More than props in the plot

Second take

More than props in the plot

I can’t for the life of me recall a good bookshop scene from an Indian movie; can you? (I would have thought that’s the kind of setting at least Satyajit Ray would have delighted in). The Japanese, on the other hand, have injected the love for books even into animation.

She’s been described as the bibliophile’s poster child and uber bookworm — by day Yomiko is a librarian at the Royal British Library Division of Special Operations, and by night, The Paper. Her superpowers enable her to fight book villains, and in her hands, even the library card becomes a dangerous weapon.

The Japanese anime series Read or Die (by Hideyuki Kurata, Koji Masunari, Masashi Ishihama) is unique for the way it uses the world of books as primary background for a comic-book world. (In one episode involving India, the extra features on the DVD actually has a bibliographical reference to A Passage to India!)

The thin fate of books, bookstores and bookish people in cinema is made bearable by a handful of films that go beyond using books and bookstores as just classy backdrops. (When Hollywood uses bookshops this way, it is to give the movie a little unearned class — like in Notting Hill. Except for an unusual meeting place for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, the little bookshop on travel-literature serves no other purpose in the film).

The most fetching close-ups of books and bookshelves are to be found in Neil LaBute’s adaptation of A S Byatt’s Possession, where Gwyneth Paltrow visits several breathtaking old libraries.

And then there’s Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector, frantically looking for an out-of-print pulp mystery in a dusty, used bookstore, while Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey browse in a lovely New York bookstore in Hannah and Her Sisters and discover E E Cummings.

Later, when Woody Allen heard his favourite neighbourhood literary bookstore, Books & Co., was going to close, he paid tribute to it in Everyone Says I Love You.  In a rather glossy but unsatisfying infidelity drama, Unfaithful, Diane Lane has an affair with a younger book dealer. The three times she sneaks into his apartment where he stocks his inventory shows us books stacked not just along walls and passageways, but in the middle of rooms, as though they are furniture. How, you wonder, does he ever find the books he wants?

George Orwell’s early satire called Keep the Aspidistra Flying was the basis of the movie A Merry War, about a struggling poet and his wife (Richard E Grant, Helena Bonham-Carter) who work in a London second-hand bookshop to make ends meet. The films of Peter Greenaway have always featured books and (nude) bodies as erotic objects — from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover to Prospero’s Books to The Pillow Book. (In The Cook, the Thief... the scholarly lover is killed by his rival who shoves pages of a book down his throat until he chokes.)

Black Books from the BBC was a comedy about a peevish bookseller “who loves his books and hates his customers.” And Ismail Merchant’s The Mystic Masseur is a top-notch comedy about bookishness gone wrong. Read You Like a Book is a rather obscure independent movie set entirely inside a real bookstore, the legendary Black Oaks Books in Berkeley. A mysterious man turns up at the bookstore and leaves a strange book called The Illustrated Book of Failure at the counter. The book, we soon realise, has a way of making an impact on the patrons and the employees of the bookshop. The story is slight, but what makes the movie special are all the long, lingering close-up glimpses of books, browsers and bookshelves.

Though the film Crossing Delancey also uses a beautiful bookstore as a background to the romance between Amy Irving and Peter Riegert, it offers characters that really care for books, and a plot that is fairly literary in tone. There are several scenes featuring the bookshop and some lovely lines strewn with literary references. The film opens with a literary party in progress at the store, and its owner (played to perfection by George Martin) welcomes the guests this way: “It’s an aesthetic shock to see so many writers, readers and critics gathered in the same room.”

The most full-fledged movie on love for books is the one based on Marco Page’s Fast Company, which is probably the first bibliomystery in cinema. Both, the book and the film, continue to remain obscure. The film is completely out of print, while first editions of the book are scarce. As far as ‘bookish’ movies go, it doesn’t get better than this hidden gem.

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