The pleasure of finding old books in a bookstore—abandoned books, books passed on, books sold or lost, and books that have no business being where they are—is primarily one of finding something you didn’t think you need. You probably still don’t “need” it when you buy it, but you buy it anyway. You may go back and read it or you may simply let it join the pile of books you thought you would read but you never did. Either way, it’s not what you do with the book after you acquire it that interests me, but rather how you come to acquire a book in the first place. Or perhaps, how I came to acquire some:
‘Varnikaa, IV B’
The childish scribble on the first page of a tattered old copy of ‘Malgudi Schooldays’ captured my attention. I flipped through the pages, only to find more doodles, underlined words and their meanings, and something about school projects on the Himalayas that Varnikaa presumably worked on in her fourth grade. The whimsical pencil sketches on random pages in the book and notes scribbled by Varnikaa were enough to persuade me to buy this old copy of R.K. Narayan’s classic, illustrated by his cartoonist brother and creator of the ‘common man’, R.K. Laxman. Of course, that Varnikaa was a co-illustrator clinched the deal.
Though I have had the book for a while now, I still haven’t read it, despite glancing through the odd scribbles of Varnikaa every now and then, and wondering where all those books and notebooks where I scribbled and doodled in school went, whether someone somewhere might also delight in finding them as much as I did when I picked up the copy Varnikaa once read and doodled in.
‘To my darling Papa…’
This copy of Kahlil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ seemed like a misplaced piece of personal history. I could not imagine a father willingly getting rid of a book his son apparently gifted him. Considering the date on the signed page is 17 years in the past, I can only imagine where the father and son in question are. Discounting the obvious possibility of a misplaced book, perhaps the father lost the son to some tragedy and couldn’t bear to hold on to the book? Or maybe someone stole the book and later abandoned it until it passed a few owners to reach the bookshop? Or maybe no one read it, and the book had a mind of its own, so it decided to abandon its owner and hide in the bookshop, awaiting rescue? Yes, the last one must be it.
The Strand, New York City
An English translation of Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra (with no graphics may I add) that I stumbled on while browsing through the books lined along the sidewalk outside NYC’s ‘The Strand’ bookstore looked like something I could gift this Kurdish-Iranian-Danish friend who likes his stereotypes and wonders if Kamasutra is required reading in India. He seemed happy, even enthusiastic, about the contents of the book, in particular a chapter on ‘the wives of others’. Many a dinner table conversations were enlivened by his mention of this book and the concerned chapter(s) to an audience largely made up of physics grad students. No interesting notes were left in the book, so I couldn’t speculate on its previous ownership, but it was a rather old edition, 1965 I think.
Another book that caught my attention on that New York sidewalk was one on the history of Reuters, the news agency, titled ‘Reuters: The story of a century of news-gathering’ by Graham Storey, published in 1951. It was in great condition, hardbound and with a strong “old book” smell between its pages. Again, this one did not seem to have anything indicating previous ownership, but I was curious how news-gathering evolved between 1851-1951, and how it might have been different in those times from the present vantage point. I had no prior interest in the matter but seeing the book made me curious enough to pick it up, especially when I read the following in the foreword by a certain Lord Layton:
‘Economic and political rivalry and the development on a vast scale of the technique and apparatus of mass persuasion have given rise to one of the major social and political problems that face democratic peoples in our time – namely to keep propaganda out of the news.’
It remains to be read.
Another book I picked up was a glossy one on Sufism, not particularly old nor very detailed, so I find it difficult to explain why I picked it up. I also picked up a play by Bernard Shaw, called Misalliance, which I had never heard of before. The particular copy seemed to have been printed in 1921. It seems didactic in a characteristically Shavian way and I have yet to read it to have an opinion about it, but I consider it a brilliant find! A copy of an art magazine, called Horizon, was probably the most beautiful and visually arresting of all the books I found. I intend to partake in its joys one of these weekends when some leisure is at hand. A piece called ‘Avant-Garde or Blind alley’ was one that caught my attention: ‘What makes avant-garde art really and truly “avant”?… And how can we tell the difference between true and false, now, without waiting for the future to become the past?’ The particular issue I picked up was dated March, 1962.
Old Goat Books, Kitchener-Waterloo
Walking along King’s Street in sleepy Waterloo, partaking in the Canadian autumn, I stumbled on this little bookshop that seemed to be set up in a house. I walked in to see what I might find. The finds I brought home were as follows: Marco Polo’s ‘The Travels’, ‘The complete plays of Aristophanes’, English translation of a Balzac novel, and a popular anthropology text, ‘mirror for man’, by a Clyde Kluckhohn, published in 1965. I find the anthropology text particularly interesting based on my bedtime reading of its first two chapters where, in particular, the notion of ‘culture’ is carefully defined, and a compelling case is made for an appreciation of anthropology as a branch of human scientific endeavour. Again, this is not necessarily something I would have reached out for on my own, but having stumbled on the book I find it an illuminating read.
These three bookshops were found in different places and only in Blossoms did I find real scribbles in the books that let me wonder about their history. Perhaps the other two shops have a policy of not keeping books where people have left “scars”. I much prefer the “scarred” and abandoned books, though.
(This post has earlier appeared in the November issue of Aainanagar)