Over the last few monsoons I lived with the dread that the rain would eventually find its ways through my leaky terrace roof and destroy my books. Last August my fears came true when I woke up in the middle of the night to see my room flooded and water leaking from the roof and through the walls. Much of the night was spent rescuing the books and shifting them to a dry room. While timing and speed were essential to the task at hand they were also the key hazards navigating a slippery floor with books perched till one’s neck. At the end of the rescue mission, I sat alone, exhausted amongst a mountain of books assessing the damage that had been done, but also having found books I had forgotten or had not seen in years; books which I had thought had been permanently borrowed by others or misplaced found their way back as I set many aside in a kind of ritual of renewed commitment.
Sorting the badly damaged from the mildly wet, I could not help but think about the fragile histories of books from the library of Alexandria to the great Florence flood of 1966. It may have seemed presumptuous to move from the precarity of one’s small library and collection to these larger events, but is there any other way in which one experiences earth-shattering events if not via a microcosmic filtering through one’s own experiences? I sent a distressed email to a friend Sandeep a committed bibliophile and book collector with a fantastic personal library, who had also been responsible for many of my new acquisitions. He wrote back on August 17, and I quote an extract of the email:
I hope your books are fine. I feel for you very deeply, since my nightmares about the future all contain as a key image my books rotting away under a steady drip of grey water. Where was this leak, in the old house or in the new? I spent some time looking at the books themselves: many of them I greeted like old friends. I see you have Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World and Edward Rice’s Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton in the pile: both top-class books. (Burton is a bit of an obsession with me. The man did and saw everything there was to do and see, and thought about it all, and wrote it all down in a massive pile of notes and manuscripts. He squirrelled a fraction of his scholarship into the tremendous footnotes to the Thousand and One Nights, but most of it he could not publish without scandalising the Victorians, and then he died, and his widow made a bonfire in the backyard, and burnt everything because she disapproved of these products of a lifetime’s labors, and of a lifetime such as few have ever had, and no one can ever have again. I almost hope there is a special hell for Isabel Burton to burn in.)
Moving from one’s personal pile to the burning of the work of one of the greatest autodidacts of the nineteenth century and back it was strangely comforting to be reminded that libraries—the greatest of time machines invented—were testimonies to both the grandeur and the fragility of civilizations. Whenever I enter huge libraries it is with a tingling sense of excitement normally reserved for horror movies, but at the same time this same sense of awe is often accompanied by an almost debilitating sense of what it means to encounter finitude as it is dwarfed by centuries of words and scholarship. Yet strangely when I think of libraries it is rarely the New York public library that comes to mind even as I wish that we could have similar institutions in India. I think instead of much smaller collections—sometimes of institutions but often just those of friends and acquaintances. I enjoy browsing through people’s bookshelves, not just to discern their reading preferences or to discover for myself unknown treasures, but also to take delight in the local logic of their library, their spatial preferences and to understand the order of things not as a global knowledge project but as a personal, often quirky rationale.
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