Seems like it is not enough to be an ardent fan of reading or to be a book lover these days. It needs a lot more than that, unfortunately, including the “paper” issued by the State Bank of Pakistan.  Yes, I am talking about the books that carry exaggerated, vulgar price tags on them.  To the dismay of many, I am sure, the shops selling books with prices mentioned in dollars are not less than a nightmare.

First, you go walk through the rows of books, run around looking for something worth reading and worth buying. In case you are looking for a particular author who happens to secure a decent spot in the book shop, you skim through the heavy hard back copies, slide your fingers from one corner of the shelf to the other with a crazy gaze. And then, there it is, AHA! The book you had been looking for all these days. Acting like the smartest guy around, you pick it up as if you have won a trophy, and, looking at each customer suspiciously, you approach the counter cautiously, lest somebody should grab “your precious” from your hand. Trust me, I have noticed that such happiness is momentary.

The scanner would soon open your half shut eyes, while you are planning to make a huge cup of tea to sip on next evening, which is when you plan to start reading the book you’re about to purchase. The man on the other side of the counter can have a devastating effect on your plans once he opens his mouth.  I have experienced the sudden disappearance of my triumphant smile numerous times, right when the man at the counter pronounces the price of the book.  He would tell you a ridiculous amount.  No that’s not the case.  He would tell you that the money you had in your wallet was not enough to touch the book you selected, let alone buy it.  In sheer humiliation and disappointment you leave the bookstore and, like a true retreating soldier, pledge to continue the quest for the ‘knowledge’.

Such experiences usually take us to the old book stores. 

The very feel is so comforting.  You think this was the right decision. The moth eaten, dog eared books are here in this world to wash away the pain of the ‘poor’ book lovers.  At such moments we tend to think fondly about the people who came up with the charitable idea of establishing old book stores that serve humanity immensely. Hold on. There is no need to get carried away. In old book stores, you first try to spot the author; if you are lucky, you might spot a book or two written by him with his 20 years younger picture beaming on it – it is not the book you were looking for. You try to be patient and steadfast, and look for the title you want from bottom to the top of the book racks. The book you are looking for, irrespective of time and month of the season, is always ‘out of stock’, but in case Bellona’s bridegroom had been on your side during the battle, you would be lucky to find the title.  I, at such moments, get almost euphoric while I walk to the payment counter with my prize. I always have looked down upon the “elite” who have been paying money in sacks to buy books when they could have easily bought it dirt cheap.

But let me tell you one thing: the guy on the other side of the counter at old book stores is as lethal as the one in the new book store. Alas!  You wait for him to tell you the price but once you are told you hardly believe your ears! Only a few bucks cheaper than that shiny, shimmery, freshly bound, glossy copy of the book, he is offering you a book with torn out pages, coffee marks and a rotten smell! Now that, too, is unacceptable. He has his own logic that he would narrate in less than a minute. He might offer you other books by the same author that can be found in the amount that matches your wallet. At such moments, they actually guide you to the things you can buy with the amount in your pocket. It can range between books on gardening (when you are looking for a book on Greek History), how to keep children busy who are under the age of 5 (when you are looking for an autobiography by a seasoned politician) and how girls can earn herself best of the compliments from relatives, when you are looking for a novel that has recently received the Nobel prize for literature.

Such are the miseries of being a book lover in Pakistan.  Libraries with updated stocks could have solved the problem, but then we would have been denied the opportunity to learn how to tend to our flower pots.