In 2009, when I was a graduate student in Istanbul, I worked full-time in a newspaper, editing the paper’s books supplement. I was a busy man with lots of editorial assignments on my plate. I had little time to concentrate on my doctoral dissertation — a study of Hegel’s influence on late-Victorian authors. Instead of writing in academic Hegelese, I spent my days behind my office desk where I commissioned, edited, fact-checked, and proofread. A week after my 28th birthday in March, while hard at work on the first draft of a book review, I received a call from the university’s student affairs department. The voice on the other end of the line said there had been a “strange problem” with my academic credits some months ago. The mistake had led to the termination of my enrollment: from this moment onwards I would be subject to the draft.
There was nothing she could do. In less than two weeks I would be running on the hills of some distant Anatolian town with a military rifle in my hand.
The news was difficult to digest. So difficult, in fact, that when I heard the dial tone I decided to put away the unfinished review and drink a glass of whisky instead.
Come April 10, I had cleared my desk at the office and arrived at an Anatolian city where my six-month-long national service in a gendarme squadron officially began. I was immediately nicknamed “journo” by the commanders. After the initial month of training came to an end my fellow gendarmes were assigned to various positions related to their education. I, the academic-cum-journalist, meanwhile, was given the most intellectual post the commanders could think of. “I have just made you the squadron’s librarian,” said our lieutenant, a muscular man whose every word was law and from whose super cool sunshades I could see the reflection of my face.
“Here are the keys to the library. Take them! From now on it will be under your responsibility. Clean the place every day! Don’t give books to everyone! Give them only to soldiers you trust! Now get lost!” I did get lost. And when I hid myself in that room, which was hardly bigger than 100 square feet, I found myself surrounded by a series of dusty books. Although the books were old and deep in hibernation, the people who came to read them were very much alive. So in my small library in a distant Anatolian town I learned an awful lot about what young Turkish men enjoyed reading under the gun. I watched them as they read for relief. I watched them as they read for pleasure. I watched them as they read for keeping sane.
It was during the first days of my librarian career that I found copies of Harlequin books in the drawer of my little metal desk. The previous librarian, who was less than a week away from being discharged, informed me that the dogeared pages of those romantic books would always be hotly sought after by soldiers. “Be mindful of those Harlequins,” he briefed me. “Never let soldiers bring them to their barracks. Or it will be YOU who gets into trouble.”
I was asked to recommend books so many times that I ended up feeling like Jorge of Burgos, a post-modern recreation of Borges in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The blind librarian wants to decide what his fellow monks read in their spare time, taking drastic measures to impose his scholastic beliefs. Whenever I heard others asking me what they should read, I came up with a recommendation that I expected they might follow, and tried to be less insistent than Burgos. But my small library was something more than a miniature version of Amazon’s recommendations sidebar. Gradually it became a place where soldiers socialized. Young commanders visited me and talked at length about their dreams, which they then asked (or ordered) me to interpret.
There was much talk about books and films. Politics, too, was discussed: “When I retire come visit me in Ankara and I will give you an interview about my political beliefs,” said one commander. I will need to wait for almost two decades for that but still I am curious about what he has to say. Others had more personal stories to tell, and they told them instantly: a book was always a great beginning point, an unmistakable icebreaker.
So what did they read apart from the Harlequin books? To my surprise it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre that was most popular. I heard from more than one private that the military life resembled the life described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a book in high demand among the bored and the depressed. Then I discovered two shelves of 19th-century Russian classics; from that point onwards whenever a soldier asked for a trashy novel I handed him one of those tomes. I even attempted to describe the classics’ qualities, in one memorable occasion pontificating about the eternal question of Russian literature, “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?” (Tolstoy writes better, but Dostoyevsky’s world is more similar to ours, I said.)
My friends who worked at the canteen were offering free chocolate pudding and hamburgers to their fellow soldiers, while I gave my friends copies of The Possessed, War and Peace, and “The Nose.”
How did all those Russian classics end up there? The answer had more to do with politics than with refined literary taste. Turkey had decades-long ties with NATO; the country had been seen as a frontier of the free world and was an outpost of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. Therefore Turkish military officials had long been well-versed in Russian culture. For the last few decades, the best translations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov were delivered by high-ranking soldiers.
Meanwhile, the rest of the books in the library (all those dusty sermons, military handbooks, and well-bound editions of Turkish state literature) went unread.
Nowadays whenever I visit one of the new fancy libraries in Istanbul, I think of that distant room in Anatolia. I think of my readers, those loyal visitors of the library, who found happiness in the solitude provided by the pages of a book. Even under the gun, they could find reflections of their lives and dreams among words on paper — a discovery that made me an even firmer believer in the strange and limitless charm of books.