FOR a bibliophile, reading Pradeep Sebastian’s ‘The Groaning Shelf’ is a journey in self-discovery. He writes with obvious delight about the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of book lovers. The way they collect books, arrange and re-arrange them ad nauseam, and care for them.
Consider some of the peculiarities: One bibliophile wanted his books stacked at the same height. So he got made ‘heels’ for smaller books. Another got made cupboards and demolished them to create new ones, till he was perfectly happy with the shape, size and depth of the shelves. One followed a strict arrangement of books by the gender of the author. Yet another arranged them in the descending order of the ‘most thumbed books.’
The book lovers collect books for various reasons, rare and out of print books, first edition, first print books, hard bound editions, beautiful covers, nice bindings, and it goes on and on. A bibliophile may not be a voracious reader. It is not necessary that he reads each and every book he buys. He is satisfied that he owns it. Surprisingly, almost all the bibliophiles in Sebastian’s book are male, unless one has missed an odd one here or there. Hope he would address this in the next edition of the book.
One of the most curious cases of incorrigible bibliophile is a Spanish monk named Don Vincente, who looted his own monastery’s library of rare books, left the order and a few months later surfaced as an antiquarian bookseller. All this happened in 1830. He was more interested in buying rather than selling books. In 1836, a rival won an auction to buy the only surviving copy of ‘Edicts for Valencia’ printed in 1482 by Spain’s first printer Lamberto Palmart. A week after the auction, the rival was found murdered and all clues laid suspicion on Don Vincente. During the trial, in defence of Don, his lawyer brought another copy of ‘Edicts for Valencia’ to prove that the copy in possession of his client was not the one auctioned. The former monk went into a shock and reportedly kept murmuring till he died ‘my copy is not unique, my copy is not unique.’
While the world condemns thefts, it looks at a bibliokleptomania with an indulgence. And all book lovers at some time or the other in life contemplate, if not execute, thieving books.
Pradeep Sebastian describes how the book lovers get nervous and anxious when anybody hovers near their bookshelves. There is palpable tension and a sense of ill-boding. Why are bibliophiles so traumatised about sharing books? The three most often mentioned reasons are that the borrowers don’t return the books on time, if at all they do, second, the books are returned in a bad condition, dog ears and stains, and third, the books are hardly read by the borrowers.
One of the essays in the book is devoted to marginalia, a term coined by Coleridge. It means a person who compulsively writes in the margins. Coleridge was one of them. There are essays on the book jackets, the print and the print line, the titles, the reading habits, the curious book stores, the enterprising book sellers – it’s a world of books and book lovers.
A delightful book, written in a witty and humorous style. One cannot help smiling while reading the book, especially if one is a bibliophile or knows one. You can recognise all the symptoms.
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