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.