Possessing books

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.

Book stalls on College Street
Book stalls on College Street (Photo credit: flippy whale)

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.

Kolkata Book Fair 2011 - India 2011-02-04 0530
Kolkata Book Fair 2011 – India 2011-02-04 0530 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.)

Kolkata Book Fair 2011 - India 2011-02-04 0495
Kolkata Book Fair 2011 – India 2011-02-04 0495 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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. https://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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44 thoughts on “Possessing books”

  1. Books. I can’t imagine Kindles or any other electronic form replacing books. Books have a tactile quality. As you read your fingers graze the pages. Sometimes, especially with old books, the pages are wonderfully thick and heavy. Or they are edged with gold. Books are heavy in your hand. Solid. Books have a smell. Brand-new crisp and inky. Old, musty and filled with the memories of a thousand former readers. Occasionally tiny penciled notes. Books fill my home, wall to wall, floor to ceiling bookcases. Stacked in corners. Towering on tables. Tittering on chairs. Books waiting – whispering words of enchantment, encouragement, enticement.


  2. I love reading everyone’s comments. I love books as well. However, I don’t have an extensive collection. I have moved around a bit, and that was enough to tell me I need to keep my collection pared to what I can pack and move in relatively short order. And I’ve heard of others who’ve had to take more extreme steps because they do move more often, and company allowances for moving are less generous than they used to be. (The last time I used professional movers, they packed each art book in its own box, lest the moving process “break” the binding, and they might have to pay to replace it.)

    I have a few old books (from the 1800s and turn of the century (20th century, that is), and it’s very obvious to see the overall decline in book quality, from the paper to the ink to the cover and the binding. (How often do you see cloth or leather volumes?) And it is kind of fun to page through them. You can feel of the old offset process on the pages. However, the kind of ink used can ruin the experience if you’re aren’t careful. 😉

    One bonus of Kindle/Nook/iBooks: You can make notes to your heart’s content. (I’m one of those who doesn’t like to mark up books, and I don’t appreciate it in used copies.) What’s more with some services, you can see what others are saying, and you can get multimedia formats. Can you imagine what the Griffin & Sabine volumes might have been if they had been released today?


  3. Unlike my sisters, I love books more than jewelry and clothes. Boxes and boxes of them have always moved with me…Nowadays, I donate books I don’t want to keep to the library through the return book shute.


  4. Floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books sounds like heaven to me… i have a kindle and it’s cool because i can easily take several books with me whenever i travel but honestly i’d rather have the actual book sitting on the shelf and so usually my kindle is for books that are ebook only… the fact is i grew up in a house filled with books and i’ve always had more books than i know what to do with and being surrounded by them is a comfort… in fact my happiest places are either a book store or a library… just seeing all those books filled with endless possibilities is a wonderful thing…


  5. I’ve just watched the BBC adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’: perhaps the kindle is a variation on ‘portable wealth’, as championed by Mr Wemmick. Literary wealth is only made portable by the e-reader.


  6. I have a very hard time reading a book and letting it go. Even my college textbooks, i still have every single one, even the math! I have no use or purpose of desire to flip and browse through them. But, i cannot let them go. I rarely even rent books from the library. I like to read a book and know it’s mine. I take good care of my books but inevitably there is always a coffee stain here or there … a sentimental battle scar I like to call those markings. I do have a kindle but i do majority of my reading with the actual hard copy book. I did donate over 100 books two years ago, mostly highschool and elementary reading lists book… classics.. which i have college editions off or kindle versions. I dropped it off at the local library. It hurt to part but i at least knew it was going to a good place. I talked to my fiancee about my desires for my books if i should untimely pass. I want the whole collection donated as one to one young girl( or boy). Someone that loves to read and finds comfort in books, possibly having no friends outside of the pages. Someone those books can HELP. Impractical? Maybe. But, i figure these books helped me through my ups and downs and provided escape from reality for me. if I cannot read them, then someone else should.


  7. I’ve gone back and forth about this. My ex-husband owned a lot of books. It was something that impressed me about him. They were all lined up along the floors of the attic, spanning the length and width of the house. We had to invest in many bookshelves when we got married. When we got divorced, he ended up with most of my books.
    My husband also left most of his books at his ex-wife’s house.
    We both try to live lightly–I like checking out books from the library. But I do buy lots of books for my children.
    I have a little regret about not possessing all my old books–that my children won’t pick them up, read them, and think, “My mom read this, too.” I remember reading books belonging to my parents, books that were probably above my reading level, and there was something about it that made me feel connected to them.
    There is something about reading books that connects us to each other.
    Blogging and social media give us a different kind of more immediate connection, but it just doesn’t feel like something that LASTS across the centuries.


  8. Our house, overfilled with books, books everywhere, I knew it was time to downsize, to move the books out. Over 500 books went to friends, libraries, thrift stores, anywhere I could find to foist off the books. There are so many others like me that it is hard to find places to take one’s books. I have tried to not constantly replace the books, but my love for reading negates much of my enterprise. I have determined, though, to buy used books each chance I can.


  9. The smell of new pages… also the ancient, old smell from the used, old tattered books… my favourite. You seem a “presi” and whatever new technology evolves, none can overcome that “feel good” feelings of our college street… amader “boipara”


  10. What a beautiful post. My heart hurt when I read about your uncle’s books. I have an e-reader, but I still love the feel of a book in my hand and the smell of the paper. To me there is nothing better than an afternoon spent wandering the aisles of a bookstore.


      1. Yes, I suppose it has. For me, browsing online is not as soul-satisfying as being in a physical store and touching the books.


