I went to listen to a talk at the New School in Manhattan yesterday. But this post is not about that talk. It’s about something incidental I spotted in our aimless wanderings preceding the event.
It’s about books.
But to understand what I mean you have to listen to my whole rambling story.
I had to take an underground train ride below the Hudson river for about half an hour to cross over to Manhattan from Jersey City.
When I entered the depths of the station on the Jersey City side, bright sunlight was still making the Manhattan skyline shine magnificently across the river. I came out back to the surface of the earth on 6th Avenue at 14th Street on the other side of the river, a bustling thoroughfare full of cars and people and chain restaurants.
I’m used to a certain spacious ambiance around school campuses. But campuses here in the city are very different. When I came out and entered the street off of 6th Avenue on which the building with the auditorium was located, I was surprised.
The contrast with my expectation was striking. The dazzling sun was already gone and it was replaced by soft darkness that spread over a quiet street at dusk. This looked like a residential area in the evening. You would never have guessed that such a big road was so close by.
Since we were early and it wasn’t too cold, we walked around those streets for a bit. The buildings on either side looked very old and yet superbly maintained. Where the curtains were drawn or the windows were only half covered, I saw a common sight that repeated itself in every window.
Floor to ceiling bookshelves full of hard-backed books covered the walls–many leather covered and plenty very expensive-looking. These looked like personal apartments. Doormen in gilded caps stood idly around some of the doors with polished wooden archways and heavy brass knockers that looked like they’d been polished by hands for a hundred years that may or may not have held books.
In short, these looked like suitable places to house expensive volumes.
This is not a sight I commonly see on my side of the river in Jersey City. Most buildings here are skyscrapers less than a decade old. Here, it’s all shiny glass and efficient concierge and angular shapes and recently set up potted plants outside the buildings that have yet to take root.
I see plenty of living rooms here too (not always through the curtains ) but it’s mostly the sight of a youngish person with a laptop sitting in front of a largish flat-screen TV that greets me. Sometimes I see people with E-Readers in the sun next to the river.
I have rarely seen books here.
Perhaps this is a culture nurtured by technology-savvy professionals who are also immigrants.
Knowledge might be portable but not books. Perhaps they do have bookshelves of books belonging to their fathers and grandfathers in some other house in some other country but not here where I can see them.
My college in Calcutta was located on a street lined with new and used bookstores reputed to be one of the biggest centres of used bookstores in the country. Most of them were permanent makeshift structures chockful with books with the owner sitting on a stool in the store. The bookseller always had a mind boggling ability to know exactly where a book was within the seemingly endless number of books in his possession on the shelves. If a book was out of print and you didn’t find it here, you wouldn’t find it anywhere.
The used booksellers were known to have a better knowledge of books and scholarly bibliographies than the professors themselves.
Often, a unique sight would greet us in the long afternoons as we went in or came out of the hallowed college gates. Heaps of books would be gathered outside a store with multiple volumes of a particular series bound in expensive leather sometimes in gold lettering.
Then we knew for sure that someone of some consequence and erudite taste had passed away and the family had either sold or donated the cherished collection to the bookstore. The books would stand on the sidewalk for a long while spread out in the sun before being stored away.
They were cherished possessions of the departed one from some family with enough money, lineage and erudition to read and have space for those books while the person was alive.
I remember the book fair in Calcutta one year. A supremely significant event in the cultural life of the city, the kiosks would be teeming with crowds such as only Indians know. Those days it used to be an open air event in a centrally located space in the city. All our friends in college and university would brave the crowds multiple times for the pleasure of browsing books first-hand, a rarity those days when only shopkeepers handled books in the absence of large stores with books on display. (Ironically, even as I write, those large stores are also on their way out, at least in the US.)
One year, there was a big fire at the book fair. Hundreds of books tragically turned to ashes that year in the publishers’ kiosks. And yet, we heard that some people who were at the fair that day had grabbed and hidden as many books as they could under their sweaters and shawls and had taken off in the commotion instead of saving books.
They were not poor people. These were well-read people running off with Ovid’s Metamorphosis from the classics section or the biography of a social reformer that came out that year in hardcover.
Taking off with knowledge was a perfectly legitimate act in their eyes. Even something to boast of perhaps in later years.
And yet, I think such people would not run off with a Kindle. Or would they?
In graduate school, I met a certain brand of minimalists who did not have living room furniture or who did not see the point of buying expensive clothes or new cars. Yet, they spent a substantial part of their stipends or loans in buying books that they then spent even more money on on shelving, packing, putting in storage when necessary and in transporting. Some of them paid a small fortune mailing books even internationally because they could not live without their books.
It would be unthinkable for them to do this with good shoes.
My Mesho (uncle) has always been a source of inspiration for me. Having given up many formal educational opportunities for a cause, he took up a day job and devoted most of his life to scholarship and writing books later on.
All four walls of his living room were always covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in Calcutta—titles I imperfectly understood in childhood and grew to appreciate as I grew up. I don’t think he is the kind of person to invest in leather covered books but the sheer number of books in that living room was overwhelming.
Last year, when I visited Mesho after a long interval, he looked so much older than I remembered. The walls were bare. Those books were gone. His age had limited his ability to spend enough hours reading and writing. He had consciously decided to retire from the life of the scholar, he told us.
He had found a home in a library for his most precious worldly possessions –his books.
©bottledworder, 2013. http://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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