PART I: IN WHICH THE TASK IS DEFINED
The idea of undertaking an attempt at rearranging my book-shelf was, I admit, easier in the thinking than in the execution. The initial aim was to try and catalog the meagre harvest of knowledge I had managed to accumulate through the years in an orderly, easy to browse manner with, if possible, the acquired advantage of such an arrangement being pleasing to the eye. Here, of course, I was aided by two facts:
1. The number of books in my personal collection, such as it is, is a reassuringly finite one.
2. Using the knowledge of the mathematical technique of permutation, the number of ways I could arrange the books, if I had, say, an adequately large amount of time on my hands, was also a finite one.
With these two facts at my disposal, I was fairly sure of completing the allotted task in a matter of two to three hours time. The task would be meticulously planned, and efficiently carried out. Using the standard methods of book arranging- size, type (paperback-hardbound), genre, nationality, or even cover colors (if the fancy so took hold of me), I would be able to size up all options and stack’em up, thus fulfilling the rough criteria I had laid out above.
This state of situation however, dramatically changed once I had actually brought the books down, and out, for their segregating and profiling. as I sat cross-legged, surrounded by books of a bewildering variety, I realised i had taken on a difficult, difficult task. Every one of those straight-spined buggers looked at me, as if saying “be careful what you wish for”.
PART II: THE TRIALS OF CONSTRUCTING A JUST AND EQUAL SOCIETY OF BOOKS
I would only be repeating a cliche if I were to say that books have character. But they do. and like the eponymous quality of the human variety, the character of books is very hard to pin down. Like humankind, books often hide more than they deign to reveal. I got a first inkling of the dilemma, the horns of which i was about to impale myself on, when I arranged the books randomly, and stepped back to gauge the effect.
It was all wrong.
The first thing that I was reminded of upon beholding this arrangement was a rogues gallery. Like that scene in The Usual Suspects. All of them lined up, like petty crooks accused of some minor crime. I would call them up, one by one, and the interrogation would run along these lines:
“Reader’s Digest Word Power dictionary”
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
“The Bhagawat Gita”
“Who will Cry when You Die?” -and so on.
“Helping you learn English, duh”
“Filling up the standard spot of ‘critically and popularly acclaimed classic’ on your shelf”
“Taking care of your spiritual needs, or helping you attract female and parental admiration with your fake religious piety.”
“Asking you THE most important question of your life, and also, I was a gift from your sometimes-drunk uncle, so don’t doubt my purpose.”
There might even be sly in-jokes about me and my useless efforts at their resettlement, as the books would catch up with old acquaintances from across the wooden partition, and make new friends:
“Hey, Da Vinci, you look like you’ve been through a couple of hands”
“So do you Letters to Penthouse XIII. Hands, and a lot more”
“What’s that Love in the Time of Cholera’s shaking out of her dress? Dried rose petals? Tsk Tsk…”
“I feel bad for Ulysses man. Somebody should give the poor guy a shower or something. Almost NEVER been touched. The guy’s practically a virgin”
“Maybe we could get Lolita to do something about that”.
Please forgive my slightly puerile attempts at humour. I sometimes start assigning my books personalities. And not very likeable ones at that.
So, such a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of books, as I saw it, led to an unseemly clash of color,genre, and flavor, and also awoke the inner Bulwer-Lytton/Bhagat in me. Leaving things in such a state, could only lead to intellectual indigestion and nausea.
Down came the books again.
The second time, I resolved to go by size. So the thick, lumbering dictionaries and encyclopedias and textbooks went up first, followed by slightly pretentious-looking hard-bound first editions of bad novels, then the heavy biographies and autobiographies in paperback, then the trade paperback novels and non-fiction, and then the slim general knowledge round-up/improve your IQ/save your soul from various types of deadly sins types. There were some non-size-conforming lone wolves that I relegated to the Magazine section (the adjustment of magazines into a satisfying reading arrangement is, again, not a simple matter, as I have found out to my peril over two or three utterly wasted afternoons). This time again, as previously, I stepped back to admire the effect.
And I was strongly reminded of the idea of society and democracy in our great nation.
All men are equal, but some men are more equal than others. There is always a hierarchy. There was the insidious shadow of the Varna creeping into the uniformity that was my bookshelf. I had managed to realign loyalties, impose a sort of order, ensured that different political and ideological affiliations were united under the umbrella of the democracy I provided. But there were cracks.
The dictionaries and the encyclopedias, the textbooks, repositories of immense knowledge, all-knowers, were the Brahmins in this social tapestry of mine, and like the flesh-and-blood Brahmins of yore, these seemed to look down at the other ‘castes’ from their exalted positions. They were clean, near-untouched, unsullied by dirty clammy hands. They were to be brought down only on special occasions, when one needed to flaunt ones’ breadth of learning in public, and the words inside them were considered gospel, mantras to be chanted while reading for entrance exams or solving crosswords.
