Addiction for first editions?

Second Take
Last Updated : 01 August 2015, 18:42 IST
Last Updated : 01 August 2015, 18:42 IST

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I once visited the home of a gentleman, a retired civil servant, who insisted he was a book collector. The bookshelves filled every room, stretching three floors, and I pretended to be suitably impressed.

But he wasn’t really a book collector, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. He was someone who owned a lot of books.

Collecting, I had begun to discover, was not about volume, but about edition. What this bookman had was a vast personal library, not a collection. His shelves were full of what the antiquarian book trade calls ‘reading copies’, not collectible editions.

Reading copies are the books we buy from our new and used bookshops. A book collector collects editions — rare, antiquarian, first and fine editions. She/he can have just a small shelf — even just a few rows — of interesting editions and be called a collector, while someone with a house full of reading copies will not be.

But, alas! The antiquarian book scene in India is close to non-existent. There are a handful of bona fide, genuine book collectors scattered across the country.

There isn’t an antiquarian book market here (let alone a vibrant or thriving one). The small band of real book collectors here mostly buy (make their finds/discoveries) from antiquarian booksellers when they travel abroad or — as in a more recent trend — from international antiquarian book sites on the internet.

Some well-known secondhand bookshops in India have doubled as antiquarian bookshops, occasionally dealing in material — usually ephemera (paper more than books) relating to (and from) the British-Raj period, or early 20th century Indian printed material. This kind of Indian material is highly collectible.

For a serious collector, this is a line of collecting to pursue. But a more immediate and interesting beginning would be with an entirely new area of collecting: first editions of modern Indian fiction.

Our desire to collect modern Indian first editions will create a culture of collecting here, open a market for them, and place a premium value on these editions that we are usually indifferent to. As young, aspiring collectors we can’t be bibliographically ignorant. The first editions of great and good books in any culture are collected with devotion and attention; we should do the same for our first editions.

I’ve been thinking of not only Indian-English books; but perhaps even more valuable, even more important is to collect the first edtions of books from our Bhasha literature.

Imagine finding a first edition of U R Ananthamurthy’s Samskara or Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. The first editions of all our modern classics from our regional literature are as good as lost to us because they were not collected. We collect not only because the book is beautiful to the eye and the hand, but also because books are some of the most valued and venerated objects in a culture.

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. If there is an art to collecting, it is the affinity and feeling for touch and sight — it begins with the hand and the eye. The seduction seems to work like this: it begins with a book, just one book that you feel deeply connected to. You know the text well, you’ve read it several times; you become familiar with the cover, the paper, the font, the type — your eyes and hands know this copy well.

And now you’re thinking how nice it would be to have another edition of the same book — the chase begins. Now you want to find as many interesting editions of the book as there are. And once you’ve hunted them down, your eyes stray to the other favourite books on your shelf. The hunt resumes.

It’s the same text but what the bibliophile is drawn to now goes beyond the text to the physical book. The devout bibliophile will (read should) deepen her/ his knowledge of the printed book: discover the antiquarian book world, learn how to identify rare and first editions, research print and book history, and immerse herself/ himself in the book culture. These are the rewards and pleasures of bibliophily.

Published 01 August 2015, 15:57 IST

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