Friday 16 May 2008

'My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life.'

This is from a New York Times article by Alberto Manguel about his book collection. There's quite a bit there I can identify with.

My first library grew from Ladybird and Gold Key books to embrace comics (Tinkle, Target, Amar Chitra Katha, Mad, Disney World, various superhero comics), what I like to call investigative juvenilia (The Famous Five, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and so on), informative books from publishers like Methuen and Usborne, illustrated classics. Gradually I began to supplement it myself with books dragged from my parents' shelves, my paternal grandfather's collection in Madras, and books acquired from the bookshop my father used to run.

I'd always have a group of books arranged on my bedside windowsill - books I was reading, of course, but more. There were favourites that I'd read time and again and wanted to have close at hand, like trusted old friends, and also books I meant to read, and kept beside me as promises of the joys ahead, even if I didn't always get around to reading them all. In this respect, I haven't changed much over the years.

Some books have always had to form the core of my library: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, four battered old Penguin paperbacks that I never tire of reading, A History Of The World In 10 1/2 CHapters by Julian Barnes, a book that fulfills its promise by circumventing it in the most brilliant ways possible, at least one collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft, something by Michael Moorcock, some Wilde, some Poe, Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, some European depressives (Kafka, Camus, Sartre), Cosmos by Carl Sagan and Do What You Will, a collection of essays by Aldous Huxley, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. These books are like the germ culture from which I can grow a new library once again, unpredictably different, yet similar, to all the ones that preceded it.

When I began living away from my family, in college, I didn't always have much of a library with me. There was rarely much space for more than the basics in the boarding houses where I stayed, so I'd only have a couple of paperbacks and comics that I was actually reading at the time. It would only be after starting work and moving into a shared house that I would begin to seriously amass a private library again. Naturally, much of the initial core of books came from my previous library, whatever wasn't tied down in my father's house, which my parents' divorce made inaccesible to me, or given away to a school library in a fit of philanthropy at the age of 11.

At first, I displayed my books and CDs in shelves in the living room. However, I soon found that living with a room mate means you have little control over who spends time in your living room - CDs and books started going missing, CDs more than books, of course. After this I kept my library in my own bedroom, which soon took on a rather crowded, chaotic aspect. Once I'd filled up my cupboard, I started stacking books in the lofts, in boxes under the bed and finally in free-standing piles all over the room. Things were a bit better once I shifted to my own flat. In all this time, my collection had begun to reach truly epic proportions, and I despaired of ever being able to find enough shelf space for it all - entire sections of my collection were permanently stored in cardboard boxes in a spare room, boxes which I would pore through at regular intervals, fetching back books I needed to have around to read, or to plan to read, or for comfort.

Now that I'm married, one of the remarkable things that I've realised is that this has also been the merging of two rather substantial collections. Her books and mine mingle freely on the various shelves at home, and there are a reasonable number of repeats, although there'd have been more if I had back all the books that are marooned in my father's house. I've tried to impose some order on it all - non fiction here, graphic novels there, science fiction all together, classics in the room on top, and so on, but it never works. And the collection seems to grow daily. I haven't bothered counting, but I'm certain we're well on our way to our first 10,000.

As before, all these books are a substantial presence both physically and mentally. They furnish both a room and a mind like nothing else. The comfort of favourites and classics, canonical or self-ordained, at hand to be dipped into again and again, the promise of unread books hiding worlds as yet undiscovered between their covers, or even of utter rubbish safely shelved where it need never be read again, is a feeling mere upholstery cannot give.

1 comment:

K said...


Cannot agree more on the promise of an unread book.

Did not find Written Lives anywhere :-(