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For the love of a book

Last updated: 25 September, 2010

Books as collectibles

Having authored ‘The Groaning Shelf,’ a little book about books, Pradeep Sebastian wonders if readers are as interested in a book’s physical presence as they are in the literary text between the covers.

After I finished the final draft of The Groaning Shelf, my little book about books, I wondered if the way I had described bibliophiles and their relationships to books came off sounding a little sentimental and nostalgic. Was I displaying too much book-lust, obsessing about dust jackets, first editions, bookshelves, book thieves and agonising about bookstores shutting down, the e-book takeover and the death of the book? I wanted my book to be a tough-minded exploration of the presence of the book in my life, and in the lives of other bibliophiles. The book as physical, material object and caring for it in that way (as much as for the text-the words- inside it). A keen awareness of the book in this sense as something to delight in seemed to be missing from many book lovers in India. Even our authors and literary critics didn't seem to be interested in the book as presence; what absorbed them, what they engaged with was the literary text between the covers.

A book’s bibliographical aspects - edition, typography, design - went mostly ignored. Only a small and scattered band of book historians, publishers, printers, designers and bibliophiles seemed to care about how a book looked and felt.

Now don’t misunderstand me — I’m not saying our readers and writers and critics don’t notice or appreciate a nicely produced book or a sparkling jacket. But they seldom pursue its bibliographical points any deeper - identifying/noting the edition, colophon, jacket designer, and binding for instance. There’s a lot of robust literary criticism here but little writing on book culture. There’s a simple reason for all this, of course.


No culture of bibliophily

In India we have never really had a long, vibrant culture of bibliophily. That is, a tradition of book collectors collecting books for their editions (first, rare and limited editions), libraries devoted to rare books, antiquarian bookstores and booksellers, book auction houses and galleries, antiquarian book fairs, book scouts, bibliographers, universities that offer courses in book history, and rare book schools that teach book restoration, binding, descriptive bibliography, printing processes, and cataloguing. 

It isn’t hard to figure out why we lack a culture of bibliophily here: we lack the objects to study and collect! Where are the Indian first editions? How indeed can we identify a first edition here? What (and where!) are our rare books? Today Indian publishing is bursting with stunningly produced books, but up until even the 80s, our books -both regional and in English - meant either dull or shoddy paperbacks and rusty, functional hardbacks.

(What was between the covers was of course a different thing - wonderful writing; all kinds of new writing, exploding with talent). There was little pleasure to be had in the printing, design or production.(Though the decent first edition of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August is the Faber UK edition, the one to cherish and collect is the  Rs 40  Rupa paperback we bought off the pavements in the 80s).

Indian rare books are so scarce that ‘rare’ does not begin to describe it, extinct is more like it: anything from 19th century monographs to early 20th century British Raj writing to the first print runs of fiction in regional literature. (For instance, the first printings of Bankim’s Durgeshnandini from 1865, often identified as the first published novel in an Indian language). It would seem that we didn’t preserve our heritage books the way we preserved and curated and sold our heritage art.

Only now with the work of book historians exhuming our print culture, we begin to get a sense of our book culture past and the individuals behind it. The forgotten or neglected heroes of our (and any) book culture are the printers and typesetters and publishers. They are also the true subject of book histories. Books are some of the most venerated objects in any culture (especially ours -accidentally stamp on a book or graze it with your feet, and you ask the book's pardon), but unless we care for them in their physicality — paper, cloth, board, typography, design — we care not for the book as book but only for the text inside.

Does it really make such a big difference, you ask, the physical form of the book? Well, if it did not why make all the fuss about e-books replacing books? The book has been beloved to us as object, as form: the way it feels and smells and looks. If we had not been in love with it, we would have welcomed and embraced digital books and readers, and quickly said goodbye to books. And we may very well have to bid goodbye to the book as we know it. And that’s fine. My concern is not with the future of books - if it means not having to cut down more trees, and the digital book is more visual and interactive and fantastic in ways we can’t imagine now, let it happen.

What interests me now is preserving the books we have, the books we cherish in their particular editions. (I don’t mean every single paper and cloth book. The antiquarian books trade has a name for the regular books we buy - reading copies! This has always thrilled and amused me in its condescension). And to begin paying attention to the bibliographical aspects of the books we want to pursue and collect. Especially the books we can collect: modern and hypermodern Indian first editions, so that they won’t languish in a pile of books and be eventually lost or pulped. This way, we recognise and pay tribute to all those who craft the book: the printer, a publisher’s production team, book jacket designer, and typesetter.

If The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love is a fine looking book- oh, alright, a beautiful looking book- it is because  its publisher, indulged me with the book’s design and production. The team behind its design immediately saw why a book about books should also be about how a book looked and felt to the touch. When I asked them if they could give the book deckled edges, they were game to give it a shot, but warned me that it may not look pukka. Deckled edges is leaving the foredges of a book uncut (many Alfred Knopf books have them) giving them an uneven, rough, and interesting texture to the smoother, evenly cut foredges, particularly when you are flicking pages with your thumb. And we did it! Making it the first deckled edge of its kind in India, done by a manual process.

Bibliophiles make a fetish of books, there’s no denying it. And there’s a thin line between bibliomania and bibliophilia. But it is this desire for a particular copy, that edition and that one alone, that compels the collector to stalk it, acquire it, restore it, preserve it, display it and invest all that care and emotion after it. And this is not about satisfying the book lust of collectors or filling the pockets of rare book dealers. Collecting makes the preservation of books possible, nourishes a culture of bibliophily, encourages and builds a circle of passionate collectors, knowledgeable rare book sellers and a vibrant, rare books market.

And is this activity of some literary use or value? some are bound to ask. Fredson Bowers, a master bibliographer said, “True bibliography is the bridge to literary criticism.” And another bibliographer defined descriptive bibliography as the thing that reconstructs, “for each particular book the history of its life, to make it reveal in its most intimate detail the story of its birth and adventures as a material vehicle of the living word.” To illustrate: When an ardent collector collects everything by an author she admires - the letters, papers, and variant editions of the work of Devanooru Mahadeva or Kamala Das or Amitav Ghosh — it becomes an invaluable reference resource for biographers, literary critics and fans.

Is bibliophily an elitist activity?

Something only for bibliophiles with money? It’s a little different from collecting art. Yes, there are expensive editions and rich collectors, but there are also inexpensive editions to pursue and build a collection.
 
And you don’t even have to be a collector; you can be a bibliophile simply interested in the bibliography of books. I believe all devoted readers care for books as objects, but it is such a latent thing, this feeling for the book as object, that we don’t sense it for the longest time in our reading life. And then it just happens: one day you are looking and looking at a book as much as you are reading it, and your bibliophiliac heart rejoices at the beauty of dust jackets, the feel and smell of paper, and your eyes light up at the elegant typography.

You realise books as objects have all along had their own intense, resonant and mysterious presence in your life, on your bookshelves, in bookstores, in history, and in a culture.

I would like to see more Indian books about books published. And the emphasis is on both, Indian and books about books. Because even though The Groaning Shelf is a rare instance (perhaps even the first) of a full fledged book about books in India, it lacks an Indian focus.

Much of what I describe in the book is bibliophily as it is practiced in the West. There are only a tiny number of essays with an Indian focus in my book- which means the genre is crying out for more books on books rooted here. 

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