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Updated: April 5, 2014 19:43 IST
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Pages of pleasure

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
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In the Suicide's Library by Tim Bowling
Special Arrangement In the Suicide's Library by Tim Bowling

In the Suicide’s Library is a literary, illuminating and poetic account of bibliomania.

One of the luckiest biblio-finds I made recently was chancing on a copy of Tim Bowling’s In The Suicide’s Library, a true and thrilling account of modern-day bibliomania. Few books in recent years have given me as much pleasure and excitement and satisfaction as this brave book about bibliomania, poetry and disappearing artists. “I’m a poor man with an expensive taste for rare books, a gentleman of lean purse… and a bibliophile rapidly on the path to bibliomania and moral decay.” With these opening lines, you are instantly captivated — it could be your story, after all. In The Suicide’s Library (finely printed and published by Gaspereau Press) is gripping, suspenseful, edgy and fun.

To begin with, what happens in the book is this: one day Tim Bowling, an accomplished Canadian poet, stumbles on a signed copy of a book of poetry on the shelves of a university library. The signature Tim notes is “ornate… in rich, black ink beautifully showing off against an off white page… A beautiful calligraphic wave in a polar sea. ” This signed copy takes firm hold of his bibliophiliac heart: he must have it. But it is the only copy of its kind. No other exists. And Bowling, a book collector who instinctively understands and realises how this copy must be cherished and protected and honoured, begins contemplating ways to possess it.

The book in question is Ideas of Order by the poet Wallace Stevens. Nothing extraordinary about the copy except for the ownership signature on the endpaper denoting the copy belonged to Weldon Kees. This is what gives the copy such aura; Bowling has become fascinated by this underrated, forgotten artist who vanished one day without a trace. Kees was many things: poet, artist, jazz musician, experimental filmmaker, and “most dramatically, mysterious suicide.” His disappearance has become legend; his car was found parked near the Golden Gate Bridge — Kees had talked of vanishing into Mexico. Had he vanished or had he killed himself?

Tim’s blossoming bibliophilia flowers into bibliomania: yes, he must find a way to safeguard this copy from some teenager who might deface the signature, or a bibliophagist who might tear that page out, or some borrower who might one day casually lose it. He meditates on ways to rescue the copy and, just when he’s figured out a way to do it, he learns that someone has borrowed the copy and has failed to return it though it is well past the due date. I won’t spoil it further by telling what happens but the whole absorbing account — graphically chalked out as you turn the pages feverishly to find out — is full of a kind of suspense that is at once moral, visceral and existential.

There are three criss-crossing narratives here: the first — the one that I enjoyed the most and the one that forms the major part — is Tim’s account of his book-hunting transactions via online rare book dealers. Spending hours browsing through the stock of antiquarian booksellers, finding what you want but not buying it right away, instead letting a few days go by until your desire for that copy is uncontainable. Calling up the bookseller with a pounding heart hoping no one else has bought it and, then with trembling hands, rushing through the checkout process on your computer to complete purchase. And then a few weeks later, you hear ‘the lovely chuck of the mail box’. The book is in the house.

Another story here is the author’s quest to tease out the details of Kees’ disappearance, and the third intertwined narrative is the poet’s dilemma over his discovery of Kees’ own copy of the Wallace Stevens book sitting coolly on the library’s bookshelf. In The Suicide’s Library is the first contemporary account of bibliomania: the first book-collecting tale that unfolds on the Internet. Much of the ritual of desiring and pursuing and collecting happens here with online antiquarian bookshops. This is exactly how much of collecting happens around the world today; indeed this is how I collect. There aren’t too many non-fiction accounts of bibliomania that are literary, illuminating and poetic to boot and that’s what In the Suicide’s Library is.

Tim Bowling is the author of many volumes of prize-winning poetry, and one fetching aspect of his poems is how bibliophily turns up as a theme. In the volume called The Book Collector he has a moving poem on Harry Elkins Widener, the young collector who died on the Titantic soon after a spell of book hunting in London. Another intimate pleasure offered by In the Suicide’s Library is the chain of reading on books about books that mirrors (and enlarges) your own reading: as the author browses and buys, he recalls what other bookmen have said about collecting: from Wilmarth Lewis’ Collector’s Progress to Edward Newton to Rosenbach.

And then there are Bowling’s own seductive sentences: “True collectors, I had come to believe, live not in the text but in the margins and the front flyleaves.” “Reading is one kind of pleasure; association is a deepening and enhancing of that pleasure.” “Then I lay back on the black sheets of the bibliomaniac’s unending bachelorhood.” It won’t be long, I suspect, before In The Suicide’s Library becomes a modern cult classic in the field of bibliophily.

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