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              Volume 11 |Issue 10| March 09, 2012 |


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Of Bookshelves, Books, and Bookshops

Shamim Ehsanul Haque

E-Books have subverted the traditional role of bookcases. Photo: Courtesy

Amitav Ghosh gave an impressive commentary in his essay, published in 1999, on bookshelves and their requisite contents. Nobel Prize winning novels and notable works of fiction, science and philosophy graced the bookshelf of his grandfather's home in Calcutta. Ghosh tells us of his intimacy with that bookcase and in the process gives us a glimpse of urbane Calcutta's interests in collecting books; not always purely high minded and intellectual but often tempered with the ostentatious suggestion of the family's cultural exclusivity. The bookshelves were almost invariably placed in the family drawing room; readily telling visitors that he was amidst people of good taste and erudition. But on a more serious note Ghosh observes that collecting great books and lining them in a handsome bookshelf was a preoccupation of the reading public during the 1950s and 60s, and possibly has been so for almost a century.

These days, upon visiting houses of friends and relatives, I often think about Ghosh and his essay. I recall that when I was growing up in the 1980s I frequently found myself in houses where the bookshelf was an imposing piece of furniture alongside the rather treasured color TV and video cassette player. I am not talking about the very affluent and the elite but the average middle class households that sent their children to Bengali-medium schools and could not afford to stock their bookshelves with popular English novels or a range of leather bound classics. The bookshelves almost always featured great Bengali works by famous novelists from West Bengal; some classics of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and of course Tagore's Nobel Prize-winning Gitanjali. The children looked for Indian comic books and the prying eyes of the teenager always found a repertoire of Sheba Prokashoni paperbacks ranging from the spy thriller Masud Rana to the less risqué adventure series of Tin Goenda.Books, especially works of fiction and their readership does not necessarily equate a cultivated mind, but their presence certainly signals a thinking mind. And while these readings may not have induced them to act on them, they may very well have awakened their sensibility, allowed them to think carefully, often critically, and contemplate things beyond their immediate sphere of experience and contact.

The same can also be said about the presence of a personal computer with an Internet connection. The technical fine points of IT and the deep penetration of computing and communication devices across all facets of human interaction makes it difficult to refute rationally as to why an IPad or a laptop will not deliver the same benefits that a well stocked bookshelf does. In fact, bookshelves are becoming marginalised all over the world. Thanks to a new genre of lightweight micro-computing devices. The dwindling price of e-book readers like the Kindle and the Nook, as well as their rapid adoption, has subverted the traditional role of bookcases. Last September IKEA, the global furniture giant, announced that it was changing the design of its most popular bookshelf– the BILLY bookcase. This best-selling bookcase was no longer the repository of books- academic or otherwise, and hence was slowly disappearing from the shopping lists of IKEA patrons! The bookcase was redesigned as the bric-a-brac of the household or in IKEA's own words, the coffee-table tome.

The 'book shelf' became the subject of international news for IKEA's story and was widely covered by the media. It forebodes the end of books in the format as we know it today: paper-based printed matter coming in various guises of binding.

Many authors have championed the book in its paper-based format. In their defence, they point out how the format allows the reader to be completely absorbed in one story or a single narrative and not be distracted by competing strands of content (including audiovisual and interactive ones) as is the case with using a computer or a hand-held device for reading. Less rational explanations for the maintenance of books are often of a sentimental kind: the claim of how one gets enchanted by the new books' smell, the green buckram binding that reminds one of one's grandfather's days, and the handsome sight of a well endowed bookshelf that lends the room a rarified scholarly atmosphere. As a lover of books I sympathise with both. To me, it has always seemed that a computer screen or the well-engineered display of an e-book reader is all about obtaining information, accessing knowledge and key pieces of vital statistic on the go.

