Under my byline

Shelf life

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 26 August 2009

If you can afford to, you must read

Thirty thousand books line the shelves of Umberto Eco‘s high-ceilinged piazza-facing apartment in Milan. Eco is the world-famous author of the cerebral medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1980), which sold 50 million copies worldwide. Another 20,000 books make their home in Eco’s 17th-century villa near Rimini on the east coast of Italy.

Eco has the resources to gather and the space to house this enormous private library. But he was born into what he calls a “petit bourgeois” family — his father was an office clerk who loved books but could not afford them. “He was the first child of a family of 13,” Eco told an interviewer. “They were poor. My father left school early and went to work. But he was a voracious reader and went to the book kiosks and read books there so he didn’t have to pay for them. When they chased him off he would simply go to another kiosk.”

That’s one way to build up a library — by storing books inside your head. It’s not for everyone, though. Most readers will probably want the actual books. Some will borrow; many will buy, read and discard. But a few, the wiser ones, will want to own books, to keep them close at hand. One of the wisest, the Renaissance thinker Erasmus, wrote hardily that “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

"The Bookworm", Carl Spitzweg, 1850“Ignorance is degrading only when it is found in company with riches,” said the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, rather sternly. He meant — if you can afford to, you must read. It’s not easy to explain why. After all, reading a book is usually something done on one’s own, quietly and without the aid of any technology but the electric light. All you really need is time and the inclination.

“The gestation of a true, committed reader,” said the New York Times, “is in some ways a magical process, shaped in part by external forces but also by a spark within the imagination.”

Magic it may be, but the same article pointed out that a childhood trigger is usually needed. It might be parents; some other person like a teacher or a librarian; a particular book (“the right book at the right time”), or some character in a book, that caught the reader’s imagination so effectively that it forever tied him or her to the habit of reading — like being addicted to a benign drug.

At bottom, it’s about the human habit of storytelling. We are participants and spectators in a constant exchange of stories — everything from office and family gossip to TV news, soap operas and reality shows.

Books are just a little better at this. In a book, a story can be sustained over a few hundred pages and through a variety of permutations — twists and turns in an airport thriller, say, or deep characterisation in a literary novel. Books are totally natural, because stories are natural. Not reading books, then, is unnatural.

So what good does it do to read? Take one example, from Schopenhauer: “It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.”

Now you can agree or disagree that only the classics are worth reading, but Schopenhauer’s main point stands: that, when you read, whether murder mystery or PhD thesis, you are going to be confronted with new ideas. You can pick up or cut off an everyday conversation or flick the TV to a different channel when you’re bored — but with a book you’re more committed, more captive. Reading thus helps build patience, scepticism and the power to absorb new thoughts. All those are useful life skills. Reading is also entertaining.

How to go about building a library of your own? First of all, read, so that you know what you like. Then go out and buy or borrow. One of my teachers used to urge his students, when using a library, not to simply grab the one book they wanted and leave, but rather to stay and see what books were shelved on either side, and above and below. Try this at a bookshop, and you will certainly find something good that you weren’t looking for.

If you’re lucky, your bookshop owner will be able to help. The legendary T N Shanbhag of Strand Book Stall regularly advised the great and the good on books. Reportedly, B K Birla gave Shanbhag a large sum to put together a library for his son Aditya, then a youngster. Even Jawaharlal Nehru (1, 2, 3) took Shanbhag’s advice.

Next, exploit the Internet: it’s bristling with people who talk books. In forums like LibraryThing.com, you can see what books people own, and thus get a free heads-up on books you’d like to read. Or try Onlinebookclubs.org. There are reading groups for every taste: Armchairgeneral.com for military history, for example.

Once your collection gets going, it will probably metastasise to take over your life. Be prepared! “The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but orderly one,” as Schopenhauer said, so organise wisely, by topic, author name, size — whatever suits.

Take care of your books. Properly stored, they will long outlast you. Protect them from heat, humidity, dust, bugs. Try closed shelves with glass doors, and slide a few dried neem leaves into every book. This seems to work. Umberto Eco has other suggestions: in one old library in Coimbra, Portugal, he saw green towels spread out to protect the furniture from bat droppings. “So I asked, why don’t you get rid of the bats? But you see, the bats eat the bookworms that would otherwise damage the books. For 400 years the bats have been protecting the books”.

As for his own books, Eco says, “You know you can also use a big, old-fashioned alarm clock. You keep it on your shelf: it seems the tick-tock noise disturbs the worms so they will remain safely in the wood.”

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