The Great Book Story

Helena Makri

If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to me to be the book”—William Godwin (on reading a narrative by his future wife)

It was mid-September. The ping of my smartphone jarred the early morning quiet as I flipped the pages of my well used “Robbins: Pathological Basis of Diseases”. It jarred because the night had been dead except for the occasional rustle of leaves on the old, moss-trunked tamarind tree outside my window. I sleep late, so late, its early, early in the young hours of the morning, unlike my best friend who would be in the third cycle of her sleep by midnight. It was therefore very uncharacteristic for me to receive a message so early into the day. I had anticipated playing Agony Aunt but was called on to be a knowledge-enabled senior instead. The message was from an immediate junior asking me to draw on the lone year of extra experience I had, to help him narrow down on books for the new semester. The request did not surprise me, for I had already spent my hours of asking seniors and scanning Amazon when my term started a year ago.

I punched in words into the QWERTY keypad- authors, books, editions! And then I erased it off. I was thinking. The touchscreen went dim. At first I could just make out the outline of faces on my screensaver. In another thirty seconds the screen-lights went off. I was still thinking.

Choosing the right book is a vital task for medical students because regardless of study technique or hours put in, the right book is the cornerstone of your preparation for the university examinations. But making the choice is a befuddling process. For me, it involved entire evenings in the library reading the exact chapter in different books until my brain easily processed the author’s point of view, my lips rolled with the words, my eyes gleamed at the layout of glossy pages filled with charts and pictures and my heart reacted to this resonance with a flutter akin to the thrill of reading a Dan Brown’s. It was like falling in love, instant connection that paved way to trust and loyalty. Not all books deserve loyalty though. Most are just a collection of life giving facts sewed together with insipid words in a mundane layout. This kind does not arouse Eureka moments. They are merely there to facilitate routine intellectual bulimia at the end of the term.

 After much book hopping spread over my first and second year in medicine, I had come to the conclusion that the rote learning we excel in as Indians is facilitated by Indian books and that concepts came from listening, reading and understanding without making any attempts at memorising facts. I became an advocate for “foreign author” books that quenched my need for details and in-depth discussions, and swatted away friends’ half-baked attempts at labelling me anti-national. Accused of being biased against Indian textbooks, I would patiently listen in to my classmates advising juniors and wonder if they were biased too. Only, their views are contrary to mine. Thir argument is simple; books should help you score better. Not completely unfounded, for it is a schematic though demanding approach that is required to clear exams. What matters is how presentable your answer script looks and how many points you’ve remembered to put on the examiners platter. Add to that an illustration that covers half your page and you’ve a ticket to the elusive “passed with distinction”.

It was past bedtime and I got into bed-earlier than usual. When my pillow felt fluffy enough  I settled down between the white cotton sheets with the whirring ceiling fan for company.  I picked up the phone again, with a clear thought in mind. To each his own. Individuals have different expectations and mine didn’t have to meet anyone else. I started to type. I erased. The screen dimmed and went black. Again.

Then I asked myself, like I had since I picked up my single Honour certificate compared to my best friend’s three. I asked myself if sticking to the books I chose, if reading the “foreign authors” and making notes was worth the single certificate. I might have a deeper understanding of some rare pathology, that may may not be of consequence later on but, marks do matter. And I had no counter to that.

I picked up my phone to type, determined it was the last time. I listed out all the recommended books and authors with the best and worse parts of each. In the end, I added a postscript with my favourites that did not make the list and why I strongly felt for them. The loyalty kicked in and I vigorously championed the cause of reading to comprehend and decipher.

When I was done, I had out-typed myself. But it was information presented neat and systematically. The kind I’d trained myself to write for the examinations.

I pressed the Send button. The small tick in the bottom of the message became two ticks and then immediately turned blue.

I wasn’t the only one who slept early!        


Helena Makri is a  third year medical student with non medical aspirations and interests in medical ethics, the environment, theatre, poetry and food history. She occasionally dabbles in jazz music and is old schooled with tastes in music by Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Billy Holiday. She hopes to set up a hospital for tribals in isolated Ri Bhoi District of Meghalaya some day while simultaneously running a bistro kitchen for those with a sensitive palate.