Vasili Ivanovich’s Room

Books you can't live without.

Posted by Manjil Saikia on August 12, 2019

(This article originally appeared in the online magazine Biriyaa, and I am grateful to the team of Biriyaa for allowing me to repost it here.)

Vladimir Nabokov is well known for his works – most prominently for Lolita, which I confess I have not read; and perhaps never will. This has nothing to do with Nabokov, but my growing penchant for reading non-fiction, rather than dallying into fiction. I do, however, like a good short story, and remember them quite well if pressed upon. Nabokov, like many great Russian authors, have written several enchanting short stories. One in particular that I like was published in The Atlantic, titled ‘Clouds, Castle, Lake’. It’s an old story, from the June 1941 issue, describing a journey taken by Vasili Ivanovich.

Vasili Ivanovich need not be somebody known, in fact, anyone can be a Vasili Ivanovich, in my view. I will not speak about the entire contents of the story, which in itself would take a lot of space and time to describe. I will only speak about one part of that story. Ivanovich in the course of a journey arrives at a traveler’s inn and looks for a room. Ivanovich was said to have uttered “I shall take it for the rest of my life” when he was shown a meagre room with not many necessities of life. The view of a lake with its clouds and castles no doubt elicited that response. Or perhaps, a war strung Russian was too depressed at that time. In any case, Ivanonich wanted his books, his blue suit and her photograph with him in that room. I will not spoil the joy of finding out what happened to Ivanovich by relaying the other details. Instead I focus on his books.

Few days back, while reading a book on the Romanian Revolution (which in itself would take longer to explain), I was reminded of Nabokov’s story where the author discussed, in brief, about the books that he would like to keep in Ivanovich’s room. Books, that had some sentimental value as well as inspired reading. That got me thinking, what books would I like to keep in such a room. If given a choice, I would like to transport my entire library. But then we must assume that the shelf in that room would probably not hold more than a few dozen books. So, I would probably take ten or so books and volumes from my collection that I would really like to keep.

The first few choices are very easy. The only novel I would take would be The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I have read this book several times, in several different translations. And, each time I find the story of Edmond Dantes, more and more gripping, understanding some new aspect of this work. I have begun to appreciate this book more and more as time goes. The copy that I have was purchased at the Pantheon in Paris, on my first trip to that city in 2015. Each sight of that trip remains vividly etched. I have since gone back a couple of more times to the city and like Dantes’ story, I find something new each time.

Any collection of my books would be incomplete without a collection of short stories. And for that, the choice is easy. I would take with me a collection of short stories by O. Henry, which was gifted to me by my now fiancee, which she got in a sale of old books in Delhi. The book is from the mid 20th century with wear and tear that lends it a different kind of charm. It has more than a thousand pages of O. Henry’s stories, many of which I have read and enjoyed reading while growing up. I think, for me the epitome of story-telling is O. Henry.

The choice of a poetry book was also instantaneous when I thought about it. In school, we had to read selected poems, essays and stories for a subject which was then called English 3. The subject has since disappeared in Assam and I could never figure out, what was the 2nd English paper that existed. Anyway, the poems we studied were taken from an old Oxford anthology of poems, which had several poems from western as well as Indian poets. We were supposed to read about eight poems, out of maybe a hundred from the whole book. But, I found that I actually enjoyed reading poems that were not prescribed for us. It helped that the book also had nice notes on the poems and the poets. That was my first serious reading of poetry and since then, I have always enjoyed a good poem. It would be a great comfort in Ivanovich’s room.

The other choices would most definitely include the three volume Feynman Lectures in Physics and two edited books by Stephen Hawking called Standing on the Shoulders of Giants and God created the Integers. The lectures in physics were given in 1960s by Richard Feynman to undergraduate physics students at CalTech, and so far I have not met its rival in technical writing for it’s clarity and story telling quality. An indulgence is physics is required, but nothing else. Hawking’s edited volumes are collections of important papers in physics and mathematics that have created the modern subjects. A good conglomeration of ancient, medieval and modern material makes these books worth carrying from place to place (I have had them through three shifts of residence). One can spend hours reading the original works and the nature of theoretical physics and mathematics makes it unnecessary to have anything else, besides a pen and lots of paper.

The last three books that I would select now, would be Edward Gait’s book on the history of Assam, Donald Knuth’s art of computer programming’s first volume and an old English translation of The Bhagavad Gita from the early 1900s that I have. Gait’s book was the first one in English to be written about Assam history and has stood the test of time. I have never managed to read the book in whole and it would be a nice exercise to try once. Knuth’s books are considered to be the bible of computer science, and perhaps the first volume itself would suffice my intellectual curiosity for a few years. The third volume should probably give me some sort of spiritual awakening when I am old and too tired to think deep.

I am painfully aware that these books might not be all that I would want; perhaps I will get bored of them. But at the moment, it seems to me to suffice. I would also perhaps regret not taking several books that I own, on history (which has become a new interest), science or several biographies of people which I have enjoyed immensely. There will always be books that I have which I would like to finish. And then, there will be books which I do not own now, but I would like to. But most of all, I will regret the good books which are yet to be written on things I like. It is a sad reality that life is finite and hence, the number of books we read is finite. But, Ivanovich’s room is one of peace and quiet; books would help, and so would the view of the lake with its clouds and castles, where perhaps I would go on a stroll with her.