A personal library is reflective of your life’s journey. Esther Elias talks to few bibliophiles about their long-term relationships with books

Arvind and Neela Venkatachalam’s library tells a beautiful love story. She loved the classics and biographies; he was into philosophy and metaphysics. They met and fell in love over poetry, Emily Dickinson in particular. “The only possession I brought from home after marriage was my books,” says Neela. “I’d already been collecting books right from childhood,” says Arvind. Together, over two decades, they built a library of over 3,000 books that cover four walls of a cosy room, in shelves that stretch from floor to ceiling. Today, the Venkatachalams are one of Coimbatore’s few families with extensive personal libraries.

Wg. Cdr. (Retd) M. Sivakumar’s library tells a story of a different kind. The collection is almost entirely inherited from his father K. Mahadevan, a man who spent his life with thousands of books stacked in boxes and cupboards, piled on floors and tables, and even lined along the length of his bed. “He never threw away a single scrap of paper. We’ve even found folded book bills for three annas and three paise,” says Sivakumar.

‘Dev’s Library’, as the room is called, is a reflection of Mahadevan’s personal literary journey. “There were certain authors he loved — such as Leon Uris, Arthur Hailey, James Michener, Ken Follet — and he bought every book they published till the day he died.” The collection now includes Indian authors, Soviet writers, philosophy, Tamil fiction and spiritual treatises. After Mahadevan’s death, Sivakumar’s daughters catalogued the library and organised it by genre, with authors arranged alphabetically.

Why read?

“My library is in nine cupboards, all double-backed, and scattered across the house. So there’s no official classification, but I know where exactly most of the 3,000 books are,” says Daniel Victor. He began reading in his twenties when he realised that there are people, outside his immediate surroundings, whose lives could inspire him. “If one doesn’t move into their orbit, one is so much the lesser.”

Daniel began with the philosophers, went onto self-help and personality development, which then lead to management and leadership, all along supplemented by the humanities and his academic reading of business and accounting. Neela read books because they helped her understand of the human experience. “The stories of people from different lands and cultures make real the theories in the humanities.”

Every book will lead you to others, believes Arvind. “I read clusters of books from different disciplines that are somehow linked.”

These links are often the subject of the extensive notes Arvind makes across all his book margins. Sometimes, they even spill over into separate notebooks maintained for the purpose. The marginalia alone makes for interesting reading in Sivakumar’s library. A copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, for instance, is countersigned by three generations of users, each of whom have pencilled their views on Romeo and Juliet’s doings.

Tracing growth

The scribbles also reflect the reader’s current intellectual trajectory. “The questions raised by one book take me to another that may answer it. Sometimes, author catalogues lead me to writers I haven’t read. Otherwise, I collect all the books I can find on something I’m currently interested in — cooking or plants, for instance,” says Daniel. The latter method has seen M. Rangarajan collect over 2,500 books on religion and spirituality, some of them rare, first editions. The interest developed after his retirement as a professor of biotechnology at TNAU. He has spent the last decade translating 14 works of spiritual leaders into Tamil. Extensive reading has led to writing with Neela as well. She has authored books on Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, inspired by her mother-in-law Swarna Somasundaram’s scholarship of the subject.

Besides books, many personal libraries are also storehouses of magazines. Rangarajan’s wife Leela, an avid reader of Tamil literature, spent years subscribing Tamil periodicals such as Ananda Vikatan, Kalki, Rani Muthu, Penmani and Kanmani. “We’d cut out the serialised novels and bind them together. It was a thrill to have the bound version, before the official book was even published!” says Leela.

Arvind too has large volumes of ‘Electronics For You’, for he believes that while current publications can provide good information, the understanding of an idea’s evolution is best gotten from archived magazines. While knowledge is priority, Neela adds that magazines and books are what have gotten her through the tough times. “It not just brought Arvind and me together, it’s given us perspective and eased pain.”