The Groaning Shelf; or a Shelf-Confession of a Bookhoarder

The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love-Pradeep Sebastian, Hachette India, 2010.

Tsundoku is a Japanese word which signifies the constant act of buying books, but never Groaning-320x500reading them. Letting your books pile up and colonize the space around you, an uncontrolled disorderly growth that makes you a second-class citizen in your own room. It shouldn’t require much of an intellectual leap to deduce that I am an archetypical “tsundoku-ist”. Not to say that I never read, but my manic bookbuying sprees far exceed my capacity of ever actually reading them. I justify the habit by saying that I am stocking up if ever I am unemployed. But I know that I would not read most of them, unless they literally are the last books in my collection. Collection is the right word; I collect books, I acquire them and I hoard them. They are not always antiquarian or rare editions (because I cannot afford them), but each book is special in its own way. Even the most insignificant book is special in its utter insignificance. One of the primary reasons behind this is that I have always been very interested in books as objects and have found high pleasure in the sheer physicality of them. Some avid readers find it a little distasteful to treat books as objects, and rever well-thumbed, dogeared, underlined and annotated copies of books handed down through generations of readers.

Not me. I like my books neat, pristine. I never bring a pen or pencil near them. The only mark I ever make is when I write my name and purchase month and year inside each new book. I don’t even do that if it is an old used book. They command their own respect.

I buy books whenever I can. And sometimes even when I can’t. Most of my friends avoid bookstores when they are out with me because they do not want to be late for dinner. (Some of the shopping experiences would make amusing anecdotes). Given my nature, the genre Books on Books, rightly described as the “bibliophile’s dream genre”, has obviously become one of my all-time favourites. Reading these books are often like finding refuge in a space made for the same category of convicts, who have dared to confess that they love books for how they look and feel, and not (always) for their inner beauty.

I had read Pradeep Sebastian’s The Groaning Shelf & Other Instances of Book-Love four years back, I think, and I remember finishing the whole book in one sitting. It is a bit odd and uncouth to write about a book I haven’t read in the recent past, but what the hell! It is a massively enjoyable read, and one of the very few books coming from an Indian author in this genre. He travels from Walter Benjamin to Nicholas Basbanes, from famous book thieves to book jackets, marginalia to some other zany, superbly entertaining topic and never for once bores. Stylistically superb, this sparkling white object comes with untrimmed edges to give you that privileged feeling of a pre market-ready book.  At a point in the book, Sebastian talks about untrimmed edges in books, and you cannot help but relish the self-reflexivity of it all. Apart from the object-side, the book is highly recommendable for anyone with little or no familiarity with the genre because of how it approaches the reader. It is a superb example of nonfiction writing. Sebastian takes a calm, genial stride towards the reader and doesn’t bombard them with pedantry. From the definition of bibliophilia to the intricacies of it, he takes you on a lavish, funny, witty tour and you enjoy each moment of it.

For me, this book was a treasure trove. Not only was it a brilliant read, it gave me the names of so many other authors and books! Nicholas Basbanes and Anne Fadiman, both of whom write about books in their own delightful manner, are names I got from this book, and highly recommend to anyone interested in the genre. I also came to know of a book called The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana written by Umberto Eco, which has since become one of my favourite books. I suggest The Groaning Shelf to anyone who wants to know which page is the colophon of a book, what a recto is and what is a verso, which are the books with most sought-after dust jackets and how and why first editions are so important.

Mine is a first edition hardcover. Just saying.

P.S: I looked the book up on the Internet. Google books has excerpts of it, which you can read here.

– Souraj Dutta

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