The first inkling you have that you are searching is when you browse and find a book you think you might want but are unconvinced you ought to own. This book is usually not in its first youth; it has probably made its way from high visibility down to the obscurity of the bottom two shelves in a poorly-lit corner of the store. Despite its age, it is remarkably well-preserved, not quite the wall-flower, but unlikely to put itself forward in an unbecoming way.
Once it has got your attention, however, it seems to know it and the knowledge gives it power. What this means is that whether you want to or not, at every subsequent visit to the bookstore, this book will draw you to it if only so that you can make sure that it is still available. When you find that it hasn’t been bought, there is relief followed by a tinge of regret as you pick it up, turn it and flip a few pages, that even though no one wants it, neither do you – at least not yet, not enough.
This is when the book begins to vamp you. You will find on some hasty, urgent trip to pick up another book you’ve ordered, that this one, though on the same shelf, is on display; which is to say that its cover is now a siren call you find you cannot resist. You pick the book up. You see fine lines at the edge where it has been handled by other hands than yours. These are both a reproach and a badge of the book’s loyalty to you. It tells you that if you do not buy it, no one else will. You feel ashamed and check the back for the price; you even flip open the front and back cover to see if there are any discounts announced. You might eventually ask the lady at the counter what so many Pounds work out to in Rupees (you’re usually too distraught to do the math yourself).
Somehow the scales have tipped. From being something you might not really want, the book has become something you must have but have to earn with the ardour of your longing, with penance and abstinence. You make promises to yourself: if I don’t buy a book for three months, I will come and buy this one. Or, the minute Tehelka pays me I will buy this book. Such promises are a measure of your good faith because they combine improbability with determination and hope. You are now officially a suitor who is courting the book.
This is when the book punishes you for being cavalier these months (or years) past. It disappears among the discount books from where, in panic and possessiveness, you rescue it and secret it into some obscure shelf which you are certain no one ever visits. Every customer now is a potential threat; if there is one most coveted book in the whole bookstore it is this one – your one – and it must be guarded, with your life if necessary. You review your bank balance and consider splurging whether you can afford to or not. Only old-fashioned virtues like honour prevent you from such a suicidal course; the love of a good book has to be earned, you tell yourself. It will be worth the wait.
One day you find your efforts rewarded. The book is where it has always been but it looks festive. You pick it up eagerly and you pay. You might be trembling slightly, you might pull it half out of the bag so that you can look at the cover at traffic lights but you wait until you’re home before you actually open it to read.
And how do you read this book that you have waited so long to own? Not in a rush. Not as you would gulp a glass of cool water on a hot day. You savour each sentence it holds, read it twice over. You pause to examine the numbers on the page and where – or even whether – the title appears. You admire the edges and the quality of the paper. You mourn the slight yellowness of it and wish you had allowed the book to grow old on your shelves. Though you care somewhat about the author, you care about this particular book more. Yes, you want the book because of who wrote it, but it is this book that was yours before you brought it home and as you read you’re aware of the book both as the meeting of minds – yours, the author’s and the book’s – and as playground, where the pages learn the touch of your hands and you learn reverence and awe at how much it has to give you.
At night you keep the book within reach so that, even in the dark, you can reassure yourself of its presence. Sometimes you wake up to find your hand on it as if you had been administered an oath in your sleep that you intend to honour even when awake.
What this means is that I have finally bought Sebald’s
An aside for Alok:
From John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim:
“If you’ll cover me and give me the resources, of course I’ll do it,” I said.
“So get on with it, then. Keep me informed but not too much – don’t bullshit me, always give me bad news straight. He’s a man without qualities, our Cyril is. You’ve read Robert Musil, I dare say, haven’t you?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t.”
He was pulling open Frewin’s file. I say “pulling” because his doughy hands gave no impression of having done anything before: now we are going to see how this file opens; now we are going to address ourselves to this strange object called a pencil.
“He’s got no hobbies, no stated interests beyond music, no wife, no girl, no parents, no money worries, not even any bizarre sexual appetites, poor devil,” Burr complained, flipping to a different part of the file. When on earth had he found time to read it? I asked myself. I presumed the early hours. “And how the hell a man of your experience, whose job is dealing with modern civilisation and its discontentments, can manage without the wisdom of Robert Musil is a question which at a calmer moment I shall require you to answer.” He licked a thumb and turned another page.