Authors point out how books allow readers to be completely absorbed and not be distracted by other strands of content. Photo: Courtesy

For a sustained reading pleasure I always turn to the 'book'. The point becomes more pressing if one loves old books and has frequented places where used books and old books are sold. The musty scent of old books is half the reason why I get drawn to good literature. A handsome volume of HW. Somerset Mangham's Collected Short Stories bound in red-cloth, and published by Heinemann in 1955 is not only about the pleasure conferred by those stories but also about the travails of that particular volume. What adventures it must have seen after its propitious beginning in London and the ignominious hour sixty years later when it was relegated to the damp cubbyhole of a bookshop in the hands of a second-hand bookseller in Dhaka's Nilkhet! Was there any emotional parallel when the first owner opened its pages and when I, after so many years, the same? Does this book influence me in the same way as it did its previous owners? It is stimulating to ponder on questions of this sort, and I always found that my reading pleasure heightened for the book offered such backdrops.

On visiting major bookshops like Barnes and Noble or the Oxford bookstore in Kolkata, one is amazed to see how acres of retail space has been dedicated to bookshelves. For anyone who enjoys reading, it is a rare treat to find oneself browsing books, locating one's favourite authors, and being in an atmosphere surrounded by bookshelves. When the time comes for bookshelves and books to be physically removed from our living rooms and libraries, one presumes a bookshop will become a small brand space, sporting a collection of stylish kiosks and electronic content retrieving devices, from which the readers of tomorrow can instantly download (for a pittance) his/her favourite reading material.

Decrying such a 'bookshop' of the future is standing in the path of progress, no doubt. Such arrangements may also enlarge the number of readers and make the pursuit of knowledge more affordable. However, fragmentary reading occasions are seldom rewarding; and the homogeneous experience of reading by means of the same device is bound to be tedious. Through reading books we develop an emotional attachment with a particular author, and we are reminded of this relationship by the neat array of his works juxtaposed on our bookshelves. This experience will be absent in the lives of the future 'e-bibliophiles'.

Last December I was in London. It was a mild winter and upon concluding my chores, I took a stroll along Conduit Street. It was London's elite quarter, for I passed a Hermès store, a Rolls-Royce showroom, and eventually found myself crossing a street which bordered a very pleasant looking park on its left. There was a row of stately houses overlooking the park that could be accessed via the other side of the street. I only discovered later, when I stumbled upon 50 Berkeley Square that morning on the doorsteps of a classy bookseller called Maggs Brothers that I was in fact entering the main bureau of the most exclusive antiquarian and rare book dealer in the world. Their office, housed in one of that lovely row of Georgian houses, was apparently a notorious haunted house occupying a plot in the historical Berkeley Square.

Standing there I had no inkling of any of this, but I could tell I was in for a treat because it was the perfect setting for displaying old books – scintillating with history, bygone glamour and a sense of intrigue. On entering the premise I noticed period furniture from the 1940s or maybe the 50s and there were enormous and well-adorned glass- fronted bookcases. With a certain amount of trepidation I asked the gentleman regarding books of my favourite author, W. Somerset Maugham. I was excited since I knew that I was going to see a cache of curious collection. He confirmed my expectation by informing me that they had some signed volumes and a few limited edition books by Maugham, and took me in front of a bookshelf containing expensive books. As I took out the first book, I realised that the books were preserved and displayed in a manner as though they were precious artifacts. The whole arrangement seemed to be a thoughtful tribute paid to the remarkable wisdom of the books' authors.

My hands trembled as I pulled out from a specially designed slipcase, Maugham's limited edition autobiographical work Strictly Personal. I felt the presence of the author as I touched the title page where the great man had signed his name. One cannot describe the pleasure I was filled with as I riffled the book's through pages. The act of getting that book off the shelf and the tactile feeling of the beautifully bound book, ritualised the act of reading great books. I wished the exquisite moment could linger, and I thanked my stars for the serendipity. I came out of Maggs Brothers feeling inspired with a sense of renewed allegiance to great books and great authors. If there was anything that the e-book readers would miss, it would be the emotional attachment to the meticulously bound volumes and the adventures of imagination that the lovely gold letterings on their spines announce. If you are a bibliophile, and long for a role in the subtle literary drama such as this, you need a place like Maggs Brothers to enact it.


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