  11. M, you bring back my memories of College Street, thank you! Loved the old books, leafing through the pages and reading the notes scribbled along the pages by someone years ago. I have not yet given in to an e-reader though I confess I read my news online – no papers. I love holding a book and the feel of paper :-). My old books in Kolkata are languishing… was forced to give quite a few away. Great post!


    1. 🙂 Memories! I have a Kindle and find it far easier to borrow books on it than trudging to the library. Best is you don’t have to worry about returning them! But yes, I’ll miss books.


  12. As a student in college, there were many times when I wondered how I was going to pay the rent, buy groceries or fill my gas tank. I had books. Lots of books. They had been read. I never thought of selling them. The books that we have read, that we keep, are part of our history. It shows where we’ve been, and who we talked to along the way. You can’t really cozy up to a fire with a tablet anyway.


  13. Thank you for your post! 🙂 I have always felt a bit different for my love of books and what is written. But recently I have found out there are others like me. Thank you for reminding me.I enjoyed your comments and thoughts.


  14. Hey what a wonderful post. Thank you. Its a treat reading it understanding how much you must love books and writing. And reading them. The world of books is undergoing dramatic changes. people write and read like never before in new concepts and situations. I an not worried about that but for the book itself. It is a rare feeling to have a new (our used) book on my hands and begin a new. I only wish I gaff more time and was a fatter reader. Thank you for your post. I will Conner back.


  15. I can’t imagine life without book and I have boxes of them, waiting for the day when I have the space to dedicate to having them all out. Libraries are a national treasure because they offer so much to anyone who cares to come in and used book stores are some of my favorite places.

    I also love my Kindle because it allows me the ease of traveling with hundreds of books. It will never replace real books, but it’s a lovely supplement to my addiction! 🙂


  16. I’ve noticed this, too. My husband and I have always lived in small houses, and we’ve always had a wall’s worth of full bookshelves in the front room, visible to the outside, mostly because we had (and still have) few other places to keep our books. In grad school, all our friends’ front rooms looked like that.

    And then some time after grad school, passing down a street and looking in the windows, I noticed that no one keeps books in their front rooms. It’s TVs and computers and posters instead. It’s the first time I realized consciously that our habit is not typical. I can still think of one friend who has a wall covered with bookshelves in his front room, but I think he’s the only one.


    1. Interesting observation. I wonder if it’s because even for voracious readers, books are not that much a part of their identity anymore. So they don’t display it in their living rooms (as much as the TV or computer). Or maybe they just don’t spend as much time reading books in their living rooms but watch TV or read articles on the computer.


  17. I cannot imagine my world without books in it. Although I do appreciate the convenience of e-books, I love nothing more than holding a book in one hand and a steaming hot cup of coffee in the other. There is nothing quite like an afternoon spent reading a great book.


  18. Maybe I’m behind the times, but I still prefer tangible books that I can touch, that fill my shelves and cabinets and coffee tables. I have never personally bought an e-book (though I do use my boyfriend’s kindle on occasion). I grew up surrounded by books — we had bookshelves filled to brimming in the living room, the family room, the kitchen, the office, and each of our bedrooms. It’s comforting, somehow, to be in a house full of books. I didn’t start to realize how unusual having all these books was until I was a teenager. Thanks for sharing these fantastic observations!


    1. This is true. Books on the KIndle can never surround you, literally speaking, as physical books. Yet, I think the present generation, especially kids, have a different perception of the idea of being “surrounded,” say by cyberspace. I think, fundamentally, *they* might perceive e-books the same way someday as being surrounded by physical books.


  19. Nothing like a book….the smell, the feel, the knowing that someone else has taken that mind journey with it in their hands. Sometimes little evidences of other people, a book mark, a receipt, a smudge on the page left from whatever it was they were snacking on….other smudges you might not want to think too deeply about. Sometimes a naughty scribble somewhere on the page or a highlighting of a sentence or paragraph – which makes me ponder it a while. I tried an E- reader. Way too impersonal. Give me books any day!


  20. Every time we have had to pack to move, I have tried to scale down the number of boxes of books we pack, lift, load, haul, carry, unload and reshelve. I can’t seem to make myself give away a single volume. I gladly loan them out, and usually, get them back. But to not have my books would be like missing a a few fingers, or a limb. What does that say about me? I haven’t figured that out yet. Thanks for your insight and perspective in this post.


  21. Ugh. This hurts my heart. I built a house once and when I chose the plan in was because there were book shelves in every room. We read. My family reads. I do not want an e-reader. I want a book that I can hold in my hand. For Christmas, I got my oldest son Jame Joyce’s Collected Poems—first edition, for such a steal it should be a crime. No books? I cannot imagine!


  22. I work in a school in England. During reading time, most kids would read a book that they bring from home or from the library. But recently, I’ve noticed more and more affluent kids are bringing their Kindle to school instead of books. Kindle is just another must-have possessions (like Blackberry, iPhone) of these teenagers (aged around 13). And, libraries here are not often called library anymore. In my school, it’s now called a Resource Centre (with some books and rows of computers too). In the city, our huge library is called Discovery Centre — I first thought it was a science centre — the ‘Discovery Centre’ is a very noisy place, with emphasis on multi-media, book signing and exhibitions, a shop selling expensive stationery and bad coffee.


    1. While the noisy centre you’ve described is not the ideal solution, I think this change is inevitable and somehow society will find a way by which our present libraries will transform themselves to suit the digital age. What that place will look like is yet to be discovered.


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