Sometime this year, I shall be — to adapt something parents of about-to-be-married children often say — losing a bathroom, but gaining a library. The plan is to rip out the fittings in the toilet attached to my study, put up shelves, remove the door, convert the frame into a more pleasing arch and clear up floor space, table space, chair space and overcrowded shelf space around the house.
It will mean even more questions along the lines of “Gosh! Have you read all your books?”
My normal reaction to the question is a pitying look accompanied by an expression which says, “How illiterate of you to ask such a question,” and a gentle grunt which could mean anything from “Ha ha!” to “What makes you think I buy books to read them?” Or I borrow from Anatole France and respond to the philistine thus: “I haven’t read one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”
Last year I had an idea for a book: I would go through my shelves, pick out books I hadn’t read yet and write about finally catching up on my reading and reconnecting with my books, and thus pay a tribute to books and what they have meant in my life. Perhaps I wouldn’t buy another book till I had read every one of those I already owned. I quickly dropped that last idea, however. Suppose I had 520 unread books, and read them at the rate of two every week, it would take me five years to go through the lot. Neither practical nor desirable.
Perhaps I would write about just a small portion of unread books. While I was making these calculations, I came across British writer Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, a book identical to the one I had been planning to write, except that she had written it four years earlier. “I wanted to repossess my books,” she writes, “to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Books are seldom about themselves. They are about dates and circumstances, travels and relationships, gateways and possibilities. My copy of The Stolen Light by Ved Mehta is different from every other copy in existence. For, not only does it tell the story of Mehta going to college in California and the challenges he faced, it is equally a book that tells the story of my meeting with Mehta on a hot afternoon in New York, and the start of a friendship. We met on June 1 — I know because the book was inscribed to me then.
No book belongs to the author alone. We preserve books for what they tell us about our lives. And not just in the sense Jean Baudrillard meant when he said, “Here lies the whole miracle of collecting: It is invariably oneself that one collects.”
Somewhere at home is a slim children’s book. I can’t remember the name, but there is a mark on page 38 which is a reminder of my then infant son’s oral reaction to food. It is as evocative as any of the photographs taken of him at that stage. Like Proust’s Madeleine, it is a gateway to a flood of memories.
Yet, I am no book collector. First editions don’t interest me. Others can bid for the first edition of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and pay a fortune for it (someone actually did so, forking out 114,000 pounds) or Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (£50,000 with original dust jacket, £500 without it), but I’d rather curl up with my copy of John Carter’s ABC For Book Collectors, the classic on the subject.
Author inscriptions — now that’s another matter. In that charming little book, Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman tells the story of WB Yeats asking Thomas Hardy about how he dealt with requests for inscriptions. Hardy took Yeats to a room filled with books from floor to ceiling and said, “Yeats, these are the books sent to me for signature.” Today, thanks to literary festivals, book tours, bookstore signings, it is easier to get an author to sign your copy of the book. Some write a message (VS Naipaul, Stephen Fry, Augusten Burroughs), some go with “Best Wishes” (Ian McEwan, Karen Armstrong), and others just sign their names (Richard Dawkins, Tom Stoppard). Here too, different people will have different experiences. If you know someone well, he is unlikely to fob you off with just a signature. Lord Byron, for example, once wrote a 226-word note before he affixed his autograph.
In my ‘signed books’ shelf is a copy of Couples, signed by the author John Updike. It is inscribed with best wishes to “Patrick K”. I’d like to believe the signature is authentic, and not a version of the pranks we played in school, signing “With best wishes, William Shakespeare” in our copies of Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice.
Why do people get rid of books inscribed by the author to them? It can’t be because — as I was told by a dealer in antiquarian books — a book with such inscriptions is less valuable than one with just the signature. After all, this is emotional value versus the merely monetary.
Susan Hill’s book ends with her settling down to read Howards End. In the climactic scene, a character is crushed to death by a collapsing bookcase. Each generation has interpreted this in its own way (the book was written in 1910). Perhaps, as EM Forster himself suggests, the “gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophical man” could not be bridged by the working class character. A later critic saw this as the danger of education when pursued by the wrong people.
Today we might interpret that as symbolic of the death of not just books but those who ignore progress and the easy availability of e-book readers. Or bathrooms that can be converted into libraries.
The author is currently Editor, Wisden India Almanack