The case of vanishing books

The case of vanishing books


The case of vanishing books

There are many kinds of book collectors — from casual collectors of sleaze to Shakespeare addicts; those who read and then throw.

Travelling in youth hostels around the world, one of the curious finds are the books left behind by others, a bewildering range indeed. This is in contrast to those who hold books close to their hearts. A chief time officer of a sugar factory near Mysuru lives as an example of this addiction. He has retired to live with books, nearly 1,00,000, and has almost no space to sleep. Called the Pustaka Mane, it houses racks of books securely. No one can borrow them.

But, like with a hole in the bucket, it’s difficult to hold them back. Books slip away as though they have a spirit of their own, like my books The Nympho and Other Maniacs by Irving Wallace and a photo album with a series on a nude Marilyn Monroe. The first was borrowed by a minister’s husband in Delhi. He passed it on to a friend and through friends of friends it reached me, 7 years later, teaching me that of all types of kindness, lending books is the one which meets with the least return.

The second was flicked. Borrowers are apologetic sometimes, but they are most often defiant. One borrower returned a book with an inscription on the flyleaf, ‘Possession is 9/10ths of the law.’

How not to lend? There are ways... To begin with, enter a firm plea of ‘Not Guilty’ when accused of possessing a book, after having turned the library into a protected area. When the guards are down, create a secret archive or an isolation ward. But it won’t work without a decoy. The library should contain trash that anyone is welcome to dip into, while the precious ones are safe in the protected area, reached only through a secret code — like knocking three times.

But the true book lover is always in a ‘desert-island’ situation. He can’t do without a few that he must fasten to himself with hoops of steel. For me, these are The Pickwick Papers, Life of Samuel Johnson, Alice in the Wonderland, Catch-22, Kanooru Subbamma Heggadithi and works by Shakespeare.

Going into the psychology of the light-fingered ones will perhaps reveal how books disappear. Recently, a study revealed some international predilections. Anyone who has been in Gilbert Jeune in Paris knows it’s tempting to pick a book and walk away. The choice of books differ in each country. In England, at Hatchards in Piccadilly Circus, the list includes Camus’s The Outsider, Kerouac’s On the Road, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

Not so at Printers Inc in California, where they tend to illicitly walk out with The New Male Sexuality, while in Manhattan they beat it with ‘beat poets’ like Allen Ginsberg. In France, it seems, they go real classy — the leather-bound edition of La nouvelle histoire de la France Contemporaine. That is tantamount to someone in India lifting Nilakanta Sastri’s History of South India.

From land’s end to the Himalayan peaks we are interested mainly in sleaze. An ideal decoy to keep book thieves off track is to strew the place with old copies of Playboy.

Books have ways of compensating you. But when I go to a library and find that the book I have been dying to buy but couldn’t find, simply languishing in a shelf, I have a strong itch to flick it. I did that once with Abbot’s Napoleon, which, after losing as a student in Mysuru 45 years ago, I had never found in a bookshop. One day, while going through Murthy’s select heap of books, shrouded in thick dust, I pulled out a dull-blue manual. There was Abbott, staring at me in double columns. Quickly I turned over to the page after flyleaf. At the bottom was my signature!

I have heard of men chasing books, but a book chasing a man? It’s true: a book that is marked cannot change its master.

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