Anton Chekov’s short story “The Bet” always reminds me of the awe that one can feel reading books, the powerful sway that books can have upon the reader. But then over the years I also realised from experiencing people who also read books that, “books are mirrors you only see in them what is already inside you”.
Let me go back to the story before I reach to narrate the reason for the above statement. During an evening of revelry a wealthy Banker and his guests debate the subject of capital punishment While the Banker asserted that capital punishment was preferable to solitary confinement that kills the prisoner gradually, a young lawyer states that he would prefer to be alive and a life time of imprisonment than be killed. To this the Banker mocks that the young fellow would not spend five years in confinement and he was willing to pay him 2 million if he would spend 15 years in solitary confinement, no daylight , no human contact. They enter into a wager.
An almost uneventful first year went by with the young lawyer ordering wine, cigars, good food and superficially exciting light novels and played his musical instruments. The second year was often dotted with bouts of wailing, angry monologues and he drank a lot. From the third year, saw the young lawyer dropping notes for books- classics, philosophies, travelogues, medicine, religion, chemistry, languages and so on. As years went by the sound from inside the prison was barely heard. There were only notes for more books.
As the fifteenth year approached its end the Banker was truly getting nervous at the prospect of having to pay the lawyer as agreed in the wager. Plowed down by worry and deceitful, the Banker plots to kill the young man. Sneaking into the prison he found an emaciated figure stooped in a chair and oblivious of his entry. He found a letter written thus-“For fifteen years I have been intently studying earthly life. It is true I have not seen the earth nor men, but in your books I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forests, have loved women…beauties as earthreal as clouds, created by the magic of your poets geniuses, have visited me at night and have whispered in my ears and wonderful tales have set my brain in a whirl. In your books I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc and from there I have seen the sun rise and watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean and the mountain – tops with gold crimson. I have watched from there lightning flash over my head and cleaving the storm clouds. I have seen green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, towns. I have heard the singing of the sirens and the strains of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils that flew down to converse with me of God… In your books I have flung myself into bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, preached new religion, and conquered whole kingdoms….
Your books have given me wisdom. All that the unrestfulness thought man has created in the ages is compressed into small compass in my brain. I know that I’m wiser than all of you.
I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory and deceptive, like mirage. You may be proud, wise and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe. You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth and hideousness for beauty. I don’t want to understand you.
To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of Paradise and which I now despise. To deprive myself the right of money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed and so break the compact…”
The distraught Banker limped back to his house after reading the letter. The next morning the jail keeper announces that late at night he saw a shadow of a man wriggle out through the window, scale the high walls and vanish into the misty night.
Surely no further explanation is needed here of the outcome.
Now what would you say about folks who “trivalises” books, who do not value books? But who vainly reads them or impresses upon others that they read them? Who audaciously walks away with a book from your collection even without informing you and when you repeatedly over days remind that care should be taken to return, ferally glares at you that the book is lost and could not be found? “Well if you fret much about a mere book, I can pay for it or buy you a new one.” The last statement is a swipe at your face and profanation to books.
When one sits back and analyses this particular incident that happened, what one could understand is that,“books are mirrors you only see in them what is already inside you”.