Sunday, October 16, 2005

The stench of old second-hands

As a self-confessed biblio-dork, one of the things I can’t relate to is the fascination most others of my tribe have for Old Books – specifically, buying festering second-hands from pavement vendors. I’ve struggled with this for years. Inevitably, at any get-together that includes a book-discussion, someone or the other will raise the topic – usually starting with how they love the smell of an old book, or the associations that each yellowing page brings with it, or how wonderful it is to imagine what the book might have meant to the person who once owned it.

The gathering comes alive. There are collective oohs and ahs, everyone relates their favourite Old Book stories: that magic moment at the end of a day of futile searching when, all set to give up and go home, they caught a glimpse of just what they were looking for (and a last copy too!); or what an enigmatic dedication on a book might possibly mean. Then someone notices that I’m keeping quiet, smiling (grimacing) politely. I get hostile stares. Occasionally, emboldened by a drink, I stammer out that I’m not especially enamoured of yellowing pages that once belonged to someone else – I prefer buying new books and watching them get old over the years, in my own bookshelf. A lady friend mutters darkly that such an attitude is no less contemptible than the typical Indian male’s insistence on a virgin bride, and that Freud might find me an interesting case for study. I shut up. A black cloud descends on the party.

Walking around the Sunday bazaar at Daryaganj earlier today, I was reminded of my little mental block. Now the place is undoubtedly charming, I do enjoy looking at the stock from a safe distance, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up something that there’s absolutely no chance of finding in a first-hand store (an old and rare book on cinema, for instance) – though you can be sure I’ll handle it gingerly, lest a silverfish should leap out at me. But on the whole, I just can’t muster as much enthusiasm for second-hands as my browsing companion Nikhil did today, and as most of my friends manage to.

Now if someone elects to buy books second-hand for monetary reasons, I can understand that completely. No objections if it’s a practical decision. But the romanticising of old books is a source of much puzzlement to me. Well, sure they have memories attached to them, but they’re other people’s memories, and exactly what kinds of people are these anyway who regularly dispose of their old books? If it’s some philanthropy thing – once we’re finished reading, let’s share it with the world – I still don’t get that. I couldn’t imagine giving my own books away to anyone.

And about the much-vaunted smell: more likely than not it’s the residual stink of an ancient dinner consumed by someone you don’t even know anything about (beyond the fact that they were heartless enough to abandon their preciouses to the flea market). I shudder to think about some of the hands these old books might have passed through over the decades, and the rich varieties of germs they would have collected. Or the provenance of the stains you see on every second page.

Of course it’s entirely different when it comes to my own old books. Most of them – the Noddys, Ladybirds, Amar Chitra Kathas – are still within arm’s length reach of my desk, and I revisit them often. It’s amazing how memories that have been inactive for years suddenly come alive when I turn the pages; the other day, rereading Five Go to Kirrin Island, I had what must regretfully be called a Titanic moment. I felt I could remember exactly what the book looked like when it was shiny and new; it was like one of those facile seamless shots from James Cameron’s epic film, where the mouldy hull of the sunken ship is transformed by computer effects into what it looked like 80 years earlier. (Interesting how we define important things in our lives by reference points supplied by the sentimental pop films that are so easy to dismiss. Or is that just me?)

To my delight, I found I could recall not just plot specifics but also exactly where I had been when I first read about George and Timmy entering an underground tunnel on the island: I was in Andheri for the summer holidays, a tin of Bourbon biscuits by my side (caution: entering Proust territory now), and that in turn spawned other memories. Best of all, like all my other books from that time, the first page has my name on it, scrawled untidily with a sketch pen (by myself, aged 6/7).

Now those are the kinds of old books I like.


P.S. In the interest of - urgh! - fairness, here's a view from the other side.

18 comments:

  1. that's not old-book joy, that's a healthy dose of nostalgia. (or --hah--you being an omphaloskeptic fondly looking back on your babyhood) but the difference with an old-book you discovered is that you have the disembodied nostalgia of someone else's abandoned treasure. it's like you inherited something by pure accident. it's thrilling to find gold amidst the dross on pavements. like say, a book you read once in someone else's house, that made you laugh, and that you later discovered went out of print. and the trippy acid-and glam-rock infused illustrated secondhand 'jabberwocky' i told you about,that i bought in a tiny second hand bookstore store in leamington spa, that was pure magic.

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  2. I don't like the smell of old books, but I do like the books themselves. Many reasons, and I documented most of them here:

    http://sillysod.blogspot.com/2005/08/this-post-does-not-have-point.html

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  3. I have never been one for second hand books. Particularly so after reading that graphic description of where the coin had been in Pamuk's My Name is Red, I can no longer buy anything secondhand, for fear that it might have once resided up someone's rear end.

    n!

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  4. I suppose there are many non-romantic and practical reasons to visit second-hand book stores...the two things you point out yourself - money and availability of rare/cult/out-of-print books which you will never find in mainstream bookstores.

