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Reading between the aisles

Can anything ever compare with the special indulgence of random browsing?

It is an occasional condition that sneaks up on me unannounced, and I am usually well on my way to recovery and being once again a reader of most things new and interesting by the time I figure out what had happened. It starts with me wandering away from the shelves of new releases on my weekly rounds of bookshops towards books I have already read. But instead of picking up a book I had meant to read and hadn’t, or another I may have lost and want to replenish my collection, I’ll pick up a copy of a book I know well and one that I possess. I’ll stand there and read. It’s a deep read, sometimes just a couple of pages but frequently whole chapters, that later focuses my engagement of that very text in the copy I own. It’s an inexplicable pleasure, a necessary recharge. That’s why often my most vivid memories of books are of reading them in particular bookstores.

Allowable leisure

Such indulgences are among the “allowable leisure” unique to bookstores among other retail outlets that Lewis Buzbee lists in his 2006 memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. A former bookseller, Buzbee tries to work out the special place and allure of a bookstore by providing a tour of the great stores over time (including, of course, Paris’s Shakespeare and Company) and the role a bookstore plays in creative, contemplative lives. “Books… give body to our ideas and imagination,” he writes, “make them flesh in the world; a bookstore is the city where our fleshed-out inner selves reside.”

Buzbee’s thoughtful book was framed by the anxiety that bookstores were in crisis, under the onslaught of online discounts and migration of readers to tablets. Taken together, these trends have been inhibiting the discovery of new books outside the bestseller lists and personalised algorithms. That anxiety is a more muted, but nonetheless definite, backdrop to Browse: The World in Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings. It is, as he explains in the introduction, “an anthology of personal experiences of the book, the most resonant object of the last millennium, and of the special place where readers go to acquire their books — a pharmacy or pharmacopoeia, a miracle of eclecticism, a secret garden, an ideological powder keg, a stage for protest against banality and glibness of the rest of the world, and also a place of safety and sanity, the only kind of grotto that is also a lighthouse.”

That list pretty much sums up the recollections of contributors to Browse, including Yiyun Li, Michael Dirda, Alaa Al Aswany, Pankaj Mishra, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Ali Smith, Daniel Kehlmann, Eli Shafak and Iain Sinclair. Mishra’s essay (‘A Bookshop in the Age of Progress’) is centred on Fact and Fiction, the South Delhi store beloved to so many of the city’s readers that sadly shut down recently. Mishra’s visits to Fact and Fiction began in the late 1980s when the corner of the Vasant Vihar market it inhabited was quieter and its legendary (and famously “morose-looking”) owner Ajit Vikram Singh was younger. Till the day he downed the shutters for the last time, Singh maintained his collection to his own exacting taste, and he had a bibliophile and people watcher’s instinct to figure out not just what his regular customers (or browsers, as the case have been) would like, but how to calibrate his recommendations so there’d be the right mix of guided and chance discoveries. But he wouldn’t suffer window shoppers, as opposed to browsers, killing time before the show began at the cinema next door.

Mishra was at that point a voracious reader “addicted to random reading”, a young man new to the big city catching up on the classics — and this memoir of his hours browsing at Fact and Fiction is an intellectual coming-of-age account. It is also, with a long lens looking back, a remembrance of a simpler time — in the writer’s life, in the bookseller’s business, and generally in the world.

Types of refuge

Michael Dirda, long-time reviewer for the Washington Post, writes about the bookstore as refuge in his more evolved reading and book-collecting life. “As a boy, I could lose myself utterly in a book,” he says while talking of a day seeking shelter and self-indulgence in the Second Story Books warehouse as a blizzard advanced on the city. “Now I seem to lose myself only in used bookstores.”

Oftentimes, a bookshop becomes memorable for the human connections it enables. Al Aswany was promoting a collection of articles in Cairo’s Dar El Shorouk bookshop on January 23, 2011, and had expected to see the usual soft-spoken lot he did at such occasions. Instead he found “a different scene”: “The readers were much more varied. They were young and old, middle-class as well as poor people whose appearance might have seemed out of place in this upmarket shop. The crowd was so large that the management had had to open up two more rooms, each equipped with a screen so that everyone could follow the discussion.” A sense of agitation was palpable, and just a couple of days later, the anti-Mubarak protests would grip the city. When he went to Tahrir Square, young people kept coming up to Al Aswany. “I was at your book signing in the shop… day before yesterday,” said one. “We hadn’t been able to make up our minds. But after your encouragement, we all decided to come out today.”

mini.kapoor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 2:45:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/Reading-between-the-aisles/article16790329.ece

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