Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Jahiz the bibliomaniac

Cyclone Book Tag, which recently hit the Indian blogosphere, seems to have demonstrated irrefutably that there is a marked relation between blogging - the passion for demonstrating to the world that one is capable of independent thought - and bibliomania, the passion for possessing and collecting books. (I think this passion to possess is what distinguishes a bibliomaniac from a bibliophile, who is merely a lover a books and may or may not be a collector.) As modern bibliomaniacs we must take note of an ancient one, the ninth-century Arab writer Jahiz, whose most famous work, the Kitab al-Hayawan ('Book of Animals') has some marvellous passages on the place of books in life.

Jahiz (776-868/69) was born and lived most of his life in the great cultural centre of Basra (in present-day Iraq and currently wracked by clashes between American troops and Iraqi insurgents), at a time when the Islamic world occupied a similar place among world civilizations that the West does today. A prolific writer on every kind of topic - here is the table of contents of one of his books, listing essays like 'This Life & the Life to Come' and 'Why Speech is Superior to Silence' - Jahiz writes of books in the Kitab al-Hayawan:

I know of no companion more prompt to hand, more rewarding, more helpful or less burdensome, and no tree that lives longer, bears more abundantly or yields more delicious fruit that is handier, easier to pick or more perfectly ripened at all times of the year, than a book.
…For all its smallness and lightness, a book is the medium through which men receive the Scriptures, and also government accounts. Silent when silence is called for, it is eloquent when asked to speak. It is a bedside companion that does not interrupt when you are busy but welcomes you when you have a mind to it, and does not demand forced politeness or compel you to avoid its company. It is a visitor whose visits may be rare, or frequent, or so continual that it follows you like your shadow and becomes a part of you.
…A book, if you consider, is something that prolongs your pleasure, sharpens your mind, loosens your tongue, lends agility to your fingers and emphasis to your words, gladdens your mind, fills your heart and enables you to win the respect of the lowly and the friendship of the mighty.…Form any kind of attachment with it, and you will be able to do without everything else; you will not be driven into bad company by boredom or loneliness.
Some readers may find this enchanting but a little too ornate, and they would not be wrong in this. As Robert Irwin says in his book Nights and Horses and the Desert (from which I quote the above passage), Jahiz was a master at the ancient art of rhetoric - the art of using language so as to persuade and influence others. Many of his works appear to be rhetorical demonstrations rather than the expressions of deeply felt convictions - if necessary, one feels, he might have been able to argue that books exercised a debilitating effect on human beings and were agents of corruption.

But Jahiz was so much in love with books - the story goes that he used to pay the owners of bookshops to be locked into their premises at night so that he could read in peace - that we may safely assume that in this case he was really speaking from his heart, even if his style is that of a rhetorician. In fact (to end this tale of bibliomania on an appropriate if somewhat morbid note) Jahiz not only lived by books but died by them as well: it is reported that he was killed at a ripe old age when a stack of books fell upon him.

1 comment:

Abhishek said...

Hi!
I wonder whether anyone else read this post or not.I am a rechristened blog lover, as earlier I had seriously doubted its existence.Therefore, I might have missed this wonderful post.However, I admire books than anything else, as it is one of the greatest levelers.The richest and the poorest are the same for the book.It does not differentiate and it is the most transparent trader.More serious traders extract the maximum out of it, though I was a measly trader with my school and college books.
I do not know if this comment would reach you, but I deeply appreciate your subtle way of introduction to various literary resources, which are as priceless as your blog itself.It is a literary elixir for me.
Thanx a lot.
abhishek rai