I distinctly remember the first time my mother took me to a book store. I must have been four or five years old, and we had to buy some school stuff for my bigger sister. While my mother was browsing through the shelves, a book caught my attention. Little did I know that this book would change my life forever.
Though I knew the alphabet I still could not read so I really was not sure what the book was about. But that was beyond the point. It looked terrific – hard-cover, glittering front, a lavish picture of an Egyptian pharaoh glancing at me, the colours so bright and saturated like nothing I have seen before. I knew I wanted it, with that childish, senseless, illogical desire that parents find so hard to resist or overcome. I did not want it for its content as I did not know what it was about. I wanted it for the way it looked.
The book was obnoxiously expensive, far beyond the average budget my parents would spend on toys or any other presents. My mom was surprised that I wanted this precise book, but when she browsed through the pages, she suddenly changed her mind and said this might be a good idea. I don’t remember pressing the matter too hard – like crying or making a scene in the book store. Anyway, we left with all the things my sister needed and with me holding the book like a trophy.
For the first time in my life, I was dead serious about something. I know it may sound too pretentious for a four-year-old kid, but that was the case. I browsed through the fantastic pictures – small squares of living colour, so well-crafted and exciting that I could spend hours studying them. But I knew the real magic of the book was hidden in the small boxes of text under every picture. So there was my first actual resolution in life – I had to learn how to read. The faster, the better.
To my big surprise, it was much easier than I expected. Maybe I had an act for it – but in a few weeks, I was ready to take on my journey of discovery and adventure – to solve the mysteries of my treasure book. I very soon found what my mother had bought me – it was an encyclopaedia of world history, starting from the first small villages in the Fertile Crescent and going as far as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a magnificently structured book – even now, as a bachelor in history, I can assess its quality for all its worth. It was simple, but at the same time, deeply informative, perfectly balanced with regards to epochs and different geographical regions. I can honestly say that even some of my high-school textbooks in history were not as helpful as this encyclopaedia for children.
Of course, I did not know all these things back then, when I was still struggling with the more complex words and had to ask my parents what they meant. But it mattered little – I was thoroughly captivated by the story of the first people who built walls around their cities, then the Great Pyramids, the fabulous Roman legions and how beautiful their crimson shields looked. Then the imposing knights with their armour and huge horses, and the Japanese samurai with their terrifying masks, and the lost empires of the Incas and the Aztecs. And then… And then… there was so much more of it! And every new chapter was a doorway to another fabulous story, more interesting than the previous one, more captivating in its details.
When I finished the book, all on my own, I knew then and there that this could not be an end. It was just the beginning. Yes, I have learned a lot – more than any other kid my age knew about history. But I wanted to know more. Now that I had learned to read, I could not stop myself. History was never a subject, never a science – at least not until I studied it professionally in the university. It was always this book in the hands of a four-year-old child, with drawings that were windows to the past and boxes of text that explained what you saw through those windows.
How could I know that the book I have chosen so recklessly and childishly has also chosen a path for me – the path of a historian? From a very early age, I knew what I wanted to be – a historian. But I have no doubt whatsoever what lies in the very beginning of this road.
Socrates once said that our knowledge is a circle. The bigger our knowledge, the wider the circle. But the wider circle means it touches more and more lack of knowledge, that lies beyond its limits. Thus a sage man understands that the more one learns, the more one does not know. I have always believed it is the very same thing with books. You pick up a book, and once you have finished it, you know you have to read at least two more to understand it better. But how important is the first book, the one that starts the journey! How important, indeed!