Books taught me my first lessons in ersatz entrepreneurship: at the start of a school year, I’d present my parents with a long list of ‘prescribed’ textbooks including many I didn’t really need. I’d dutifully buy the books, meticulously present my parents with the bill and books, and a day later head to Chennai’s Moore Market; specifically, to Maheshwar Book Shop, one of over 200 used books outlet nestled in the iconic Chennai landmark [that place, sadly, hasn’t been the same since a 1985 fire destroyed much of its interior and for all practical purposes ended the market as Chennai’s go to place for second hand books].
One Chandrasekhar, who was the owner then, would take my brand new books and replace them with serviceable second hand copies. The money thus earned was promptly splurged on novels, which I read and then traded in for other novels, the number of books diminishing with each trade.
Books also taught me to pick locks. Dad operated on the theory
that the more I read the less I would study, so at the start of each school he would ostensibly lock his bookshelf with the promise that it would be opened once the final exam was over and school was out for the summer. What he didn’t reckon with was the inventiveness of a boy separated from books by a pane of glass — it took me a day to figure out how to use a knife to slip the latch; subsequently I learned to use a compass from my geometry box to open the lock at will.
Books — or rather, deprivation thereof — even changed the way I dressed. This was during an eight-year hiatus when I was done with college [before college was done with me, but that is another story], had no job nor prospects nor hope. I whiled away my days at the Connemara Library, and that was when I discovered that tight jeans and Ts tucked into the waistband were contra-indicated for book theft, and found through dint of experimentation that a kurta and a jean borrowed from a friend with a larger waist size was ideal for abstracting those books I wanted to read [bonus: Maheshwar Book Shop would buy
them off me when I was done, so one pilfered book translated into several more — another vital business lesson].
I still acquire [paid for, not pilfered any more] books — indiscriminately. While criminality is a thing of the past, I still need to practice a certain degree of duplicity. Thus, the boot of my car and the space beneath my desk at work is packed with books I’ve bought but haven’t introduced into the home yet — the other half tends to freak when I walk in with overloaded book bags. So I introduce new purchases into the home one or two at a time, slip them in among the older books and when the wife stumbles on one such and goes, hey, where did this come from, I’m all wide-eyed innocence [Books also teach you acting] and go, oh, that book, that’s been there forever, what’s wrong with you?
With trademark perspicacity, the other half once told me she suspects I spend indiscriminately on books because I haven’t fully gotten over my earlier period of deprivation. She is likely right — add to it the unvoiced fear that some
day, I might want to read a book and not have any.
“What do I really need that isn’t here in this room?” I asked. “Its dimensions are a little more than twice as wide and deep as I am tall. I don’t know, maybe 150 square feet? Here I have the padded wood chair in which I sit tilted against the wall, my feet braced on my straight desk chair. I am holding the three-inch-thick Paul Hamlyn edition of Shaw’s complete plays. This room contains: A wood single bed, an African blanket covering it, a wood desk and its gooseneck lamp, a small dresser with a mirror over it, my portable typewriter, a small wardrobe containing my clothes, a steamer trunk serving as a coffee table, and two bookcases, filled to overflowing. What more do I actually need?”
Chaz and I have lived for 20 years in a commodious Chicago house with three floors, a furnished basement apartment and an exercise room we built on the roof-top deck. This house is not empty. To my 1965 edition of Shaw, which cost me about two quid and now sells for $119, Chaz and I have added, I dunno, maybe 3,000 or 4,000 books, countless videos and CDs, lots of art, rows of photographs, rooms full of comfortable furniture, a Buddha from Thailand, two elephants from India, African chairs and statues, and who knows what else.
Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions, including more or else every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn. I still have all the Penrod books, and every time I look at them, I’m reminded of Tarkington’s inventory of the contents of Penrod’s pants pockets. After reading it a third time, I jammed my pockets with a pocket knife, a Yo-Yo, marbles, a compass, a stapler, an oddly-shaped rock, a hardball, a ball of rubber bands and three jawbreakers. These, in an ostensible search for a nickel, I emptied out on the counter of Harry Rusk’s grocery, so that Harry Rusk could see that I was a Real Boy.
My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may — need is the word I use — to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, 47 novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 best-seller by James Could Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read all the way through that year’s list of fiction best sellers and surfaced with a scowl. It and the other books on the list have been rendered obsolete, so that his essay is cruelly dated. But I remember reading the novel late, late into the night when I was 14, stirring restlessly with the desire to be by love possessed.
I cannot throw out these books. Some are protected because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word; they’re like little shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most are used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady book store on the Left Bank in 1965 (Obilisk Press, $2, today $91). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Town, where Irving Freeman claimed he had a million books; it may not have been a figure of speech. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used book store.
Other books I can’t throw away because–well, they’re books, and you can’t throw away a book, can you? Not even a cookbook from which we have prepared even a single recipe, for it is a meal preserved and happy time then shared, in printed form. The very sight of Quick and Easy Chinese Cooking by Kenneth H. C. Lo quickens my pulse. Its pages are stained by broth, sherry, soy sauce and chicken fat, and so thoroughly did I master it that I once sought out Ken Lo’s Memories of China on Ebury street in London and laid eyes on the great man himself, dining alone in a little room near the entrance. A book like that, you’re not gonna throw away.
Your turn: What do books mean to you? And which books mean the most, and why? Talk to me.