Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | On the gentle madness of bibliophilia in the modern age

There is a romantic notion attached to the pursuit of books: that it is pure, lofty and altruistic

For over two decades, I have spent a significant part of my time reading and collecting books. My book addiction has taken me from the bylanes of Chennai to the streets of Buenos Aires. I have visited the largest libraries to the rarest book stores; spent less than a dollar to multiple thousand dollars on some of the rarest books; acquired books signed by Charles Darwin to a rare signed copy of my favourite book, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl; got myself an association copy of Mahatma Gandhi given to Rabindranath Tagore to another one from Tagore to Gandhi (an association copy is one which the author gives to a special someone—for a bibliophile, it is a rarest-of-rare copy, because only one such exists). My book hunt is as much about owning a piece of history as it is about feeling close to the people I admire. There is always a unique story behind the search for something unique.

My travel itinerary always included a book activity. Whether it was visiting Pablo Neruda’s house in Santiago, Chile, or driving to W.B. Yeats’ grave in Dublin, whether visiting Karl Marx’s house in Trier or the Hermann Hesse house in Calw, Germany, I have prioritized visiting an author-related museum over any other tourist activity. My memorabilia were always bookish in nature.

There are many more things to do and places to visit, and a lifetime is not enough. Visiting Tagore’s Shantiniketan is high on my list. Considering that I lived in West Bengal for a decade, it is ironical that I never visited the place of my favourite writer. A trip to Alabama to relive the To Kill A Mockingbird experience is something I look forward to. I believe my bookish experience is just starting.

I feel reading and collecting has been a subject or theme that has largely gone unexplored in Indian publishing. Especially when the relevance of the physical book in a digital world is being questioned, I for one —being a technologist—find that physical books are timeless, that the medium is as important as the content. Love for old books versus new is like the battle between tradition and innovation. Both are equally important and can co-exist together.

Technology and e-books have awakened readers to the fact that a printed book is more than just the written text—it’s a historical object in itself. Collecting books is a very broad topic, hence it is important to have an area of focus. Mine has been author-signed books.

Dealers are also handling a wider variety of material, and these fresh perspectives are electrifying a once-sleepy, rarefied world. One of my earliest learnings was to differentiate between an old book and a rare one. And that the condition of the book mattered the most. While my personal collection does include a wide variety of rare printed books, over 3,000 signed books, a 16th century Shakespeare First Folio leaf, modern signed limited editions, and letters by Indian luminaries such as one from Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru, I believe that anyone can be a collector and financial resources are not as important as the love for books.

As a book collector, I am always well-prepared. I never miss an opportunity to carry multiple copies of each book of the author I am going to meet, so that I can get books signed for my friends too—I have come to realize that it is the one of the best acts of giving. Being a completist, I often carry along every single book written by the author, much to his or her amusement.

However, I must confess I am bad at keeping track of my rarities. There are some rare books that I must have spent time and a fortune to acquire, but once I had them, I conveniently forgot where I stowed them—for all I know, they may have found a place alongside a paperback by an unknown author. Since I buy books faster than I can read them, I am fully aware that I have not read at least 50% of my own library. How I wish I could take a year-long sabbatical to just read all the books that I have conveniently forgotten about.

Book collecting has had some unintended consequences for me. Wardrobes meant for clothes have been stuffed with books. The extra weight of books has resulted in sagging shelves. I have often had to smuggle my books into the house, out of sight of my wife, who has warned me of dire consequences. As a bibliophile, my worries have been unique. Every relocation meant that a significant part of my luggage consisted of cartons of books. During my last move from Bengaluru to San Francisco, my shipment had 110 cartons, of which 55 were of books. This, after donating 10 cartons and storing another 10 at my friend’s apartment.

The locker in my bank had rare books. The bank manager was both surprised and amused—this was a first in his career. The only time I removed the books from the locker was when I had to write an article and I had to diligently take notes from my rare books.

If I had to choose between a book and a beer, I would choose a book. Between visiting a bookstore and a church, I would visit the bookstore. Between attending a book launch and a rock concert, the book launch for sure. And between buying a rare book and an expensive suit, it’s the rare book I would go for.

If I were given a dying wish, it would be to die on a bed of books at home rather than in a hospital. As my friend, author and bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes says, book collecting is “gentle madness".

V.R. Ferose is an inclusion evangelist and bibliophile, and also senior vice-president at SAP based in Silicon Valley.

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