Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Notes of a Nobody: From Chaos to Chaos: Worlds Explored and Unexplored

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 5, 2013

BookshelfI could not have told you then, and I can’t tell you now, whether those books really corrupted him. I think they only corroborated him, without quite giving him the confidence of his convictions ………… Joe Allston in Wallace Stegner’s “All The Little Live Things”

When it was small there was order. Then it grew and chaos set in. It grew further and there was complete chaos

Reorganizing ones book collection resembles a journey into a forgotten fairy land. It brings back to life memories and reminders of: kept and unkept commitments of what one intended to read, the fires of literary ambitions kindled, sustained and quenched, forgotten pleasures now interred in the graveyard of time, disappointments lived, expectations belied, surprises encountered, dead feelings of wonderment, brushes with greatness, growing recognition of the awe of the written word, simultaneous trajectories of the flaming tongues of taste and preferences, long faded thoughts whose remnant fossils are the neat scrawls of words on the margins of the books that have been read or abandoned mid-way, acknowledgment of great writerly abilities saluted by the graphitic marks of a lead pencil, of places lived and moved from, bookshops frequented, gratuitous advice and suggestions received, guilt of books unreturned and umbrage at books lent that never got returned, worlds explored and waiting to be explored.

The work of redesigning the order can never be a disciplined and smooth endeavour. There are many unexpected and self inflicted interruptions. Standing in the pool of books lying on the floor around me one hot Sunday morning, my eyes spotted E.F.Schumacher’s prescient classic “Small is Beautiful”, the first book I bought with my first salary. I still remember hastening to the book shop, paying the said sum and holding it between my palms as if it were a throbbing living being. It was a mixed feeling of newly found freedom, independence and a mingled sense of joy and apprehension for the unknown world in my hand whose exploration was imminent and inevitable. Along with that book I also bought James Herriot’s “All Things Wise and Wonderful” and “All Creatures Great and Small” as a tribute to my father who was a vet. It was after I read the books that I made the resolution that before I kick the bucket I will once visit Yorkshire – a resolution that I almost fulfilled. These initial purchases were succeeded by many other following no specific order or pattern. It was a madness I indulged in without a method till it was interrupted by an interlude of higher studies. Post higher studies brought a greater financial flexibility and it fueled the habit with a new vigour. The next phase of collecting and hoarding books began clearly outpacing my ability and energy to read

The second phase of collection was inaugurated with a complete collection of the works of Somerset Maugham. A pearly white set of 16 books including four volumes of the master’s short stories which even to this day remain one of my favourites. There is an indescribable completeness to the way he tells his stories. Then came a two year trip to Switzerland where books in English were a shortage. All that was available was one full shelf of books by writers in English at Oerlikon bibiliothek. I fell on them with hunger and my awareness of other writers with great talent started to grow. I also became aware of Indian writers writing in English. I read Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” and marveled at a brown man’s ability to get into the skin of a white man and tell a fantastic love story. I was impressed with Vikram Chandra’s ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain” for its narrative sprawl. I started to read the spy thrillers of John Le Carre which were more than spy thrillers – they were also about the inner workings of the minds of men placed in special and difficult circumstances. Somewhere along came the literary section of The New York Times with outstanding reviews of latest books which started to guide me through my choice of books – a few English but mostly American. Supply they say creates its own demand and lack of supply also works in a similar way. Book buying became very limited but did not die out. When I relocated to Bangalore in India, I managed to lug my limited collection along with me. The need for exclusive space for books and the contours of a personal library started to take shape. While at Bangalore, I managed to find a couple of excellent second hand book shops and started to frequent them on a fortnightly basis. The online bookshops were to yet to fall in place to fuel the neophyte book junkie lurking in me.  Books by Orwell, Graham Greene, Chekov, O.Henry, Dickens, Naipaul, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Stephen King, R.K.Narayan and assorted collections of short stories started to add to my collection. This was just the beginning and more was yet to come. Once again I had to relocate abroad on work and this time to….. UK.

UK is to books what Afghanistan is to drugs, guns and violence. As a country it is a veritable fountainhead from which gushes forth a culture which is centered on books, writing and writers. Despite the constant laments of a declining reading culture, UK continues to produce books and writers of an astonishing merit in an abundance which leads one to suspect that this orchestrated lament is a collective ruse to protect a national secret which enables them produce the highest per capita of writing talent in the world. In UK, I discovered high quality second hand bookshops, spring cleaning and charity sales, churchyard sales and Oxfam bookshops which became the happy hunting grounds for a maturing book junkie. I was thrilled to discover British writing talent like Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, William Trevor, Martin Amis, Penelope Lively, Philip Pullman, Muriel Spark, Hillary Mantel, A.S.Byatt, Alan Hollinghurst, Pat Barker, Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Beryl Brainbridge, John Banville, J.G.Ballard, Alan Bennett, David Mitchell and Iris Murdoch. These are just a few of them. There are many other books which I collected for their one off bravura performances. I have two distinct memories from this frenzied phase of book collection. The first was one of being awakened to the pleasures of travel writing. Nobody in my view can match the English in their ability to write books in this genre of a quality that they can. Chatwin, Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor and (early books of) Dalrymple shine as examples. The second was a feeling of urgency to cover what UK had to offer and cross over to the other side of Atlantic. Ignorance gives courage and I am a living example of that. Forget UK, I could not get out of London City to my dismay.

I started to follow Booker prize carefully and that led me to Pulitzer and National Book awards in the US and also to the Nobel prize for literature. A wonderful speculation if Philip Roth would get a Nobel and the accusation of one of the members of Nobel committee that American literature is narrow and self centered led me to explore some American writers. My awareness of American writers like Bellow, Stegner, Sontag, Styron, Updike, Welty, Cheever, Wilder, Parker, McCarthy, Jane Smiley, Kingsolver, Andrea Barrett, Carver, Mailer, O’Hara, John Irving, Proulx, Chandler, Le Guin, Bradbury, Faulkner and Hemingway started to grow. It also led me to some of their early icons like Poe, Hawthorne, London, Twain and Irving. It did not take me long to prove that Canada is the neighbor of US and I also started to collect books of writers like Alice Munro and Margret Atwood. In the meanwhile, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Paris Review and New York Review of Books have joined NYTimes in smashing, shaping, forging and forming my view of writers and writing

In general, expanding awareness of the world literary landscape also expanded my collection. While returning to India after my stint in the UK, I realized that the biggest part of my home shipment consisted of books. I unintentionally ended up thoroughly disappointing the customs chaps when they opened carton after carton in front of me in their warehouses to discover only neatly piled stacks of books.

By the time I returned, the ordering of books online started to catch up in India in a big way. I saw many folks around me using this means. The gradual death of friendly neighbourhood bookshops started to play out in front of my eyes. The frustration of driving in the city also reduced inhibitions to ordering books online. Books have now firmly assumed an important role in my personal support system and the need to organize them well also led me to a bigger apartment. The more I read and the more I wanted to read. The hunger for the well written word continues to remain aflame and grow in its intensity resulting in an inflow of more books into the house.

I kept adding chaos to chaos till I felt a need to bring an order to it. After many false starts in streamlining the collection and in one of those rare moments when temporarily my mind went over matter did I realize that I was standing in a pool of books around me. Then the courage gave up and I hurriedly stacked all the books back into the shelves abandoning rationale mid way. It was a new chaos I managed to create populated with books explored and many more waiting to be explored

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