Hungry for books
In Zimbabwe, a police officer's request at a security checkpoint demonstrated his passion for reading.
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State-controlled newspapers were not satisfying enough. The local library offered little help. It was "seasonal," I was informed: Because of a leaky tin roof, the library closed during the rainy months. Unfortunately, the authorities had discovered the leaks too late, meaning that many of the books were destroyed.Skip to next paragraph
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A habitual flick-reader, I have learned the pleasures of rereading, savoring over and over again sentences I might once have skimmed. I found echoes of Zimbabwe's shortages in British novelist Helen Dunmore's "The Siege," an imaginative reconstruction of the blockade of Leningrad in 1941. I recognized protagonist Anna's joy when she unexpectedly found an onion for her starving family: While we were never that hungry, I, too, had felt a sudden surge of elation when fruit disappeared from the shops but a neighbor invited us to pick mulberries from her tree.
When flour was hard to find, I was soothed by "Miriam's Kitchen," Elizabeth Ehrlich's account of her attempts to integrate her Jewish heritage into daily life. Ms. Ehrlich's meticulous recording of the way to make her Polish mother-in-law's apple cake reminded me that hardships teach us to cherish simple things.
But here on a road in Marange, a policeman was waiting. I looked at the three books on my dashboard. Each one was precious to me: Each had a story. Naomi Alderman's prize-winning novel "Disobedience" I had snapped up with glee when I saw it at a Harare flea market a few days earlier. I bought "The Vintage Book of Cats" soon after we acquired our first feline in 2002. As the tribe expanded, I enjoyed reading extracts from this anthology of cat literature to my husband by candlelight (frequent power cuts have taught us you need a minimum of four candles to read by). My son's former teacher gave us "The Fox Gate," a lyrical collection of stories by children's author William Mayne. Sam and I had just read the tale of a mouse who found his way to Bethlehem.
I looked again at the young officer. Behind him, wet laundry hung on the ropes of a police tent. With Zimbabwe's economy far from flourishing, graduates are joining the force in droves. There are few other jobs available.
"I just want one," the policeman pleaded. I heard the echoes of my own book hunger and knew there was only one thing to do.