Book Shop Magic
[A guest post by Sajani Mrinalini Dutta on bookshops, travel and the search for that one perfect book]
I like to think that there is nothing I miss about home when I am traveling. I like to think I’m a seasoned nomad, unattached to a chair or a corner in my house, and dispassionate about home cooked food and other little comforts.
The truth is, I fret about laundry, I worry about the animals and I miss my books. The last of which, is something I can do nothing about. I have this maddening quirk. In the middle of reading, I suddenly recall that when I was 11, or 26, I had read in that one book, of a plot, a place like Kamchatka, an author…a food described, a period in history, or some king, or agent of the Mossad. Then I have to pad over the shelves; and like I nibble from the fridge, or just dig a spoon into something, I have to open that book, or the map and as quietly after a few moments, slip it back. When I don’t have that one word, that one author , or the reference that I know is on my bookshelf, (and I can even visualize on which shelf), I have to satisfy myself with a sigh, file away a little question that shall forever remain un answered, and get back to reading what I was.
In a little faceless village (or maybe a town) in the Himalayas, I found a nameless bookshop. No, it wasn’t wooden, dark, damp, dusty and had books falling off the shelf, and books standing in a tall pile. That is too romantic, and very British-European.
This bookshop, was clean, had cast iron shelves, some painted greenish grey and some rusted. It had a lot of sunlight coming in from windows that were close to the ceiling. The bookshop-man stayed in one corner and stared into his computer screen. He didn’t look the type who had read anything apart from “Tinkle Magazine” in his life. Neither did he look the sort who invested and sold stock for the lack of anything better to do. He was just a regular person, and in a brief minute worth of scrutiny, my imagination and powers of observation failed to help me pin one character, story or oddity to this guy.
The books were just shelved. One after the other. No category, no author, no alphabetical order, no sign to say “Rs 50 only”, no size preference. Just books on a shelf. This was the kind of book a shop I was used to. On a pavement or in an attic. The kind, that said, come find me. All at once, I realized what I had no words for, what I’ve been bothered by the past year or so.
I had lost the urge to visit bookshops. That does not mean that I lost the tendency to buy books, or read them. I would visit bookshops like I visit the supermarket to do my grocery shopping. I know what to expect. I know what I want to buy. I know which authors are going to be new, or which book is now the bestseller. I know that the travel section will have nothing new, that there will be half a dozen new Indian authors, or new books, and that the crime section will have one measly copy of Mankell. I also know that my heart will break when see a copy of “Little Women” in red leather binding being sold for “Rupees 75 Only”. There shall be phone accessories and computer games packages and pink teddy bears on the same floor. Then I shall do some quick jottings in my notebook, a shrewd calculation, and go home and buy a dozen books off Flipkart.com .The yellow of Crosswords, the blue-and-white of Landmark…name what you will… look the same, smell of stale air-conditioning and chemical air freshener, and have ill-mannered children everywhere. I no longer visited bookshops. I stopped by at them. To look for a detail, and purchase the unplanned and not-thought-out some-day present for someone. Like milk, and eggs, I knew what I needed. And like Mangoes or Fajitas, I knew how to prefer one shop over another, for quality, or price.
There was time before bookshops became fashionable and air conditioned, that I would walk into a bookshop not knowing what I want. I would find a book that at once took me to a river in Ireland, and imagined poor people going home, walking through the streets. Or of Louisiana peas and peaches in the summer, with the flies buzzing and the people would all be sweating. Doesn’t matter if Dublin has no bridge, or poor people anymore, and I don’t know if people in Louisiana actually sweat. There would be a story of Merlin, or a Druid…. and I would imagine how lovely it would be in that era without electricity, so that every evening all I could do is read or write in lantern-light. These were books I would find. Authors, who were not famous, but became my travel partner for the next few days. A new friend.Telling me about place and the things he, or she has been to. Each book, was a different place, and each author, was a different person.
