I give people books like they’re going out of style.
Perhaps that sentence should read, "I give people books because they’re going out of style".
Recently, I’ve made "book giving" a sort of personal crusade. I don’t simply give to those friends who read with hunger… I give them to everyone. I give people books in the hope that they will come over to the dark side.
I gift books with the confident knowledge that if they read that particular book, the one that made me think of them, their lives (even if already perfect) will be just that tiny bit better.
Because that’s what books do for me.
I’m like the annoying old aunt who gives you what she wants for Christmas, no matter what you asked for.
I strive to make it something you will enjoy – magical short stories for my sister, Dalai Lama biographies for the spiritual, Japanese fiction for the quirky – but it is always a book.
Alongside the book giving, I also decided to no longer buy books online. I know it’s cheaper but I also know why it’s cheaper. It’s easier too, but I actually like going to a bookstore. I like the pilgrimage… you pick a day, ask a friend, drive there, enter the cool, silent space, run your hands over spines, and settle in for an hour or two, nodding to old friends, ("Oh hello there Lolita new edition!") and making some new along the way.
Perhaps you find my crusade extreme, but let me spell out Delhi’s literary losses over the last few years.
In 2008, The Bookworm in CP closed down. In 2012 the lovely little Yodakin gave way for the hipsters of Hauz Khas Village. (If you thought the cool kids read, you’re wrong – they Social-ise.)
Last year, finally, Fact & Fiction, the beloved bookstore of Basant Lok market shut shop, followed by the incredibly well stocked Spell and Bound, Timeless Arts Book Studio and ED Galgotia and Sons.
In 2014 we also lost The Book Shop owner KD Singh, and this year the wonderful Balraj Bahri Malhotra – grand old papa of Bahri Sons, herald of Khan Market.
When I was younger I used to pit them against each other in my head – F & F is so much better than Midland… who even goes to Teksons when you have Full Circle.
Now, I divide my time and money fairly and squarely between them like a wolf mother trying desperately to keep all her pups alive with a quart of milk. So you can't blame me for feeling a bit like it is the end of an era. Not simply the era of booksellers, patient old fools, but the end of The Age Of Reading itself.
I have wondered if words will eventually be lost; whole words, paragraphs, texts – gone forever from collective memory. Because the fact is, if we stop reading them, they cease to exist. Words are given life only by being read. Else, books become nothing but sacrificed forests where ink makes its final grave.
Books need people, and I am not the only one who feels this way. If you search the words "book club" on Google, you come up with names like The Pulpwood Queens Of East Texas and 60 million + hits (in 2003 this was 400,000), so people are clearly reading, but where are they?
As the world’s fifth largest publisher of books and a 2013 international report claiming our citizens read a winning ten hours and 42 minutes a week (the British clocked 5.18 hours/week), why India doesn’t have anything as big or recognisable as Oprah’s Book Club or Richard and Judy’s is beyond me.
To bridge the gap, my friends Mihika and Diya started a small book club and called it, rather deliciously – Between The Covers. Once upon a time I thought of book clubs as a cheesy mom thing to do… now I find it’s the only way to meet like-minded people.
It’s been a wonderful thing to be a part of. Together we’ve managed four books over eight months linking people in at least five different countries. Individually we’ve read a lot more, and finally have an identifiable group to share those stories with. But it’s a small tribe. Our Facebook page has 30 people; our last Skype meeting had three. Even members aren’t managing to finish the required reading – a book every two months.
The most common excuse I hear for not reading is: "I would if I had more time." It always interests me, because the truth is, no one has time. It is the endless struggle of human beings today… to find time.
But the trick isn’t having it or finding it. It’s making it. You have to make time like a clay pot, and then you fill it. You can fill it with Facebook, or repeats of a television show you don’t really care for, a game on your phone involving fruits, or talking to a friend. Or you can just fill it with reading. And like with anything, reading well, takes practice.
While visiting a friend recently, I noticed her living room had the most beautiful bookshelves going all the way up to the ceiling. "You’ve read all of them?" I asked. She’s an avid reader and one of the few people I actually discuss books with in detail, so it’s quite likely.
But no, she hadn’t. In fact, she said, the books were not even hers. They belonged to the father of the man who owned the apartment. Her original landlord’s then, so to speak.
She concluded by explaining to me that he had recently passed away. “So what happens to them?” I asked, waving my hand at the books. Everyone in the room shrugged. These are people who love books. They read them and own them and understand them. We all sat in silence then someone poured a little wine.
The next time I went to that house I stopped dead in my tracks. “Did you rearrange the books by colour?” I asked. “You noticed!” she exclaimed. “It was for a film my housemate was shooting.”
I noticed because bookshelves are the first thing I notice in a person’s home. I notice them like some people notice bad shoes and others check people’s teeth out. I can’t help but notice.
I wonder how all those books felt about being shuffled about that way, little orphans. Perhaps they felt relevant again – “Oh hey, we’re being dusted off, fancy that!”
Perhaps they were annoyed at being de-slumbered. Maybe Midsummer Night’s Dream was very edgy at being placed by The Bonfire Of The Vanities. (Would have much preferred The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Maybe Sartre finally appeared next to Camus again and said, “Now finally, back to that old debate…" Maybe at this dinner party of musical chairs, Anais Nin found herself seated deliciously next to Tolstoy.
Maybe this is what will become of books upon bookshelves eventually. They will become the exquisite art of once literate families. Over the years, books, the actual pages, are going to cease to matter.
Ironically while we still fight for global literacy, the literate use less and less the tools that make them literate. And if they do, it is in electronic format.
Our children will have no use for writing, except to sign their names at the bottom of cheques, on forms and files. “Handwritten” will become an antique term, a novelty concept. And over the years people will struggle to decipher the curls and curves of their ancestors’ love letter, and an entire way of loving will be forgotten.
There’s this Japanese word (isn’t there one for everything?) – tsundoku. It roughly translates to buying books when you already have enough unread ones, and then letting them pile up amorously along your shelves.
I am guilty of tsundoku not just because I love books but because I am deeply, pathetically in love with bookshops and booksellers. I cannot walk into a bookshop and leave empty-handed. Show me a true reader who doesn’t indulge this habit and I’ll show you a liar.
When I heard this word two things happened. For starters I was reassured (I’m not alone! It’s a condition!). And then, I made peace with the fact that when I die I will most likely have a small blossom of books at my bedside, unread.
I have no shame in this. If I didn’t it would mean I have given up hope altogether. Once upon a time I treasured the idea that I would someday finish every book I owned, and simply begin reading them all over again.
But exasperatingly and ever so thankfully, I know now that there will always be another book to read. Even if all the writers in the world stopped their pens right this moment forevermore, I would still not be able to finish reading all the things I want to.
And that is the magic of it. It’s exponential. So you’d best begin right away.