Erudite and rich

Lead Review
Last Updated 30 October 2010, 13:18 IST

This is a collection of impressively erudite literary essays focusing on the love of books as material objects. The author strives to convert his readers into fully appreciating a book’s “bibliographical aspects — binding, edition, condition, rarity, and typography, (which) matter to me as much as their literary content.”

The author cites bibliophile Joseph Epstein to support his view that “ ‘sometimes reading supplies the most cunning of all means of avoiding thought’, and that it is just possible that if you are always reading, you may never discover anything. “Sebastian writes; “The book historian’s interest in print culture is professional, but why should a reader, even a serious reader, take an interest in book history? The interest begins unselfconsciously,” he says.

From reflecting on what is inside a book, you begin thinking about the year the book was printed, notice the binding, typography, jacket wrapper and who printed it. And that leads you to want to know what a book from the past looked, and smelled like.  

The author guides lay readers in the intricacies involved in the verso and colophon. He waxes eloquent on ‘The Mystique of First Editions’, the appreciation of illustrations and jacket designs, everything you want to know about the art and science of collecting rare books, and book history in India. There’s one essay devoted to the methodology of stacking books in shelves and Samuel Pepys’ obsession “with trying to get books of various sizes — folio, quarto, duodecimo — looking even on the shelf without having to use shelves of different sizes.

“Sebastian delves into his exemplary treasure trove of reading books about books, to continue with long threads of what other scholarly bibliophiles have to say. Thus, Sebastian cites Terry Belanger citing “an absurd Victorian book of etiquette that suggest ‘the perfect hostess will see to it that the works of male and female authors be properly segregated on her book shelves.” Then Belanger is cited as quoting Maurus, the forgotten medieval essayist; “Books have their own fates.”

In the above manner, we often find ourselves delving through pages upon pages of what others such as Petroski, Jean Baudrillard, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Mc Dade, Ron Rosenbaum have to say.

The author himself has interesting observations of his own to offer. He challenges readers to delve through reams of quotes and ideas of other thinkers to discover these engaging little nuggets. In the essay,The tattooed Bibliophile, he writes of book souvenirs such as t-shirts, sports trading cards converted to book trading cards and favourite author bookmarks he has discovered on eBay. Out of Circulation is one essay where the author offers his unique ideas on the value of circulating libraries of the desi home-grown variety.

In the essay, The Book Borrower, he writes engagingly on habitual borrowers who fail to return borrowed books, and the joy of sharing favourite reads. “Between readers nothing seals a friendship or deepens a relationship the way book transactions can.” Sebastian is at his best at such times, sharing the joys of reading in bed or delving into the history of books in India. Other highlights of this book are Sebastian’s views on favourite writers such as Ryokan and Salinger. This book leaves us wishing for more of such quirky, interesting musings.

This book is also a goldmine of book trivia, such as the fate of many a Sherlock Holmes fan, and the mysterious true case of the missing Conan Doyle papers. However, while learning words like ‘exegetical’ and much else from this book, I continue to stand my ground.

So what if I’ve dog-eared a few pages or lightly soiled this first edition book’s pristine white and very stylish dust jacket? Books are primarily meant for reading. 

The Groaning Shelf and other instances of book love
Pradeep Sebastian
Hachette, 2010,
pp 290,

(Published 30 October 2010, 11:44 IST)

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