These members of the Brahmin caste were in a symbiotic relationship with the autobiographies and biographies positioned next to them. One group needed the other for survival and certification. Reading something in one of the groups usually led to an inquiry about the authenticity of the information provided, in the other. Hence i called the latter section the Kshatriyas of my social group. They were the kings, the champions, the heroes and the leaders in my kingdom. They needed the ‘Brahmins’ for constant advice and glorification. and, as I saw Muhammad Ali jostling for space with Steve Waugh, and Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez standing nose-to-nose against Steve jobs and Barack Obama, I remembered how the Kshatriya clans would constantly keep fighting one another for land and authority.
The trade paperbacks, fiction and non-fiction were the Vaishyas, the work-horses of my book shelf. Their spines bent, lines and faults, like rivers on a map running through them, book-marks and dog-ears abounding. These were meant to do the dirty work- brought out often, a few pages, a few juicy sections read here and there, and then thrown idly back into position. Notes on the margins, doodles, sometimes even torn pages were the main identification marks. They were needed to provide balance to the social order, to keep the engines running. Unimportant, but integral.
These three sections of my book-shelf were also Dwija-Twice born. The first of the two births obviously being when I would buy them, and the second, when I would inscribe my name, the date on which the book was bought, and the location I bought the book from on the first or second pages. This ritual was always solemn and held great import for me. It signified the entry of the book into something bigger than itself, a group, a family, a society, like the grant of a holy licence to belong.
Another interesting and related observation I made was the in-congruence between the quantitative presence and the qualitative importance assigned to the three groups. Although the ‘Vaishyas’ were by far the largest chunk of the population, the importance assigned to them was minuscule compared to the awe in which the ‘Brahmins’ were held; the latter taken out once in a very infrequent while, held at arms length respectfully, their pages lifted and lowered gently, not a scratch or a tick or a word written, and then put back in an equally obsequious manner. In contrast, the paperbacks-many in number, were snatched, riffled through with spit-stained thumb, bent, sat on, thrown down, thrown at, wettened, forgotten sometimes, and by all standards used pretty darn roughly. They earned no respect, they acquired no high position, they just WERE- the ever-ignored foundation of my book-society.
The less said about the fourth section, the better. These were the once-born, the low castes; no announcement of ownership was made on their pages. They were not allowed to sit together with the other groups, but relegated to a dark corner of the book-shelf with the untouchables (read-magazines). No reference was ever made to their existence in front of friends while discussing the books I had at home. They were assigned only the most menial and degrading of tasks- providing mundane scientific facts, badly-drawn pictures and badly-written ‘introductions’ to famous personalities, the detestable smorgasbord of ‘1001 amazing facts about your body’,’100 great books and writers’, ‘Shakuntla devi’s 50 puzzles to puzzle you‘ and mice moving cheese and monks selling ferraris, dipped into only on the rarest occasions of boredom or manic brain hyperactivity. Looking at their names, i realised the reason why these books were there- to make up the numbers, nothing more.
The second layer of my fanciful social construct using books manifested itself when I began ( I say began because I didn’t bother finishing the exercise) arranging the books by genre. The problem here was paradoxical: should i imagine a fixed list of topics/genres that books could be written about, and then try and fit, sometimes push, and sometimes grab with both hands and wrestle, the books i possessed into the genres I could think of? Wouldn’t that be hubris on my part, to assume that I understood exactly which specific area of the human concern the book was addressing? How would I know where fiction melted into truth,where fantasy mated with farce, where graphic and word collided? And on the other hand, if I were to make up things as I went, creating genres as I held the books in my hand, wouldn’t it lead to the creation of an unwieldy monster of cataloging? I could create genres that would be restricted to my one solitary book-shelf alone. Out of all the genres dividing all the books in all the book-shelves in all the universes, there would be genres that were devised only for mine. Customized, exclusive book-arranging.
‘Naive, childish twaddle-pretending to be-literary fiction’
‘Stuffy englishman/woman looks at Indian history and writes stuff that smacks of a colonial hangover’
‘The west disses the east’
‘The east pisses on the west’
‘Erotica that doesn’t read like a pre-pubescent girl’s colonoscopy report’
‘Literary, deeply meaningful fiction pretending to be naive, childish twaddle’
‘The books that impress girls’, ‘The books that give me and my incipient beard an intellectual sheen’,’Books that i would give my friends to put them off reading forever’, ‘Books that i would read to put myself off reading, if i ever fell under a magician’s spell and i couldn’t read another book or i would end up changing into Justin Bieber ‘… and many, many others.
But what then, of the need to conform, socially? Could I afford to be a rebel? How long could this folly-fattened mis-adventure go on? Wouldn’t there be a time when I would simply become too tired of remembering all the genres I had cooked up, and of making up new ones? The thought was worrying me, and hence I abandoned this iteration of the project, having been unable to resolve the paradox satisfactorily in favour of any one solution. It reminded me too much of the Jatis and Gotras in Indian society, where a millennium-long process of cut and paste, and social adjustment had led to the creation of thousands of genres of human-kind, most of them as whimsical and useless as the genres I mentioned above. The paradox prevailed here too-having failed to divvy up people into simple sections of ‘GOOD’, ‘BAD’, AND ‘PRETTY MUCH NORMAL’, or maybe dissatisfied at this classification, we had opened up our brains, made up stuff as we bumbled along the lanes of history, and in the end created so many ‘types’ of social ascription that we ended up not knowing for sure who was what, and stopped reading and started spilling blood over genres.
