For those who love books—I mean the paper variety and not the incarceration of content behind a screen of some kind—few things are more vexing than the proliferation of newly minted techno-evangelists who cannot stop parroting the virtues of digitization, eBooks, e-publishing, and all things prefixed with an e-.

If every single book ever written can be converted into bits and bytes, the argument goes, what’s the big deal if used-book stores, or even regular book stores, disappear, because hey, we’ve got everything stowed away in some server or the other—downloadable into a Kindle or Nook or Tablet or whatever.

But if you belong to the idiosyncratic—and increasingly irrelevant—minority that cares about the social and cultural dimension of not just buying but also reading, sharing, gifting, talking, losing, stealing, borrowing, not borrowing, returning, not returning, tearing, flinging, pirating—and yes, even burning—books, then you would insist on the sovereignty of free, aimless browsing over chargeable, purposeful searching. The former is the attraction of the bookstore, while the latter, the preserve of the World Wide Web, is supposed to bring the world’s libraries to your fingertips.

But browsing and searching are not only culturally polar forms of human activity; they are also existentially antagonistic to each other. Browsing is what happens when you walk into a used-book store because you have time on your hands. You are not necessarily looking for something. You just want to see what’s there.

Part of the excitement of entering a secondhand book shop is the anticipation of being surprised, of stumbling upon an author or a text you never knew existed, and would never ever know of unless you entered the portals of what might be considered as the antithesis of a digital database—an analog anarchy. If you approached a secondhand book shop in search-and-purchase mode, rest assured you wouldn’t enjoy it very much. The pleasure begins when you give up the search mode and switch on the browse mode.

But even when it comes to browsing, the experience is vastly different in a ‘firsthand’ retail outlet such as a Crossword or a Landmark and a secondhand bookstall. The methodically organised bookshelves of the former, demarcated into themes and sections, leach the romance out of browsing. The inexorable logic of commerce that rules publishing decisions further ensures that the putative originality of the thousands of new titles that flood these outlets remains within the bounds of the known knowns or the known unknowns. For a brush with the unknown unknown, and a taste of real adventure, it is to the secondhand bookshop and its indiscriminate jumble of the ‘pre-owned’ that we must turn.

One of my most cherished encounters with an ‘unknown unknown’ occurred some years ago at a secondhand bookstall in Mumbai’s Prabhadevi. I was browsing through a stack of old books and chatting idly with the vendor when I spotted a weather beaten hardback titled ‘A History of Realism’ by a writer called Boris Suchkov.

As someone who had devoted half a dozen years of his life to the study of literature, and even done a mini-dissertation on realism, I should have heard of Boris Suchkov. But I hadn’t—for me he was truly an unknown unknown.

When I Googled Boris Suchkov, the top three results were the Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter pages of a man who worked as a Transportation Analyst with the New York Metro. The fourth link though was the right Suchkov. Clicking on it took me to a page where, under an advertisement for Dr Batra’s Hair Clinic (Google knows I am bald), and preceded by a warning—“The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased"—there was some basic information about Boris Leont’evich Suchkov (1917-1974).

I learnt that Suchkov was a prominent Russian literary scholar. He was a graduate of the V.I. Lenin Moscow Pedagogical Institute, and interestingly, for an academic, had fought in the “Great Patriotic War of 1941-45" (I’m sure you’ve heard of it). He was a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, a director of the Gorky Institute of World Literature, and a recipient of the State Prize of the USSR.

Suchkov’s tract on realism is a powerful work of intellectual history spanning nearly half a millennium, from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century. It also happens to be an exemplar of Soviet scholarship—something that, tragically, has been rendered the cultural equivalent of persona non grata by the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of our times.

But intellectual labour such as Suchkov’s gave meaning to the lives of hundreds of thousands of humans not so long ago. They also represent a major contribution to the world’s academic heritage. Their intellectual excommunication with the advent of the Cold War—which is still in force although the Cold War has long ended—has rendered their work all the more precious in an age marked by increasing political homogeneity in the realm of ideas. The free market and its calculus of demand and supply is hostile to the first principle of cultural diversity: a guarantee of supply in the face of not just zero demand, but even anti-demand (caused by ideological resistance to certain kinds of cultural products).

And yet, there it was—a book printed in 1973 in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had found a surreal route to shelter and self-preservation on a cracked, crowded footpath in what used to be the workers’ district at the heart of what has become a belligerently capitalist metropolis.

Belying the material conditions of its non-existence, a resonant voice of Soviet literary criticism continued to disperse its ideas into the world—long after its publisher (Progress Publishers, Moscow) had ceased to exist; long after the country where it was printed had ceased to exist; long after its target audience had decamped for their ideological equivalent of outer space.

On that day though, I lingered, not sure if I really wanted the book. I thought I knew all I needed to know about the history of realism. Thumbing through it once more, I suddenly noticed that the book had no copyright page. The by now standard litany of legalistic claims, caveats and threats of juridical Armageddon were missing.

There was no “All rights reserved". Boris Suchkov had not bothered to assert his moral right to be identified as the author of his work. You could—if you had nothing better to do—lend, resell, hire out, or otherwise circulate the whole or a part of the book. What’s more, you could also reproduce, store, introduce into a retrieval system, or transmit in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) the whole or a part of the book, without the prior written permission of Progress Publishers.

Maybe these guys put the copyright page at the end, I thought, stupidly. I flipped to the back. On a blank page at the end was a small heading in all caps, ‘REQUEST TO READERS’. And beneath was the following communication to the reader: “Progress Publishers would be glad to have your opinion of this book, its translation and design. Please send your comments to 21, Zubovsky Boulevard, Moscow, USSR." Of course I bought the book.

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