Like most girls in Nairobi, I have a shoe guy. And a blouse guy. And a dress guy. But I pushed the envelope, and got myself a book guy and a magazine guy.
My book guy is at a second-hand stall off Ngong Road. His books are heavily discounted; used books but in mint condition. Before I announce my presence, I like to watch him for a few minutes from a far. He’s one of those jang’os who dresses his lanky dark frame in a short sleeved shirt tucked into don’t-touch-my-ankles pants and akalas. He minds his books with an obsessive care and concern. He takes each in his hands, turns it over four, five times inspecting it. Learning it. Caressing it. Committing its blurb to memory. And he dusts them and rearranges them one too many times. And sometimes, because he doesn’t know I am looking, I swear I hear him hold a conversation with them.
His name is Omosh. All along Omosh ran amok with the belief that I was a journalist. I looked at him with false surprise and I told him I am not. And between his lisp and generous nostrils, he told me, in sheng, “You look like one. I always thought you were one.” I smiled back and shook my head.
My magazine guy is on the streets. Fifty metres away from The Stanley Hotel. Simple and skinny chap, humble. His name is Otieno. Oti. Oti sets up shop only after-hours. And he doesn’t brag about how recent his magazine’s editions are. No. Not even when he can use this angle to make a sale. I believe a writer in New York, like me, buys the magazines at the exact same time I do.
After a few weeks of working in the belly of tao, familiarity has been established. Oti and I exchange cash for magazines with no haggling. Our fortnight encounters consist of a few cosmetic niceties and my signature ‘Habari ya job?’
The nature of my relationships with the book guy and magazine guy is like one with a hooker. No phone numbers. No revealing conversation. No names; I go by the ambiguous yet versatile ‘customer’. When I am in need, I go back. I look for them, never the other way around.
Anyway, long before I realized how central books and magazine would become to me, I drafted the below piece. Technically, this piece is now unacceptable. All those adverbs. All those nauseating gaudy words. All that awkward timidity. That suicidal wistful monotone. Goodness. But the sincerity, those sentiments. My. It is ageless. It is admirable. It is pure, purer than Casper’s intentions. It is the reason why today – several months later – this piece is published here, by me.
My favorite things, you ask? Libraries and bookstores, photo albums and atlases, hand-written love notes and post-its. Unfortunately – or fortunately – these also fall in a list of things that are quickly disappearing along with other classic ideologies like nappies, CDs and pencil cases. The battle on the longevity of print media, more so books, was bitterly won by Kindles, iPads and their ilk. Gadgets, devices – potato, potato.
You see, there is a classic feel of flipping through the pages of a book – the smell of its pages, the bookmark that hangs lazily from in between its layers, and the escapism that is heralded by the world created by its writer. This can never be achieved by any potato, sorry gadget.
I follow a routine as soon as I get a new book – first, I hold it in my hands and rub the front cover, then the back cover and then the spine with my open palms. Pause and breathe out. I gingerly open the cover; it is stiff and uncertain of the feel of my hands. You can trust me, I urge. Stamp my full names and date in the first page – the rule is black ink, no initials. I blow it to dry and muse in the completeness created by this manuscript for a few minutes; tattooed and branded. I then take a coloured ribbon and unhurriedly place it in between the sheets of the acknowledgement page and second page; book marked. Shut it then make its glorious introduction to the library; welcome to your new home and family. I have no order in my home – all these books serve one master and nourish one orgy appetite. Order would be futile.
The book is now mine. Mine to hold and devour, to share and (annoyingly) have dog-eared; to have stained with tears and soup and dribble. It is mine to imprint my character upon.
So I walk through the neatly stacked rows of books in libraries and bookstores, and get filled with a deep sense of trepidation. Trepidation that these shall soon be replaced by a digital library that shall have no classic smell, no coloured bookmarks, no tear stains and no dog-ears. Simply put, they shall lack character.
I now prepare myself for the aftermath of this lost battle; the repercussions that we avid book-lovers shall be forced to embrace because our love for the writing overcomes the convenience of the read. I prepare by getting myself acquainted with one of these sleek gadgets that shall never hold a candle to a book. I learn to follow instructions that are as effortless as they are demeaning – ‘click to flip’ and ‘go to page’. Instructions on how to read! What an oxymoron. I also begin to peruse online copies of books and magazines; and slowly tear myself away from the libraries and bookstores that offer such escape that I am unable to explain. Desperately, and against my better judgement, I gather a series of used books and stack them up to feed on when my need to feel a book’s pages yet again, finds me someday in the near future. Maimed soldiers of a lost battle who are now unable to speak.
And in a final act of emancipation, I share this piece with an audience, a magazine. I know that they shall publish this piece in print. I share this before they are swallowed up with the rest of the world and go digital. And I shall cut this piece out and stick it in my scrap book – along with all other unequalled articles and clippings – and I shall sigh dejectedly knowing that posterity shall find this and squeal excitedly ‘That was Mommy’s writing’.
Bitterly, I concede defeat to the fact that digital media is here to stay.
See my white flag hoisted up high.