I got my love for books from my father. Pitaji, a retired Hindi teacher, has a huge collection of books. Not that he could afford to buy them, these were pieced together in different phases. The earliest books in his collection are from the time when he bought books while doing his PhD. When he became senior enough, he was a part of the committee deciding the course books for his university, sample copies of books followed soon enough. And when he became even more senior- and his earlier students too became senior- he began getting his books written by his students (and sundry other fans) gifted to him. Now, when Pitaji is 86, wheel has turned a full circle and he is back to researching- and buying books! His passion for the last couple of decades has been Vinoba Bhave which he reads and reflects on regularly. He buys all the Vinoba literature he can lay his hands on.
Books, you may think offer either diversionary or intellectual delight. You read them for fun (“time-pass”) or for feeding your intellect. I firmly believe that they go far beyond this. They offer emotional support, memories of years gone by and even sensual comfort.
Let us take the last one, first. The sensuous feel of the glossy jacket, the textured cloth of a hard-bound book once you remove the jacket, and most importantly, the fragrance wafting from the pages of a newly purchased book. Rare is a book-lover who has not delighted in these.
I have this habit of inscribing my name on each book I buy. Mainly to record my ownership, and deter the occasional borrower who may wish never to return it. I also date my purchase and write the city where I bought it from. And when I go through my collection, the date and place trigger memories of distant times. Some books being milestones of sorts. This is the book when I bought when I got my first salary. This was when I got engaged to be married. That one was bought when our first born was on his way. And that one, over there, was bought at the airport when I was about to embark on my first international trip. Etc, etc.
I had this habit, now extinct, of covering my books. It was an elaborate process, buying those special “plastic”-y sheets (a thinner and longer version of those A4 sized sheets we would use to make our OHP presentations in the good old days.) Those were the days when I could afford only paperbacks and I thought these coverings gave more life -and character- to the books and the book collection. I was pretty religious with this exercise, however over a period of time got discontinued due to the growing volume of books, growing pressure at work (hardly any weekends) and then lesser number of paperbacks available for covering. I was now able to afford hard-cover first editions of books. And who covers hard-covers?
I have this habit of dusting my book-collection once-in-while. This is less to do with book hygiene and more to do to re-establishing my relation- my familiarity- with the books. I find household chores tedious, but there is greater joy than spending a few hours on a weekend just dusting and rearranging books!
I normally do not lend books. Many a guest has been tempted to borrow a book or two. With experience I know that borrowing a book is easy. Reading it, difficult. And even more difficult is returning the book. No, sir, I do not lend books.
It takes some guile on my part to refuse lending books.
“I am still reading it, I will let you have it when I am done”.
“This one does not belong to me, I need to ask the owner if I can lend it.”
“My wife is reading it, she will have it reached to you when she is done”
Some are dogged in their demands for books and invariably they never get return it. Ever!
It is not that I never lend books. I do. But only to those who I think will love reading it. I actually pull out a book and offer it to a friend/visitor, “Please do read this book, I think you will like it.” They go ooh-aah. And accept the offer willingly. And they also invariably return it. This has a side-effect. Most of my favourite books are dog-eared due to this circulation. But I am glad I still have them.
I know a book-lover friend of mine who actually keeps his collection under lock-and-key. He refuses to part with any in his collection.
There have been other milestones too. Like this book, which I recovered from my ex-boss, after I resigned from my job. He called me for an “exit” interview. I flew from Delhi to Bangalore and was led into his office the moment I reached. Before he could start the interview process, I asked him: “Where is that book of mine which I lent you eighteen months ago?” (I had loaned him George Mikes’ “How to be an alien”. This one deals with the Brits and their view of life. It is written by Mikes, a Central European. There is a chapter in his book on Sex. I reproduce the entire contents here: “Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.” That’s the entire chapter!)
My boss sheepishly reached into his book-rack and handed over the book to me. It had strange black burn marks around the edges. My boss’ office had been gutted a few months ago. But luckily my book had survived. And that is what matters to me the most, at that time.
It was an even-sum game, I gave up my job, and I kept my book.