[An American in Avcılar] The world of books

[An American in Avcılar] The world of books

(Photo: Reuters)

December 12, 2011, Monday/ 16:28:00

For as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for reading. Among my earliest memories, I can see my mother gently holding a book of fairy tales. Her eyes glance from the page to me, snug in my bed, as her soft voice invites me follow Hansel and Gretel into their forbidding forest or to trip with the Billy Goats Gruff across their bridge, hoping to elude the troll who lurked ready to snare the unwary.

As she read, she and I moved deeper and deeper into the worlds that lay just inside the book covers. We both knew that outside our small North Carolina farm wonders and adventures were awaiting us. “Read,” the books said -- and the limits of the daily duties on the farm would be burst: A world was waiting to be explored and experienced. We knew that the larger world available through books was double-edged. At the same time that those worlds offered delights, they also tested our mettle. Were we bold and willing to take the risks adventure required? Were we ready to spend a while in a setting different from our own, one with different rules and expectations? Even as a child, I knew I was ready; I said yes then, and I have been saying yes ever since.

As soon as I learned to read, I discovered that I could enter the world of books on my own. From the fairy tales and nursery rhymes my mother read to me -- the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Old King Cole and the contrary Mary -- I soon discovered the world of myth. Someone had left a book of Greek mythology in our farmhouse. Maybe it was someone’s high school or college anthology -- I never found out whose book it was, but finding it was a lucky accident. By the age of 6, Athena and Apollo became as familiar to me as the chickens I daily had to feed and water. From Athena, I learned that wisdom was more useful than knowledge, that craftiness permitted the weaker to endure the assaults of the stronger, that excellence grew from persistence and practice. From Apollo, I learned the value of clear-sightedness and rationality, of measure and harmony.  I was much older before I began to learn the lessons of Dionysus and the myths of the Egyptians and the Nordic people. But no matter how old I grew, I never outgrew my hunger for books and the worlds they opened to me.

I have written in an earlier column about the bookmobile that visited our farmhouse and about Mrs. Peters who welcomed me to the riches of the Clinton Public Library. Rural and small town libraries are wonders, indeed, but I soon found that I had read through their holdings. By middle school, I was reading four or five books a week and had mined the libraries available to me.

In Clinton, the town fathers thought Little League baseball and the high school football team were more deserving of financial support than were the libraries. So, while the football team members were provided with expensive uniforms and the one hundred plus members of the marching band were outfitted in flashy outfits and both the athletes and the band were transported to towns all across East Tennessee to play their rivals while encouraged by rousing music, the town and school library holdings were modest. I was perplexed at the difference in funding. Boys who moved pigskins up and down a grassy field while girls shouted encouragement on the sidelines and boys and girls in the band tooted their delight in success and their anguish in defeat, readers had to be satisfied with afterthoughts in the municipal and educational budgets. The band never offered accolades to students checking out books, and I remember no pep rallies for literacy. So I also learned at an early age that while success in sports led to popularity and acclaim, the life of the reader was much less heralded and much lonelier.

I wonder if the situation is much different in Turkey. Yesterday, as I looked at my students on campus, I saw men wearing jerseys emblazoned with slogans and emblems: Galatasaray. Trabzonspor. Fenerbache. Beşiktaş. Busraspor. Women wore scarves across their shoulders with the same colors and markings. I did not see a jersey or scarf marked by the name of a Turkish author.

My relationship with bookstores

As an adult, I became a frequenter of bookstores. At least once a month, I visited local bookstores or Borders or Books-a-million or Barnes and Noble and lost myself for an hour or two browsing through the aisles. I would enter the bookstore with little idea of what I was looking for. “Surprise me,” I murmured as I walked up and down through fiction and history and autobiography and cookbook and travel book sections. When I lost myself in the aisles, I knew that new and unanticipated offerings would lure me to lives and experiences that would captivate me. I read promiscuously: How could one know what was worthwhile unless one let oneself be drawn into new paths? I always left with 10 or 15 books to feed my curiosity for the next few weeks.

When I came to Turkey, one of my first questions for my İstanbul friends was always, “Where can I find books in English?” When I lived in Egypt, I quickly found that both the American University in Cairo and Diwan bookstores stocked a wide range of titles in English. I invested hours in both places to feed my book hunger. I expected to find even more English books available in İstanbul, and it did not take me long to locate Pandora and Robin Crusoe and the English selections at D&R and other bookstores. Two problems cast a shadow on my book-shopping. I could not find English books in Avcılar (Beyoğlu is an hour’s commute from my home), and while the available selections were rich in what my son Sean calls “airport fiction” and in literary classics, I could find fewer books that marked less-trodden paths. My reading addiction was being challenged.

Finding a partial solution

Last summer I found a partial solution for feeding my book hunger. While in the US, I bought a Kindle, an electronic gadget that stores reading material and presents the stored texts on a small but easy to read screen.

I was wary. Part of the pleasure in reading is the physical pleasure of holding a book in my hands, feeling the smooth papery surfaces, slipping my fingers to the next page. Further, the smell of books, the feel of the covers, the sound of pages turning -- all were connected in my mind to the reading itself. Would a Kindle offer similar satisfactory pleasures, in addition to the words I was reading?

OK. I must admit it. I love my Kindle. To capture some of the physical pleasure of the feel of books, I bought a leather cover for the Kindle -- the cover not only protects the screen but also entices the fingers. Rather than the cold touch of metal or plastic, the cover gives gently under the pressure of my fingertips. The screen provides easy reading -- the black letters on the grey background are legible and as clear as book text. The size of the Kindle is welcoming. About the size of a large paperback, the Kindle fits into my man purse and is light enough that I do not tire holding it.

But the Kindle’s two greatest assets are its portability and the ease of downloading books (as well as magazines and newspapers and other reading material). I carry my Kindle everywhere -- on the Metrobus, on the university service bus, from room to room in my apartment, to Simit Sarayi or Diyar Kebab, to walks along the seaside. When I wait in the dentist’s office, when I drink tea while waiting for a friend, when I ride the dolmuş from Cevizlibağ to Taksim, my books are with me. I am reading more than I ever was before.

The availability of books is the second great asset of the Kindle. While in my Denizköşkler apartment, I have immediate access to more than 1 million books. I can order books either online or directly from my Kindle, and the book is delivered to the device in less than one minute. Now, I live in a bookstore, one with almost infinite aisles. Doorways to new cultures, to new experiences, to the immense variety of humanity open at my fingertips. Even though Avcılar itself may lie off the beaten path, I find myself in Avcılar more connected to the larger world than ever I was before.

Two final comments. First, something important that my Kindle shows me is that the limits of physical libraries are now obsolete. Anyone anywhere can use electronic resources to touch any part of the world. With electronic access, reading has become more democratic. While reading devices may be expensive, nearly everyone can use Internet cafes or other public portals to the Net -- access to books no longer depends on government or school officials choosing between reading and football teams. In the past, reading was often an elite activity; the electronic revolution has made the playing field more nearly level. It is harder and harder to keep the doorways offered by books closed to people. There are now more doorways than doorkeepers, despite government attempts to monitor and select and censor what is available to be read.

Second, I remember that my passion for reading grew from seeds planted in my family. Parents reading to children, uncles reading to nieces, sisters reading to younger siblings: The passion for reading and the possibilities for liberation that spring from that passion are often rooted in relationships in the family setting. If the invitation to adventure offered by books is sometimes daunting, if the risks of encountering the unfamiliar is often unsettling, then it is also true that the familiarity of the sure hands holding the book being read to children provides the security and promotes the bravery needed to set off on those adventures.