Friday, November 26, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Passions Kindle'd – Real Books Still Got It

Our guest this week is Lavanya Sunkara, an Indian-American freelance writer who lives in Long Island, New York and loves traveling to exotic places. Lavanya is currently working on her first novel; her work also appeared in Yourtango, The Frisky, Voices from the Garage, and NY Resident. When she is not reading or outdoors with her dog, Lavanya is organizing volunteer events, exploring New York with her friends, and planning her next journey. In this post, Lavanya shares her passion for books and the power they possess.

If I were stuck on an island and had to choose between my mother’s delicious Indian food and a good book, I would be in a bind. Staying true to my roots, I eat with my right hand, licking every bit of rice and curry off my fingers, and relishing the taste. The feeling I get running my fingers through an old paperback is equally ecstatic. And the decadent smell of a new book is akin to the aroma of sambar right off the stove. My love affair with books began while still being hand fed by my mother when we lived in a small southeastern Indian town. I remember carefully wrapping my school book covers in brown paper, pressing flowers among the pages to dry them out for decoration, and hiding peacock feathers for good luck. Today, at 30 and living in New York, while still taking in the simple pleasures of books, I have been finding comfort and guidance in the pages that become a part of my life.

With everything from classics to chick lit digitalized in recent years, I began to wonder if I would ever succumb to the e-book revolution. Books are such an intrinsic part of my life that I read them on the train, when traveling, while walking, and even in my dreams. My first summer in America fifteen years ago, I spent afternoons at the library checking out every young adult work I could get my hands on. At Fordham, I majored in Philosophy and learned from great works by Sartre to Irigaray. Later, I fell in love with magical realism through works by Salman Rushdie and Yann Martel. Other books, from feel-good fiction to self-help, kept me company in good and bad times, near and far from home.

So it was quite a shocker when I ended up on a remote island off the coast of East Africa without a book. The year was 2004, and all the books I carried for my month-long adventure were devoured during the first part of my trip, and not by some hungry baboon. Desperately, I scanned the shelves in my host family’s house, as a lioness on a hunt. The bright yellow-red cover of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone caught my eye. As if finding a rare gem, I quickly grabbed it. Surprised with my choice, my host ventured, “Are you sure you want to read a book about the terrifying ebola virus while you’re in Africa?” I innocently responded, “Why not? What better book to read than one set here? Besides, it looks like it had been read a few times, so it must be good!” Perplexed, she gave up. It didn’t matter that the book I chose was horrifying. I was happy I had a book at hand. So, there I was, swinging in a hammock on the shores of Zanzibar, reading the dog-eared pages of a real-life thriller and savoring every single bit of it, even if it kept me awake for the next few nights.

With traveling came the awareness of environmental issues plaguing our planet, especially the damage caused by the destruction of forests for paper. So when books were turning up on e-readers, I became curious. I wondered if scrolling the Kindle’s keys could replace the joy of browsing library books on warm summer days, or if an iPad could bring back memories of a far-off island. The plastic smell of these gadgets certainly can’t replace the scent of an old-fashioned paperback. No matter how many books these electronic miracles hold, they all still look and feel the same. The books I have read are unique, and each one of them reminds me of a memorable time or a place I've visited. The Piano Tuner in Baja, The Notebook in Oaxaca, Ishmael in California, Siddhartha in India, and more recently, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which helped me get through a breakup.

Earlier this year, a novel by Amulya Malladi, Serving Crazy with Curry, inspired my passion for cooking. It’s about an Indian-American woman who cooks delicious meals to deal with life’s issues. I began experimenting with the help of cookbooks. My masala pasta and coconut brown-rice biryani got rave reviews from my family. I can't possibly imagine using a Kindle in the kitchen where chances of spices and water spilling and damaging it are high. The recipe guides, on the other hand, will gladly absorb the smells and the occasional spills and become a part of my library of books and memories.

What books remind you of adventures you’ve embarked on or inspired you to go on one?

Would you imagine your life without real books?


  1. I agree there's something classic about the printed book... the smell, the touch, the pealing of the pages... But with that said, handheld tablets & e-readers seem to be the future. They may be green (if the saving of paper out-weights the energy and materials spent making them), they're economical cause digital books have significant discounts (although thrift shops w/ real books are def cheaper!) and I see more and more young children using technology to read.

  2. My introduction to the paperback and hardcover world came by way of the local library. Thank you Lavanya for allowing me to relive a passion through your literary wonderings. Janice Erlbaum's book Girlbomb inspired my writing journey.

  3. I agree I like real hard over books. I need to physically turn the page. I can't imagine me going to get a kindle/Ipad for "reading" anytime soon.

  4. Lavanya, thanks for writing this wonderful post. I'd never thought about associating a book with the place where I read it. Year ago when I lived in East Germany, a friend in London sent me a copy of The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing. It wasn't the sort of book I would have picked up at the time, but I relished it because it was the first thing I'd read in English for nearly a year. I still thing of those days in Leipzig when I see the book.

    I grew up in a family of bookbinders, so abandoning printed books would probably get me disowned. :) But I like e-books as well and I read both. E-books help solve my overcrowded bookshelf problem, and I like to take them on trips, but I can't imagine not having a bookshelf full of books. There is something comfortable about the sight of that. And e-books still don't have the same feel of permanence to me.

  5. Lavanya, such a lovely post! One book that takes me back to my climbing days is Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children". I'd attempted to read it a few times prior to the expedition but couldn't get into it. I set off to climb Aconcagua (in Argentina) and I only had room for one book, so I chose Midnight's Children, thinking it might inspire me to give it another go. I did. And it is still in my top ten favorite books of all time.

    I haven't moved to the ereaders yet. I just can't, even if it is a greener option. I agree with Heidi - empty bookshelves aren't appealing.

  6. Thank you all for responding. :) Heidi, I saw those pictures of your bookbinding business on fb. So nice! I solve the bookshelf problem by either borrowing books from the library or friends. Right now, I only keep books that are autographed and those close to my heart (which are many, but still take up far less space). I also give away books to thrift stores if my friends don't want them.

    Alli, someone recently recommended Rushdie's "Enchantress of Florence." Check it out if you like his work. :)

  7. For me, nothing can replace the real books, printed with ink and smelling of paper. I guess I’m old fashioned that way. And no, I cannot imagine life without real books, but some two hundred years in the future it may happen. Who knows maybe they’ll invent kindles that would smell of paper and glue. Or maybe future kindles will come in a variety of scents, a “chose your favorite” kind of thing. I guess as long as humankind won’t stop reading it shouldn’t matter…Hmmm, I’m getting an idea for a futuristic short story, set in a world where there is no more paper books, only screens and buttons.

  8. That's interesting Lina. It could be a mystery where the protagonist goes on a hunt for real books that have become extinct, tracing fonts and faint smells. ;)

  9. Thanks for an interesting post, Lavanya! I have to admit, I'd love a Kindle but the only thing stopping me is the limited availability of some books and, well, having to learn yet another technology.

    But yes, I can completely relate to associating a book with the place I'd read it. Oddly enough, the book that comes to mind is the same one Alli read at the top of a mountain. Only I read Midnight's Children in New Delhi in the late '80s. I knew very little about the geopolitics of the region till then so reading that book in that place was electric, especially supplemented with real-life stories from people who'd experienced the India-Pakistan partition first hand. Plus I think I'd picked up an autographed copy of the book from a used bookstall. Need to verify that signature someday!