Shelved selves

Unpacking literary baggage ♦

booksThe first library I fell in love with was my great-grandfather’s study in Shimla. An angular room with thick glass windows, dark wood furniture and a scuffed, burnt orange carpet, it looked out over the misty tops of ragged pine trees and rounded hills. Like any good study, its architect knew that the delicate work of the mind needs buffering from the shrill sounds of the household, and the library was accessible only from the front veranda. Encircling the room were shelves enclosed within stubborn sliding glass doors; each shelf lined with dusty newspapers – some of which were probably worthy of preservation themselves. Hardcover books were packed tightly together, many of them doubly secured in homemade plastic jackets. Prying a spine loose would set a shoal of silverfish darting into different directions, and large hairy spiders lurked in the corners of the ceiling, spinning their own stories in a spiky gossamer font.

My great-grandfather was a historian and educator, and many of the books were too academic for me on those early summer vacations, but it didn’t matter. Adding to the literary clutter, my brother and I would cart our summer reading in suitcases all the way from the US. We’d sink into the new plastic weave seats of old dining chairs, our noses close to the pages, breathing in the book-must while sneaking glances at my grandfather as he composed letters with a fountain pen at his father’s writing table. This quietly thrilling collegiality was disturbed only by the sudden clatter of monkeys on the tin roof above, or my grandmother calling us for garam chai and butter-smeared, currant-filled fruit buns. Inhaling the dust of these old history books (some of them bundled up and brought all the way from Lahore during Partition) was like absorbing a sense of my own past – recuperating something I thought I’d lost as an angsty first-generation American.

Back then, the contents of the library didn’t matter so much, but age demands prejudice and  I’ve since become one of those people who makes a beeline for the bookshelf upon entering a new home. Recognising an obscure personal favourite in an acquaintance’s collection has often perfectly bound a friendship. And when a new love interest goes off to make tea or pour wine, examining his private life through a shelf of Russian literature or radical politics makes me wonder how neatly this catalogue might complement mine.

My own bookshelves have felt like a distinct disadvantage. Sparsely filled with random titles and castoffs from friends who have also shuttled cities and continents for work, they reflect the fact that carting books in suitcases, or cardboard boxes, has become a fixed feature of a transient life. My childhood library sits on white shelves in America, neatly ordered by author, waiting for when I have my own kids. I haven’t revisited the Shimla study in a decade. But after yet another move, I recently had the chance to rip open the boxes, dust, order by genre and stuff into shelves what felt like various chapters of my life. Worn classics from childhood, theoretical texts scrawled with earnest marginalia from college, all the Delhiana hoarded from editing a city magazine, old postcard bookmarks, a glut of contemporary Indian literature and many volumes with stiff spines and crisp pages set aside for future reading.

“Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me,” writes Claire Messud in Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books. In this edition of a Yale University Press series, Messud continues, “To be weighed down by things – books, furniture – seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” I’ve often felt the same way in the face of heavy boxes and duct tape. In the same book, Gary Shteyngart says, “Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” Why not just throw them all out, I wonder, when that third half-read copy of Moby Dick turns up. Or put a moratorium on book-buying and get a tablet?

But as I sit surrounded by stacks of fresh and faded titles, sniffling not just because of the dust, arranging my shelves gives weight to the task of putting myself back in order. I’m sure digital libraries have their place, but maybe my personal history still needs this hefty cover: this old baggage of beloved literature, those potent, unread volumes taking up space, and yes, even that stash of romance novels, stuffed spine-inward behind the Derrida.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.