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Get some spines

Have we always been this curious about others’ reading, or has this obsession to keep an eye out for random reading lists been fattened by the ease of sharing pictures and updates on social media? At one level, it’s a bit of stylised production, as people share their neat lists (of books to be read, books that have been read, books that are recommended, books on a particular subject, etc.) on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It can also be judgmental, as we track others’ reading (on their office tables, in their takeouts from libraries, through stray remarks and references, etc.) and form definite opinions about them.

Perhaps, at a more meaningful level, these acts of sharing our own lists of favourites and recommendations are just more flamboyant and participatory manifestations of the abiding human need to organise our messy reading lives. Moreover, seeing another’s reading list, spying a bookshelf (in a shop, library, another’s home) can be a nudge not only to read something new, but also to go back to a familiar text with a refreshed eye, or even a new context.

The ideal bookshelf

In a new book, Bibliophile, Jane Mount, a New York-based artist, illustrates this last point most vividly. Mount has accumulated a considerable following with what she calls the Ideal Bookshelf. Over the past decade, she has been painting, often on commission, bookshelves populated with people’s favourite books — “which books they’d pick to represent themselves, which books they love the most”. She writes: “Painted together on a shelf, these books tell a story of what we’ve experienced, what we believe, who we are.” She reckons that since 2008 she has painted more than 1,000 shelves (“that’s 15,000 or so book spines, many of them painted multiple times”). In Bibliophile, she shares drawings of the books she has painted most often (at the top of the list: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee) — and then zones off into multiple lists that prompt, in an increasingly serendipitous manner, the reader into taking stock of the diverse ways in which books are organised and shared.

The art of book covers

There are genres/categories: kids’ picture books, formative favourites, coming-of-age books, cult classics, novels of the millennium, love and romance, etc. Interspersed among these drawings of piles of books are other sites where books are organised and, importantly, shared in unique ways. There are different covers of books like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and George Orwell’s 1984. The former illustrate how the art of book covers has changed over time; the latter how different translations have reimagined the surveillance theme. Given that most editions go with the numeral (in contrast to the original cover that spelt it out, Nineteen Eighty-Four), it’s difficult to tell from the covers of translations which language each one is in. Most covers have the human eye/s and a sense of being watched — but on a 2015 edition from Croatia, there is a crowd of people looking straight ahead with just one man looking away sideways.

There are “beloved bookstores”, from the Strand in New York City to Pagdandi in Pune, from San Librario in Bogota (where there’s “barely elbow room for a few browsers”) to Daikanyama Tsutaya in Tokyo (where three linked buildings “grow into a forest complete with racks for bikes and knobs for dog leashes”). There is the subcategory of writer-owned bookstores that not just reminds you about the need for independent bookshops, but also casts beloved writers in a new light: from American novelist Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, that she’s written about, to the children’s writer, Judy Blume’s more recently founded Books & Books in Key West, Florida.

Mount also illustrates Bookmobiles that sell and lend books, from Bhubaneswar-based Shatabdi Mishra and Akshaya Ravtaray’s Walking Bookfairs with a biblio-truck driven for thousands of miles in 2016, to Antonio La Cava’s three-wheeled truck that he drives around Italy, to Mongolian Dashdondog Jamba’s excursions across the Gobi desert on camel-back.

There are the remarkable libraries, a reminder of the crucial space they play in forging an informed, inclusive society. Mount’s sketches take us from the Rampur Raza Library, housed in a historic structure and housing an incomparable Indo-Islamic collection, to the National Library in Sejong, South Korea’s new city where many government facilities have been shifted, with the library building resembling “a page of a book being turned”.

Lists of recommendations

And folded between all this are lists upon lists of recommendations from “bookish people”. Mount says her intention is to “triple the size of your To Be Read pile” — and she succeeds in her goal. But what she also does is to inspire you to pick up your drawing pencils and sketch not just your Ideal Bookshelves, but also all the libraries and bookshops, and reading pals that have brought you thus far.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2020 8:16:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/get-some-spines/article25016555.ece

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