Sometime on Day 1, maybe a few hours after I arrive, I find myself standing in front of a large cupboard that houses my books. An old copy of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands; a second-hand copy of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon; pulp Westerns featuring Sudden; pulp Fantasy stories featuring Conan; Kerouac; Burroughs; James Joyce and John Barth and Bertrand Russell; Shakespeare and Ben Jonson; Poe and Wilde and O. Henry and Doyle; Pirsig and Zukov and Sagan; Niven and Asimov; assorted classics—just the kind of books one accumulates through one’s growing years.
And I remember most things about most of the books in that cupboard—where I bought them; who gave them to me; when I read them. Not all the books I read in my growing years are there—many have made the journey with me to New Delhi where I now live. But some still remain in Chennai, where I spent the first 17 years of my life.
Bibliophilia: Alexandra finds her Night Bookmobile while walking down a street.
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Some of these books made me laugh. Others made me sad. Still others were sheer escapist fantasy. All made me think. And, like many other people who read voraciously, I learnt the nuances of grammar and language from the books.
We are what we read. The Night Bookmobile is a comic (or a picture book) about books and our love of them and it’s obviously written, and drawn, by a book lover. That book lover is Audrey Niffenegger, who shot into prominence with her work of fiction, The Time Traveler’s Wife, one of those lovely touching stories you like because it is lovely and touching, and hate because they are so popular that even the Paulo Coelho set starts swearing by them.
Niffenegger is also a visual artist and not new to the graphic novel medium, having written two before The Night Bookmobile, which was first serialized, in comic form, in The Guardian. It has just been published as a book.
The short graphic novella tells the story of Alexandra’s life, death, and enduring love of books. Walking the streets early one morning after a fight with her boyfriend, a young Alexandra runs into a Night Bookmobile, a library of all the books she has read in her life—we learn later that every reader, every reader who is still alive, has one of his or her own. We also learn more about Alexandra: that there is nothing remarkable about her life except her love for books.
So, her chance encounter with the Bookmobile, and her librarian Mr Openshaw, soon turns into an obsession. She begins looking for the Bookmobile (and finds it a few more times). Meanwhile, she says in the book: “I began reading all the time. On the El, on my lunch hour, during every meal, I read. I looked forward to finding each book again someday on the shelves of the Bookmobile. I wondered if Mr. Openshaw was impressed with my choices, and my dedication. Like a pregnant woman eating for two, I read for myself and the librarian.”
The enduring themes of The Night Bookmobile are loneliness, sadness and yearning, and the illustrations, also by Niffenegger—flat, and in solid colours on some pages; mono- and dual-chrome on others—highlight these.
I didn’t like the way the book ended—a little too abruptly—but Niffenegger tells us that The Night Bookmobile is the first part of a larger work, The Library. I have always been a sucker for books, especially good books about books (like Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels) and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. We are what we read.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
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