It’s interesting that the term bibliophile is inextricably linked to the physical object. I wonder if there’s a term which only means ‘lover of reading’, something that denotes just the act of reading, independent of the medium. Perhaps when the term was coined, one didn’t conceive that reading might be possible on non-print media.

At least for people of my generation, a love for the physical objects themselves was a pre-requisite. I can’t remember my first ever visit to a library or book store. It must felt very close to how it felt like when I wandered into McLeod’s Books in Vancouver last month. The smell of pulp, that very distinctive smell of slightly musty pulp, made me feel heady. The sight of so many books at one spot added to that feeling of slight imbalance. I came down from that high pretty quickly, as I felt overwhelmed by the thought that I’d never be able to read all those books, or even read enough to understand what most of those books were about. That low was followed by a slow climb to another high (a more permanent high this time), where I decided that I’d somehow manage to read everything worth reading, regardless of the seeming impossibility of that goal.

These days, it’s difficult to recapture that sense of awe-struck wonder. For one thing, neither the Donnell Library nor Barnes & Noble are at all musty. Even the Strand doesn’t scare me anymore. Everything is too neatly labeled and categorized. I suppose the idea is to make it less overwhelming, but all it really does is to make it all seem more mundane, and therefore easier to ignore. My love for new books, with their slightly moist pages, and their smell of new binding is for another post. But in this one, I am going to say that as much as I like new books, with their shiny covers and untouched pages, I’d much rather take older books, used or not.

Even libraries don’t seem to carry very many old books these days. You might get lucky and get an old edition of something that no one reads any more, or something which the library hasn’t gotten around to replacing with a shinier version. But that’s extremely rare. All you get these days are new books trying very hard to look like old books – with their vain attempts at evoking the past, replete with references to old paintings and books and maps. These are the books whose pages are thick and their edges a tad rough, as though the paper’s been cut with a dull-edged knife. Who’re they kidding? They’re as close to “old” as Dan Brown is to Umberto Eco.

When I was a kid, if you claimed to ‘love to read’, you also had to love the musty-odor, and the silver-fish, and the cob-webs. Books were hard-bound in an intimidating sort of manner (intimidating because they reminded you that they really belonged in a fancy glass book case and that you were ruining them by stocking them in your modest non-glassy shelf). There were no capitalized or italicized blurbs shouting the book’s worth to the world, no quotations from Michiko Kakutani or Salman Rushdie, not even a summary. There was nothing. You either had to have read something else by the same author, or you’d heard of the book from a friend, or you went with the title and what little you could make out from skimming through a few random pages. These books were clearly not published in the 80s. These are books from my grandfather’s generation – but for some reason, these were the sorts of books one found at libraries – be it the British Council or the Shankar Lending Library at Cuddalore.

When I was a kid, reading was a solitary pursuit. I didn’t have friends who liked reading half as much as I did. I didn’t have siblings who might have steered me toward or away from books. I suppose I started with what my parents thought I might like, or rather, what looked like appropriate reading for a kid. Then I went through many authors they themselves liked – Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robin Cook… I used to go “through” authors then – if I liked one book, I read anything and everything else from the same author. Most of the books I now swear by were read for utterly random reasons – an uncle who happened to spend a few months in Germany brought back an Asterix comic as a present; old Mr. Shankar from the lending library told my Mom that Perry Mason would be “appropriate” reading for a young girl; a couple of my Dad’s friends from his bachelor days were PGW nuts, and Dad remembered the name long after he’d stopped being a bachelor; a neighbor had hard bound copies of all of Jane Austen’s novels in a book case they inherited from their grandfather; a senior from high school thought that our system of education was irredeemably screwed up because they no longer taught Shakespeare in the original – R quoted from Othello, I think, and insisted that the language was alive and not scary at all – I had a crush on him after that fine speech (mostly for being revolutionary enough to question the merit of a thing I’d taken for granted, and for not being afraid to openly express a fondness for reading stuff even older than what I’d read till then), and decided to give Shakespeare a shot, even though I doubt that I spoke to R ever again… It’s funny that the very strong likes and dislikes I now claim to have were developed so haphazardly.

Only in the last five or so years have I finally managed to connect with other readers. It still feels odd to ask someone about their reading – I am too scared to ask the question of people I think I would like to be friends with. I am terrified that they or I will give the wrong answer and a possible friendship might forever be lost. Even if I didn’t have friends, there are a zillion reviews to read, hundreds of rankings and blogs and book clubs to tell me what I should be reading. Suddenly, reading is a social activity.

But I get distracted. This was supposed to be about the books themselves, not about reading. McLeod’s as you can see from the photographs, is an amazing store. It was a delightful spot to kill a few hours, as I waited for my visa. One of the books I bought there is an old edition of Robert Graves’s Claudius the God. I’d been reading a library copy in New York, which I had to return before I could finish it. I like the book well enough, but the only reason I bought this copy was because it was inscribed:

“January 19th 1959.

To successful years ahead – and contentment – B.H.”

How could I have not bought the book after seeing that?

I have the book on my bed as I type this. Every time I read this inscription, I think of McLeod’s, the way the store looked and smelt, and I remember some of the reasons I fell in love with reading for the first time.


1 comment so far

  1. bookworm on

    I also love old bookstores, including the tactile experience of actual books – which is why i phoned mcleod’s this afternoon to find out if they have a book I can buy instead of just reading it for free online. I can spend hours lost in a used bookstore and I don’t usually mind if they don’t know exactly what they have in stock – that’s part of the experience. However the people who work at McLeod’s are genuinely unpleasant to talk to and make you feel like you are bothering them just for wanting to buy a book.
    I am a grad student, probably spend upwards of $600 a year on books, and the one experience I had at McLeod’s (just this afternoon) left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that hope I never go there again. The clerks were breathtakingly rude – they seemed so stressed, irritable, and panicky that they made the ambiance of the store more like a welfare office on chequue day than a bookstore. While it’s fun to browse, this store also serves an academic community who sometimes just need to know if it’s likely that they carry a book – the place seems nightmarishly disorganized. They need a computer catalogue to help the store feel less disorganized and stressful, and if they don’t plan to get a computer system – whether because they don’t care to take care of their stock any more than they care to clean their windows, or because of higher values around the mystery of random book discovery – then they need some fresh air and a lesson on basic social skills.
    I hope the owner reads this – you just lost one customer and all of her grad student friends in Vancouver – i will spread this experience around to the hundreds of graduate students I know.
    dissapointedly yours – an avid bookworm.

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