Life-blood of master spirits

Life-blood of master spirits

When I was in school, one of the grouses I battled with was the fact that the list of textbooks for every class rarely changed from year to year. As a result, the books that came to me at the start of each academic year were those that had belonged to my older sister. Invariably, they were dog-eared and well-thumbed. Adding to my woes was the fact that it was she who always enjoyed the privilege of getting new books. Perfect in appearance, their pages were pristine, exuding a tantalising and exciting new smell. Oh, how I envied her! But I kept my feelings to myself, well aware that no one would understand or appreciate them.

Little did I realise that a sweeping sea-change lay ahead. I joined college and chose English Literature as my special subject of study. We were required to do vast amounts of reading. It was impossible to do this without borrowing books from the library. Besides, I could afford only second-hand books from small bookshops. But what a world of wealth they contained!

To my utter delight, I found that their previous owners had painstakingly highlighted important points and passages. They served as a kind of abridgement and, later, helped me revise quickly before the examinations. Slowly and steadily, my aversion to old books faded. The notes, big and small, could enlighten the later reader and lead to fresh lines of thought.

This was the beginning of my love-affair with old books. I realised that while they did not have the good looks of the new, they possessed a character all their own. Today, a book that is dog-eared and thumbed means that it has been widely read and deeply appreciated. Its dense marginalia will offer fresh insights. One can also tell when people stopped reading by the fold at the corner of the page. A mere question mark will tell you that a particular statement is debatable or way off the mark. Bloopers and printers’ devils are circled or corrected. If a book was gifted, then the inscription on the fly-leaf can set your imagination on a run. For instance, why was that prize book awarded for General Proficiency given away? The following inscription has left me wondering — “Originally meant for K... but well, thanks to my stupidity, got it back.”

Was the book refused, left where it was given or sold and then retrieved? This reminds me of an amusing anecdote related to George Bernard Shaw. In a second-hand stall, with volumes much marked down, the celebrated author came across his book which he had gifted to a friend. He saw the friend’s name on the first page written in his own hand. Shaw bought it, wrote “With renewed compliments. G.B.S.” and sent it back to him.

Like a moth to a flame, I am now drawn to used-books stores because a good book, old though it is, is as John Milton said, “the precious life-blood of a master-spirit.”