Such a waste.
PART III: IN WHICH THINGS ARE TAKEN PERSONALLY
…..So, as the standard methods of arranging books exhibited their failings in front of me, and my lovingly-imagined social construct crumbled into dust, I was back to where I had started from.
Cross-legged me. Leering books. No progress.
This entire process of adopting and discarding processes wasn’t without slight benefits though. As I took down books, dusted them off, opened them to check if I remembered anything written in them-I would, at the same time, open up a different chapter of my life in my mind. Each book, (and here I am being generous , in some cases, there was just a stupid blank)- each book served to switch on a light in some small cob-webbed part of my brain. As I undertook the simple task of remembering where I was when I had bought the book, a small gate of a dam opened somewhere. Memories came trickling through-the ‘Where’ of the question I sought the answer to, was replaced by the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’.
Why had i decided to buy that book?
How had all the parts clanking discordantly inside my mind come together for one brief moment to make sure I picked out that book-that one particular book, and no other, and made me buy it?
Why had I even entered the book-store in the first place? was it raining? was I with someone? Had I bought the book for that someone, but forgotten to give it, and then kept it for myself?Or had it been returned to me as a means of letting go of everything to do with me?
If I was with someone, had we argued about which book to buy? Had we told each other short summaries of what we thought all the books kept there were about?
If I was alone, why had I ended up coming to a bookstore? Had I felt the need to check up on old friends? Or had I been lonely and wanted to meet up some new ones?
What’s the story about the coffee-stain on page 68 of this book? When did i play tic-tac-toe on the bottom of page 167 of that one? Who did I play against? Wait, was it me playing?
Which book had I given up my hopes of buying, and bought this one in my hands as compromise- resolving to buy it later on-and then forgotten all about ? Which book had I bought, in a rush, eager to thrust in someone’s hands, saying “See how well she writes!”?
The interesting thing about such an onslaught of memories was that although initially they were rushing through my head pell-mell, and I was not able to distinguish one moment from the other, a certain discipline on my part ensured that soon, not only was I able to sift through them, but I was able to engage in some sly subterfuge and make sure that only the good memories were being projected- and in case of some unsavory remembrance, i was able to create a solid back-story that explained how I had managed to put myself in such a situation, absolving me from any guilt or embarrassment .
I was engaging in a process of natural selection, picking and choosing memories, making up stories and moments as I went along-and isn’t that what we read books for? To someday be able to imagine up our own stories?
I also looked through the books and tried to wrinkle out patterns by setting them up according to the years I had bought them in. The results were surprising. It seemed to me that my level of emotional understanding, or alternately, of emotional naivete had remained the same , as I could see from the kind of fiction I was reading through the years. My levels of intellectual pretentiousness (or prodigality, call it what you want), on the other hand, had attained tremendous heights, as I could gauge from the kind of non-fiction I was reading (This is a very simplistic criteria, but at that point of time, I had taken it as a rule of thumb). It was as if I had intentionally dumbed down one side of my psyche to try and bolster up the other. Like twins struggling in the mother’s womb for nutrition, two sides of me were fighting for what I was offering them, and one side had managed to completely cannibalize the other. Cancelling the two effects out, i was still only as knowledgeable as i was say, 10 years ago. As i said, the intellectual pretensions were soaring high, but the emotional illiteracy had balanced things out to a mediocre plateau.
It was a most sobering realization, and i would sit there, surrounded by books, trying to work out the ramifications of this in my head.
Was I nothing more now, then a slightly bigger, muscular version of my callow earlier self? Had i read all those books, and yet not read them? What had i been doing all these years? Had i not changed?Had i learnt nothing?
Maybe I had. maybe I hadn’t. At least I had learnt one thing- to ask questions of myself. and isn’t that what we read books for? To someday ask questions of ourselves?
PART IV- IN WHICH THE TASK IS ABANDONED
As I sat cross-legged,surrounded by books, I realised I had tangled up in something i could not remove myself from. I had travelled a long distance-in the mind; from grandiose ambitions of creating a book-shelf based on nothing less than the same framework that we construct our modern society on, to sitting and mulling upon deeply personal questions and issues, trying to construct a framework of my past in my head to fit random snatches of memories into.
The book-shelf though, remained un-arranged. I had a vague, shifty feeling of having wasted an entire afternoon on nothing, and seeking refuge in the unproven theory of the journey being more important than the destination, decided to abandon the task and sit and write about the experience instead.
I know I was being an escapist-but then, isn’t that what books are meant to do-help us escape ?