JThanks to digital technology, eBooks can now be downloaded almost instantly to Kindles, tablets, or other Internet-assisted devices. They are much more portable, convenient and searchable than a physical book. Still, there’s no denying that printed books have their own charm. The pleasure of holding a new book in your hand and enjoying the fresh scent of its pages while poring over its contents is a unique experience in itself.
As a schoolboy, my joy knew no bounds at the annual occasion of buying textbooks at the textbook depot when I was promoted to a higher class.
While scholars, intellectuals, writers, artists, and scientists assiduously build huge libraries at home, book lovers like me maintain a modest collection. I jealously guard the books purchased by me and my family members not only during our school and college years, but also later for nearly five decades.
We have allocated a separate area in our house to keep this diverse collection of books, despite severe space constraints. Digging through the shelves one came across volumes of Shakespeare, classics like Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, 20th century novels by authors like EM Forster and DH Lawrence, notable books like Gandhiji’s My Experiments with Truth and The Discovery of Nehru. India, novels, non-fiction, magazines and some technical manuals as well. While the contents of some have faded over time, the bindings retain a yellowish purity.
Visitors to our house invariably showed interest in the books I had. Guests preferred to peruse special issues of Deepavali and old Tamil novels by Kalki and Akilan. Many children in our extended family and neighborhood were drawn to children’s magazines such as Chandamama and Kalkandu, and comics such as Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajal. Some took the liberty of taking home a few books which they returned at their convenience. However, I kept no records of the books borrowed.
There was an old gentleman, a distant relative, who occasionally wandered into our house. He used to ransack the book shelves with effortless momentum. He picked up a book, leafed through its pages and said he would like to borrow it for a few days. I couldn’t refuse because of the respect he inspired in the house. He rarely returned borrowed books on his own initiative.
When I was in college, I cultivated the habit of visiting used book stalls for two reasons: to find the rare print of a book I was looking for in the middle of the pile made me feel like I was reuniting with a long-lost friend, and with my limited pocket money, I was able to buy as many books as I could with my bargaining skills. As some of the extraordinary volumes thus purchased were out of print, I was justifiably proud to own them.
Once, in a sidewalk bookstore, I found an old edition of Elia’s Essays, a collection of memorable essays by Charles Lamb, leaned in brotherly friendship against songbooks from vintage Tamil films. Obviously, the shopkeeper was blissfully unaware of the incongruity of the juxtaposition. When the shopkeeper noticed that I was attracted to the book, he created a surprise by quoting only ₹20 as the cost. As I felt sorry that such a good job was so cheap, I was in for another surprise. The shopkeeper took my silence for hesitation and offered to sell it for ₹10. Without a second word, the book changed hands.
I walked through the jostling crowd, proudly holding the book in my hand and feeling like I had earned a lot of consumer surplus that day. As I quietly opened the volume at home, I was stunned to see under the heading of the inside cover, my name written in my own handwriting in lightly scratched black ink. It was a wake-up call for me to take better care of the treasure of books I had.
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