    One other major problem I have with big posh bookstores is the sheer philistinism (perhaps they call it efficiency) that goes in arranging the books by name of the authors and totally disregarding the content. I mean Coetzee and Coelho side by side???

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  5. Neela, if you think that's going to put me off buying second hand books, I guess you're right. I hope selective amnesia kicks in and I forget about this the next time someone suggests a trip go to the books bazaar.

    Jai, I just bought six books and wasn't half as enthusiastic this time around. Kept thinking about not reading, and visualising books queueing up, impatient.

    Alok: Coetze and Coelho being placed together is perhaps better than Asimov and Sweet Valley High next to each other.

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  6. Alok: yes, I've seen Coetzee and Coelho nestling together at first-hand bookstores myself. But then at the Daryaganj market I saw Evelyn Waugh's Collected Essays and Letters peeking out from under a pulp 'romance' titled Hot Flashes: A Novel.

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  7. It could be traced back to one's childhood, Freud would have said. See, people who had elder siblings are more comfortable with using the second hand stuff and all ;-). Lemme guess, you are the only child or the eldest, right? Hey, lets write a psychology paper on this, I can provide all bogus data ;-).

    BTW, you need not worry about germs and all dude! You live in India, country which makes your immunity rock solid!

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  8. Oi! Just to clarify, I'm not the same Nilanjana (Neelanjana?) as Neela who left a comment earlier. Sympathised with her hygiene issues about secondhand books while recognising I don't share them at all. Have copy of Jejuri, now falling to bits, which includes DNA of previous owner in form of blood spatter marks on page 16--well, I hope it's mosquito DNA, but frankly I suspect the worst. Also have copy of Javier Marias novel that I couldn't resist (he's hard to find in Delhi) despite ominous cream-coloured stain and smooshed beetle decorating the pages.
    Me? Squeamish? Naaa. Two words for the reader torn between hygiene and the lure of the cheap bargain: hand sanitisers. Available, I'm told, at a chemist near you.

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  9. Speaking for myself, it's the smell of new books that I love. The print, the paper, the binders' glue... mmmm.

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  10. The smell of old books is not the issue .. the content and price is .. I have a budget of Rs 500 per month for books . When I go to a big snazzy book store, I can buy max 2 books , if I am luck ! . I am a vociferous reader. Reading being my escape into fantasy. That is why I am now buying second hand books from an online store in India-- www.secondhandbooksindia.com . They give me clean / non smelly books at low prices , home delivered .. What else do I want? I normally manage to buy 10 books with my budget of Rs 500 ...Great isn't it.

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  11. Hiya
    I just came from your blog. It was very interesting and well written.

    Regards
    state quarters

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  12. By the same token, perhaps new books can be viewed as sterile products of a machine - untouched by hand, which also means not touched, held and flipped through with affection, or disgust or a whole range of emotions.
    The "romance" of the old book, dear JWk, is what will save the book in our age.

    As for someone else's emotion, think about it: are your emotions any different from those of any other? Remember, the whole bibliophile community is one big family.

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  13. Sid..No More The Kid6:41 PM, March 27, 2008

    Jai,
    There are 2 basic reasons for browsing second-hand treasure-troves. One , as you rightly point out is purely financial. The other being that you often come across titles not stored in Crosswords and Oxfords and the second-hand book stalls are an easier way rather than researching about book societyies and archives.
    One interesting co-incidence, I picked up a few Inspector Banks series ( thanks for the reco) , at 90 bucks apiece , all in "as good as new" condition, from Blossom Bookstore in bangalore- a famous second-hand bookhouse here. You paid 200 , if i remember correctly. :)

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  14. Sid: Rs 200, yes, but for an omnibus that included two novels. Unless that's what you also bought for Rs 90...

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  15. Sid...No More The Kid12:10 AM, March 28, 2008

    thats Rs 100 per novel, right?I paid Rs 90 apiece!So,there...
    Jokes apart, liked them immensely. Unfortunately couldnt get hold of the titles you mentioned specifically in your post. But the books I got (finished 2 out of four so far) would have been worth the extra tenner too.

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  16. Sid..No More The Kid12:12 AM, March 28, 2008

    thats Rs 100 per novel, right?I paid Rs 90 apiece!So,there...
    Jokes apart, liked them immensely. Unfortunately couldnt get hold of the titles you mentioned specifically in your post. But the books I got (finished 2 out of four so far) would have been worth the extra tenner too.

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  17. Sid..No More The Kid12:21 AM, March 28, 2008

    Aftermath is a remarkable work for a detective novel. Although the identity of the criminal is revealed at the outset, it still manages to keep you guessing about the Hows and Whys. However, one could work out some of the questions atleast a couple of chapters before the answers are revealed.
    Stange Affairs however scores on that point. Banks knows who is the wrongdoer,but he needs to find the evidence against the person. And he finds it once he unearths the startling (and one of the most ingenuos) motive behind the crime.

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  18. I belonged to this second-hand library which was the only thing around back then -- it got me reading but makes me to throw up now..

    http://vijeejournalist.com/2010/03/not-quite-shakespeare-co/

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