Traveling through Hungary once, I found a book, not very tattered, wherein a Peace Corp Cadet wrote lucidly and freely, about building fences, roads, villages and forest in parts of Africa. There was no plot, nor a challenge to the vocab…but it was a marvelous read. I once found a book-shack in Ceylon, where the narrator was a farmer in Peru, but he wrote of everything and anything, because writing came to him easily. The book spoke of his farm, the farm hands, national economic policy (stimulated by the price of a tractor), the birth of a calf, the death of an old person, the rain in the forest, and the laziness of summer. And throughout the book, I felt a dusty wind, and heard the sounds of insects I have never seen. In a village called Bergamo, I picked up the only English book in a shop. This was about a woman traveling with her brother in 1899, It was strange, because her brother was a famous writer, and the fact that this woman, the pale younger sister was a traveler, and a better writer (in my opinion), was not known in academic, publishing or literary circles. Through the boiled eggs she packed, and the chemises she did not wash for the lack of clean water, the brief notes she wrote, for the want of time and rest, her fatigue on certain days she felt due to moving too much, the languages she could not speak, but described in English…..I found the girl-travel-buddy I was looking for on that trip.
These men and women were not famous people. They were not writers who wrote to become famous. They were not the products of PR agents and critics. Publishing houses were not like dairy farms.
Books of today are the same. Of people. Of people being happy, sad, surprised. Like a commodity, like a carton of milk. I realized, that it was the reputation of the writer, which we enjoyed, or disliked, rather than his writing, or his story. I was reading, not the Man and his Story, but rather, his claim to fame. Having a book published, at least in India, is the next fad after “I want to start my own restaurant”. These stories no longer surprise me. These authors are like those people on the red carpet, the only that you look forward to the next time when you see a photograph of them is maybe the dress and the handbag. The story might be expressed through terrible English, or a rather too casual style of expression. Or at the best, very badly expressed, so as to appear “different”. There will be elaborate descriptions of simple food, or simple descriptions of a city club, a city lifestyle of heartbreak, furniture and brunches, of things and clothes that could be in New York or Hong Kong. Feelings of men at work, women scorned, parents high on having just become parents, and children who are cute. Or, in the event when Gaddafi was killed, and a millionaire becomes passed away, books about the Middle East and biographies with business tips become fashionable purchases.
Each writer imagines his tale to be unique, and describes it in a way that is enhanced through his vision of fame, slightly massages the inflated ego…and the reader reads not what is, but what the writer wants to be. Or where, or how.
Sometimes, I just want to be surprised. With something, I have never known before. With a story of an orange grower, or a horse trainer. I want to know how an animal can be scary, how the elephants would play in the water. Tell me how the Ku Klux Clan traveled secretly through the water, and how the Vikings built their boats. What was the grass in New Zealand like in 1798, when the sheep grower set foot, and were there kangaroos on the pastures?
This nameless bookshop in the faceless village was enchanting. There were books discarded from libraries, and books that have been junked by once-upon-a time-publishing houses. There were books written in languages I could not read, and languages I did not know. There were coffee table books about fabric and cars, academic –looking argumentative books on endangered tribes of the world. There were books that were like pamphlets, and books that were like magazines.
I picked out a book, which, on a randomly opened page, I scanned the following words…A Hao Hao Report on restaurants. Niu Kan Ma Fei Hsia ( A Gorge called “Horse Lung”). Wu Shah Hsien and Wu Shan Hsia in conversation. And Bai De. (the name of a city). Hilarious, but not a linguistic puzzle I’d want to occupy myself with for the next few days. Another book was about a photo journalist and an investigative journalist travelling through Turkey, Syria and Iraq. One looking for a woman, one looking for better photographs, both looking for a story. There was crime, adventure, travel and fun. A third, was a biography of an author I have never known of, but the biography itself, was gripping. Finally, I flicked through a book, where the author chose not to conform to a dictionary. He used words like “bogacious” (for stupid people), “grombuxdum” (for being puzzled) and “shshoozing” (for the noise of water). Needless to say I bought it.
The bookshop, though, is the only thing, which is a traveler’s comfort food. Not for what it actually offers, but for what it stimulates in the traveler. For a traveler, (or anyone, actually) the bad bookshop, or the lack of one, is the ultimate factor that will cause an average individual to break. A bookshop, with its authors, the sections offer that person in search of something, to stand, find the book/line that he, or she grew up with. Or studied in school. Or would have remembered reading. That is the reason that the traveler walked into that bookshop in a far off land, or to the bookshop around the corner…for just that one book.
[Cover Photo Attribution: By Warburg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]
[Inside Photo Attribution: By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]