The Ecstasy of Made Up Worlds

Gatekeeper of heavens and the discovery of parallel worlds

The library back at my school was a large, musty hall with long oak benches and tables scattered around. The lazy light that filtered in through the stained glass window and the twelve, large book-cabinets that stood like silent sentinels along the walls gave it a very religious experience. At one end of this room was a large dais and on it, with a table in front of him, sat our librarian — a curly haired, sullen-faced enigma who peered through his glasses at you in much the same way he would at dust motes.

The librarian’s attitude was one of the gate-keeper of the heavens, whose paramount objective was to keep out the dredges of human life (us) from laying their hands on the glorious manna of books. He deemed it appropriate that most of the book cabinets would remain barred to our grubby, kid-hands except for two: a cabinet of assorted fiction and one of assorted educational (non-fiction) books.

Time travel inside cardboard jackets

I gravitated, naturally, to the cabinet of assorted fiction cabinet. When I say assorted here, I mean Assorted; like a lump of chocolates someone put together after a trip abroad or a collection of old clothes you are trying to get rid of disguised as a handout.

The cabinet was a lesson in plurality and getting-along as evidenced by Enid Blyton hobnobbing with Michael Crichton or Agatha Christie sidling towards Charles Dickens. I suppose, as a kid without the cognizance to develop a partiality in reading preferences, it didn’t quite matter how the books were organized.

In these shelves, amidst all these glorious best-sellers and power-houses of popular fiction, I sought out (in that strange way kids seek out the weirdest things) a book bound by colorful cardboard binding that was common for school books in those days but not necessarily a feature of fiction. It was one of hundreds like this, in dull patterned cardboard jackets with cracks and peeling paper, all sitting silently on a shelf at the bottom.

I had discovered a petite treasure that would be my obsession for the best part of a year — a cache of Doctor Who stories.

In a period of a year the followed, I ploughed through nearly three dozen books of Dr. Who and developed a partiality (often the bane of growing up) towards Terrance Dicks. Dr. Who was my first portal into an everlasting obsession with the world of future-tech, aliens, cyborgs, time-travel and space-time, all told with a chuckle and a tongue firmly pressed against the cheek.

64-sq.ft black hole of stories

My reading innocence was lost when I joined a lending library soon after. This one was very much like the TARDIS, stuffing more books per sq. ft. than you could imagine and presenting an infinite array of authors and genres. Here, you are unlikely to find the erudite philosophy of Kafka or Sartre (a universe I am not affiliated with even today) but an exhilarating world of murder mysteries, action adventures, cold-war intrigue and your good ol’ pulp with a twist.

The first sorties came from the simple joys of children’s adventures penned in the gloriously childish evocation of Enid Blyton. Then it morphed into the grittier, young adult world of Bayport penned by Franklin. W. Dixon. It was a world where the few bad men lurked at every corner and mysteries had a strange way of resolving themselves. The stakes rose again, this time there were spies working to save the world and prevent wars, meticulous assassins hoping to strike and politicians caught up in intrigue and scandal. The world was suddenly a lot more complex and people were self-serving, manipulative a-holes.

It is now amazing to think that I discovered all of my popular, childhood authors from this little eight-by-eight sq. ft. space on earth.

Fiction as a window

Then, at some point in adulthood, it all flipped for me, when stories and intrigue coalesced from a global scale into the smallest unit you can imagine — inside someone’s head. This was when I discovered my most favorite author till date — Stephen King.

Around the same time a craving for worlds new and far began, and I became obsessed with science fiction as a genre.

The flight of fiction was how I found the world (and lost myself in it) long before I ever saw it for real. One world soon became a multitude, both within and without, stretching without limits or constraints. Here was a dream-box, a subscription to infinite places and characters that could be summoned at the simple act of reading words on a page. I cannot imagine a more efficient, scalable, entertaining and powerful device for dreaming and story-telling than books. If books were a platform, fiction was its killer-app.

The rabbit hole of non-fiction

But there’s resistance to fiction. While growing up, my ‘story books’ were tolerated at home only during the holidays or vacations, and only if there wasn’t something more useful to do. That resistance, of course, disappeared when I reached adult hood but reared its ugly head in a different form.

Some years back (maybe half a decade back), I contrived to convince myself that reading fiction was a trivial pursuit for a grown man looking to get ahead in the world. The useful, smart and informative world of non-fiction was waiting for exploration and it was time to switch allegiances — at least that was the intent.

With long years of hindsight, it now appears that this thought process was an amalgamation of external influences like peer pressure, cubicular-obsession and subscribing to a general tone of society that seemed to demand a change toward immediate purposefulness in reading (or pretty much anything). Those fellow bibliophiles I met at coffee machines in the office were all about the oeuvre of non-fiction that was mind-blowing, thought-inciting or inspirational.

This led me into the rabbit hole of non-fiction — a world I experienced with confusing lack of clarity on whether it was interesting, useful or entertaining. Even today, I think of that period as endurance, at best. Non-fiction gave me poor odds. For every fascinating book of non-fiction I picked, I gave up five times that number mid-way because of the sheer mind-numbery of it. It was work.

A false euphoria of smarts

I did discover some very interesting (for lack of a better word) work of pure, conceptual non-fiction like the books that Nassim Taleb seems to churn out regularly, for instance. It was engaging and had even deluded me into a false euphoria of smarts. But, in the end they were all based on this hollow principle: Invent some terms, create a framework and try to fit the world into that pattern. Mostly, a few blog posts would have done the trick, I felt.

Even before I gave up on this faux-purpose of spending time reading only non-fiction, I had begun gravitating to stories under the garb of non-fiction — biographies, life-stories and travelogues written with wit and candor (thank you, Bill Bryson!). It was through this my reading purpose got fully realized. I wanted to read stories. Whether it was anecdotes from a real-life business tycoon or de-mystifying the life of a political legend or tales about super humans set in fantasy worlds far away in space and time, they all had a common thread — they were all stories.

And fiction delivered me stories better than anything else.

But I’ve had frequent moments when I feel like a loafer because I read fiction. I have friends who remark, with a dismissive shake of their head, that they don’t have time to read fiction; they read, mind you, more fruitful non-fiction things when they do find time. One friend, on a particularly blue day, questioned the very need for fiction to exist; authors who peddle fiction aren’t writers at all, he said. I shudder to think about a world with only non-fiction books.