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June 4, 2004

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The Used Books Shelf

Neeman Sobhan

AN ideal way to spend a few unmarked hours, in my opinion, is to browse around a second-hand books store or rummage in the used books shelf of a bookshop. The pleasure of a hand-me down book is so much more than that of a pristine one. A used book carries the history of the other owner with it in its underlined words, scribbled over pages or personalized scrawls on the flyleaf; which is an added story within the story: "Tabby being sick, Bethesda Hospital, July, 1979", "Snowbound at Logan, Christmas Hols, 1998" and once, pressed within the pages of an Anita Brookner novella a note saying "Meet inside courtyard of Villa Giulia at 10. D". Since then, I have never been able to step inside that Etruscan Museum in Rome or look at that particular Brookner novel without wondering if D's meeting went well. I also hoped Tabby got better and that the flight at Logan was not further delayed. Second-hand books enter your life in deeper ways than new ones.

Then, you never know whom you might meet on the used books shelf as you rummage among cheap thrillers, pulp romances, self-help manuals, diet cook books, the horoscope for Virgo for the year 1985 or The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles, when… suddenly: a treasure! This is how some of my favourite books came into my life, floating among the detritus of the publishing world. It makes you cherish your finds more.

This is how I found, during the Palaeolithic era of my teen years, the one book among a select few that till today, works on me like medicine when I'm depressed: '84 Charing Cross Road' by Helene Hanff., which also happens to be the definitive book for second-hand book lovers.

Surely even ordinary book lovers who love a good read know this funny, heart warming true story in epistolary form of the love affair between a New York based writer and a second-hand bookshop in London? If not beg-borrow-steal a copy immediately and settle down with a cup of tea to chuckle over this delightful exchange of witty letters between down-to-earth Helene and the anonymous and very English 'Messers Marks and Co. Antiquarian Book Seller' of Charing Cross Road, London. Spanning 20 years, the correspondence nurtures an unlikely friendship between Miss Hanff and Frank Doel of Mark and Co that grows into a relationship of affection that outstrips the narrow definitions of love as in romantic love, and slowly encompasses the whole shop bonding them like a family.

I have only to curl up with this slim book to feel my smile return. The edition I possessed contained a sequel about her trip to London two decades later to finally see the shop and her old friends: the surviving staff. Over the years of having had to content myself with re-reading these two whenever I required emotional sustenance, I had always wished there was more of Helene Hanff.

Then the other day, while browsing among the used books section of a local English bookshop in Rome my eyes prised out a slim, faded volume that said 'Q's Legacy' on the spine. I almost passed it by when I glanced again. It said Helene Hanff. I grabbed it as if it were a letter from an old friend. I didn't even stop to find out what it was and bought it, starting to read it, as is my wont, even as I walked out of the store. I couldn't believe what I had discovered. This was the behind-the-scene book about the chain of events that led her to write '84 Charing Cross Road' (made into a play and a film) which earned her fame and money. It traces her lifelong affair with books starting with her chance discovery in a library of a volume in a series of lectures on literature and books by a Cambridge don, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ('Q'), which sent her looking for the books he recommended. This caused her to order some of the books at the second-hand bookshop in London.

I came from a book-devouring family and even as young girls my sisters and I had a tradition that on our birthdays, we would treat the birthday girl to a trip to the book store to buy a book from each member of the family. I remember the 'Goshaa-e-Adab' on Jinnah Road in Quetta, and buying Daphne du Maurier's 'Rebecca' for my 16th birthday there. It was my favourite book that year and soon I read up everything that Du Maurier wrote, including the story 'The Birds' filmed by Hitchcock. Still, 'Rebecca' always remained special with that haunting first line 'Last night I dreamt I was in Manderley.' I made the mistake of re-reading it recently. Alas! The uncritical sixteen-year-old reader had disappeared; the prose seemed overwrought; the magic was broken. I tried to glue back the fragile vase of my remembered enchantment and pretended that I had not gone back to Manderley. Then, last year, in Bangkok, while cooling off in the air-conditioned haven of Asia books, I was prowling among the discarded titles on the discount shelf when I met old friend Daphne and her Rebecca again. But this time she came with the express purpose to restore to me an old enchantment in an acceptable form, as a writer-to-writer, not writer-to-impressionable reader. The book in my hand was called 'The Rebecca Notebook and other memories' and comprised the sort of thing I love to read, the anatomy of how she came to write her best seller, the chapter outlines, the notes she made while researching the house on which Manderley was based and a rejected version of the ending of the novel. This was a writer talking to you as a friend, and the sort of encounter I could only find in the used and by-passed books section of the shop.

Second hand bookshops are magical places even if they are not 'Antiquarian' and even if it's just a pile of old books on a sidewalk or a fair stall. I have a strange, magical story about some second hand books that turned out to be prophetic. Many years ago, at the DIT market in Gulshan, there used to be a tiny second hand bookstore, which was a special haunt for me. I was an unmarried girl, still in my teens, browsing an afternoon away among the piles of used books. I had already acquired a fine collection from this shop of unexpected treasures. But that day, I hit jackpot. I found at least a dozen books that seemed to be just waiting for me. At home, when I started to sign my name on the flyleaf, I saw from the name already stamped inside the covers that they had all belonged to one person, who had the same taste in literature as I did. I wondered how the books had gotten here: stolen or sold off? Anyway, I wasted no time in signing under the previous owner's seal, my maiden name: Neeman Ahmad. I didn't get time to read any of the books because just a month or so later, and quite unexpectedly, I was swept away in a whirlwind marriage. Sometime afterwards while I was packing my books to take me with me to my new home in the U.S. I opened those recently acquired new-old books. Suddenly I noticed the name of the previous owner that now winked at me from the top of the flyleaf, and then I started to laugh: "Well, it seems my fate was sealed in these covers all along!" I grinned, welcoming home the books into my life, all of which were uncannily stamped 'Sobhan'!




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