Touching, feeling and imagining books
In Arthur Clarke’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Bowman is transported through the Stargate to a chamber decorated like a hotel suite. He examines what appears to be a telephone directory to find that it was a mock object made to seem like a book. So were the books and magazines; like the telephone directory, only the titles were readable. There was nothing less than three years old and little of intellectual content. Not that it mattered, for the books could not even be taken down from the shelves (1). I could empathise with Bowman’s sense of loss, for who could live in a world without books?
The first book in my collection was a prize I received from the school I attended as a child. Sadanam was the Gandhian equivalent of a primary school. The book I got was a collection of essays called “Sadachara Padhangal”, lessons in ethics, printed on cheap grey paper and bound with a khaki cover. The book was presented to me by none other than Sucheta Kripalani. The book became a prized possession, perhaps sowing the seeds for the future hunger for acquisition.
Another present received later in life was equally memorable. This happened when I passed out of secondary school with a first-class and a Maharajah’s Scholarship. My father, who was always proud of my academic achievements, took me to meet his former classmate and present boss, C. M. Cherian, known as Secretary because he held that position in the Forward Bank, where my father worked. My father told the Secretary of my achievement, and he went inside and came back with a thick book, which he presented to me. It was the Outline of the World History by H. G. Wells.
Maharajah’s scholarship brought a princely sum of 5 rupees every month. My father allowed me to spend it as I desired, and I promptly started buying books from the National Book Store near the Maidan. This was the bookshop promoted by the Writer’s Co-operative Society and had all the books by Modern Malayalam writers. In those days, Kottayam also had a public library at the centre of the town near the Thirunakkara Maidan, where I became a member.
The world of books expanded when I joined a college in Trivandrum. I became a member of the Public Library and got ware of wealth of English literature. Owning books was a challenging proposition since books were expensive. Most of the paperbacks were 25 cents, which in those days was about Rs. 5. Despite monetary constraints, I went to the Higginbotham shop on the Palayam road to browse and occasionally buy a book. One of the early possessions was ‘Our friend the Atom’.
When I joined the Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam, I made friends with Prof. KC Peter, a writer of some repute. He had a vast collection of books, kept in stacks of library shelves in his house. Our occasional visits to his home stimulated the desire to own books.
One of the advantages of my job as a scientist is the frequent travel abroad and the chance to look into book shops at airports and other strange places. I acquired a good part of my Dick Francis collection in London Book shops. While visiting the Max Planck Institute in Garching, near Munich, I found an English Bookstall, where I discovered the Thurber Carnival. In the narrow lanes of Aix en Provence, which I often visit in connection with the ITER work, my friend Abhĳit Sen showed me a shop, Book-in-Bar selling English books and I became acquainted with Provencal life depicted by Peter Mayle. This little book shop, situated in a lane on Cours Mirabeau, offers a wide choice of books in amiable surroundings. The coffee shop enhances the ambience. My collection of books by Peter Mayle started here.
The one-year interlude in Vienna with the International Atomic Energy Agency was also a good opportunity for book collection. The UN Ladies’ Association used to have the weekly secondhand books sale in all languages, and I was an enthusiastic browser.
I found that buying old books was more enjoyable than buying new ones. The reason is that in secondhand books shops, one occasionally comes across books that one had read a long time back. Moreover, there is a roadside bookkeeper near the Indian Institute of Management, and I go there regularly to browse the dust-covered old favourites.
Recently I came across a blog by Shekhar Bhatia, former editor of Hindustan Times in LiveMint, where he mentioned LibraryThing.com., a virtual library where one can list and organise books. It’s an online database that allows you to create and manage an inventory of all your books. All you need to do is enter the book’s unique ISBN (International Standard Book Number…that ten or thirteen digit number over the bar code on the back of the book) and… Voila! It’s part of your online library with a photo of the book cover, pre-assigned categories, publisher, publication date, and many assorted goodies. I got a lifetime subscription, which allows me to catalogue all the 1000 odd books in my collection. I can sit at my Mac, look up the virtual library, call up a book, read the plot, be reminded of the characters, and even make the book nibble at my memory to recall where and when I had purchased it.
The oldest printed book is thought to be the Diamond Sutra, dating back to 868 CE from China. In 1935, the book business changed forever when Penguin Books Ltd. heralded the paperback revolution (2). Penguin titles were inexpensive, well designed and the content had literary merit. This forever unlinked quality and cost. Later on, many more low cost publishers came into the scene, hoping to repeat Penguin’s success. By 1960, paperbacks were outselling hardbacks.
The next Book revolution came in 1971 when Michael Hart invented the eBook. Hart’s innovation, like Gutenberg’s printing press, built on the prior art. These include Vannevar Bush’s “Memex”, Bob Brown’s “The Readies”, Brown University’s “FRESS” (the 1960s), Ted Nelson’s Xanadu (1960s), and many others (3). Hart’s innovation was providing eBooks freely for reading pleasure. In the period 1971–1991, Hart promoted the concept by bringing out the first 100 titles. Later on short videos, graphical collections, sheet music, audio files, and eBooks in dozens of languages and formats came out. By the turn of the new millennium, Project Gutenberg was producing thousands of new eBooks per year (3). Thus the notion of quality books being available free for unlimited distribution has gone from a utopian to a mainstream idea. Like all successful innovations, Project Gutenberg, has provided great social benefits.
I joined the e-book revolution when we left Ahmedabad for Kottayam and moved into an apartment. My wife forbade me from buying more books because there was not enough room to keep bookshelves. So I switched to Kindle and enjoyed the ease of buying books from Amazon. I also found sites like the PdF Drive, where more than 70 million books in the pdf and Mobi formats are available for free access.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey p 164
2. 2. https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_understanding-media-and-culture-an-introduction-to-mass-communication/s06-books.html