thick and thin.

Another group of childhood friends inhabited shelf three, that band of intrepid children who called themselves ‘the Lone Piners’. These were David Morton and his twin siblings Dickie and Mary, Petronella (Peter) Sterling, Tom Ingles, Jenny Harman, Jonathan Warrender, Penny Warrender and Harriet Sparrow plus Mackie the Scots terrier. Malcolm Saville’s series is an absolute delight. Only some of the children are featured in each adventure and the description of the Shropshire countryside, Dartmoor and Rye in Sussex is bewitching. The difference between this and other juvenile series was that the children age slightly from book to book and are almost adults by the final book of the series. I had read the books at random, as and when I got one from the British Council Library or the Trivandrum Public Library, but by the end of the series realized that the books are not just adventure stories but also the story of three romances, Tom and Jenny, David and Peter (Petronella) and Jon and Penny. I think the books would be best appreciated if read in sequence and have now begun to reread them in sequence. Meeting the Lone Piners again is an absolute delight.

The next shelf was the domain of those bold adventurers of the RAF Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Bertie as they fought their way through two World Wars in their Sopwith Camels and Spitfires before continuing their adventures outwitting criminals and even working for Interpol. A few books describing the adventures of Capt. Gimlet King of the Commandos nestled side by side with the Biggles books. I loved the Gimlet books and it’s unfortunate W.E.Johns penned only ten of them.

Mysteries and action books

 Willard Price’s teenage zoologist siblings Hal and Roger travelled the world studying wild animals and they were on the same shelf jostling for space with Biggles and Gimlet and that other wonderful trio of investigators who worked out of a salvage yard in Rocky Beach, California. Jupiter Jones the brain, Pete Crenshaw the boy of action and Bob Andrews the researcher and record keeper starred in some amazing adventures. The first eleven books especially, ten of which were written by Robert Arthur, were excellent mysteries full of action and excitement. Other friends from that period included Frank and Joe Hardy, stars of a long series of mystery stories written by different authors under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon and their female counterparts Nancy Drew and her friends Bess and George. Tom Swift Jr. and his science-based adventures was another series I loved though Science was a subject I thoroughly disliked. Victor Appleton’s books, though, helped me overcome my innate dislike of the subject as I immersed myself in the adventures of Tom Swift and Bud Barclay.

Many of these characters are total strangers to the present generation, addicted as they are to games, videos and bouts of narcissism on Instagram and Facebook not to mention TikTok and other apes ( or is it apps). However there is still hope as a certain boy wizard and his cohorts as well as writers like Rick Riordan, Eoin Colfer and the ever-popular Roald Dahl have ensured that at least some of the current generation will have friendships to treasure forty years down the line.

Several hours had passed since I had started on my task of cleaning and dusting but I had been so overcome on meeting so many childhood pals that the dusting part was forgotten as I renewed old friendships and indulged in a ripe wallow-in nostalgia. The dusting and cleaning would have to wait for another day. This was the umpteenth time this had happened and I had no doubt it would happen again. The legend of the ‘ Fountain of Youth’, that mythical spring that restores the youth of those who drink from it or bathe in it, has been around for a long time. 

The renowned Spanish explorer Juan Ponce De Leon set out in search of it but never succeeded in finding it. The poor misguided idiot obviously never read books. Had he done so he would have realized that the fountain can be found anywhere where there is a bookshelf with some well-loved tomes. Anyone who loves books and has read in his youth never grows old, he or she only needs to rejuvenate themselves by meeting the friends of their youth and reliving the joyous hours spent together.

Vineeth Abraham

Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He owns a large personal library and resides in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond.

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