It was bound in a rough, red cloth, now smoothened in places with the many caresses it had received over the years. Its name boldly etched in gold over its hard cover. Its spine still holding on firmly to the age old pages, much thumbed, dog-eared, yellowing pages. Its illustrations, lithographs by the author himself, and a frayed red ribbon placed between the pages I had read the last time. That is my favourite book.
That book started me off on a journey that inevitably took me to the book alleys that still make the three hundred year old city proud. The fact that my lane meandered through several by-lanes and reached the book alleys in less than fifteen minutes made my trips frequent and my pocket-money meager. The narrow lanes were lined with small shops with dusty shelves. Their bespectacled shop-owners – bibliophiles in their own right – were always eager to help me find treasures in all shapes and sizes, bound in cloth or leather, some new and some which had changed several hands; others which had corners folded, many in tatters, a few boasting of an autograph or a note written in attention of a loving reader. My prized possession in those days was a book called Sita that was illustrated with paintings by the illustrious Raja Ravi Verma.
Nothing gave me more pleasure than the feel of a cold spine against my palm, the weight of the pages, their slight reluctance to open spontaneously, the faint crick at the turn of each page, and the musty smell of the yellowing pages mixed with a slight whiff of the jet-black ink that filled my nostrils as I brought the book close to my face.
Thus enamoured by books of all shapes and sizes, colours and textures and thus pampered by the abundance of such gems in dusty attics and tiny shop windows, I stepped out of my city’s boundaries and stepped into different cities. As a resident in some, whilst a tourist in others. My experiences in each of those cities have been varied as have been my encounter with books.
In the beginning, I would wait to return from those cities and visit the old, familiar book alleys for my ration of books for the rest of the year. But soon I realized that the character of the alleys, the shops lining them and the books they sold had started to change. The old, dusty spines of ageless classics were fast being replaced by Last Minute Suggestions for Board Examinations, Questions & Answers Made Easy, cheap reprints of old classics, poor translations of world famous children’s classics and photocopies of what were otherwise intellectual masterpieces. Makeshift shops had encroached upon the pavements of the narrow alleys and had started to threaten the original inhabitants themselves. Disappointment was inevitable, and it didn’t take too long to set in. Like many others, I soon decided it was time to park my hopes elsewhere.
I moved on to bigger bookstores in the same city, serenaded book store chains in other cities and countries, and felt happy at renowned book-store chains finally setting up shop in the desert city where I lived. I have even scoured tiny shops on the banks of the Sienne and a leading bookstore in the capital city of former Siam in my search for a past that was no more. The search for scale and price points had ensured that sleek paperbacks with artistically designed sleeves now found their place in my bookshelf alongside my hardbound treasures of yore.
Like the old books and the old alleys went through a sudden urge to change abruptly, my friends in the book trade tell me that the business of books is going through a sea change. A bevy of local authors are fast demanding their own shelf space and the flood of manuscripts from first time writers now demand scrutiny from a marketing team at the publisher’s end to evaluate their marketability and viability, even before they have become books. The inevitable launch that follows is nothing short of a corporate product launch with all the strategizing and planning that goes in to making a product a huge success. The comes the work to ensure that it fares well in the best sellers’ lists, long and short lists for deemed awards and stream of promotional events that ensure the book rolls over into multiple editions. I have even witnessed book rights being negotiated and sold to film producers at a whopping fee even before the first copy has hit the shelves.
Sadly many bookstores have jumped onto this marketing bandwagon and have extended their floorspace to other brands – with nothing to do with books and book lovers – only to capitalize on the significant footfalls of loyal bibliophiles who religiously dot their aisles.
Do I agree with these change? Yes and no. I agree with the business of books becoming a serious business. But like I could not agree with the ancient book alleys moulting and turning into a new creature overnight just because it was good business, I disagree with books suddenly becoming a commodity and bookstores doubling as department stores. As far as the emerging changes that are being brought in by technology, e-readers have to go a long way before making themselves available to the masses And while they will no doubt usher in an era of convenience, I wonder whether ‘Kindling’ will capture the same sense of excitement that the successful search for a good, firmly bound, well produced book holds.
Much as I would like the alleys to do good business and yet retain their character; the musty scent of dusty, old books envelope me as I delve into them again, even as I search for space and convenience, I would love books to be loved for their content rather than be playthings in the hands of smart marketers who continue to stake a claim – at times undeserving – for the consumers mind and wallet. Who knows what lies ahead?
Read it on my TOI blog : Freeze Frame