Browsing in a used-book store is like walking down the streets of an unfamiliar neighbourhood without a map in hand, not knowing what the road you are on will lead to. But unlike a real stroll in unknown precincts, the path down the aisles of a used bookstore always leads you to reassuring terrain that is both familiar, yet unexpected. There is always a different set of surprises awaiting the reader each time he forages in the constantly changing shelves of a used bookstore, as opposed to the predictable displays of big-chain bookstores. Regular patrons know that it is not just the reduced prices, nor the idea of recycling that draws you, over and over again, to a store that thrives on the literary discards of readers. It is precisely this potential stigma of a used bookstore that is also its greatest asset. You don’t really know if the shelves are stocked by dint of people wanting to make a few dollars off books they do not deem worthy of their own bookshelves, or if it is only a shortage of shelf-space in patrons’ homes that drives the ingress and egress of noteworthy books. The answer doesn’t matter. For, even in the case of the regular bookstore, you don’t know if it is true literary merit that earns or superior marketing skills that snag a place of prominence for any given book. In a used bookstore, you are less likely to fall prey to the lures and traps of marketing, and are more likely to follow your own instinct; and if you’re open to it, you might even give literary happenstance a chance, where you may come across treasures in print that you could never find in regular stores – an instance of the book finding you, instead of vice versa.
When I was a schoolgirl, I used to collect stationery. I had a small collection of letterheads with fancy designs, and writing paper with logos of popular cartoon characters - and envelopes to match. I did not pursue this collection with any deliberate focus or passion. Rather, it began as a random stowing away of a few attractive letterheads, just in case I needed to use them in my imminent future that involved some amount of letter-writing. I continued with this habit of saving up stationery for a rainy day, when I might have needed something with a specific design. Gradually, without even realizing it, I was in the possession of an inadvertent collection. My accumulation of writing paper was not driven by a desire to collect for the sake of the art, but rather, by the wish to have adequate choices for a future need. Decades later, I find that I am still collecting in order to be prepared for a future need. The items I accumulate now, however, are not single sheets of decorative writing paper, but entire books.
Over the years, I have retained books, many that I do not need. Some are dictionaries of languages I speak, languages I have learned for a few years in school or college, or have had some small, insignificant exposure to. I held on to those dictionaries even after the immediate need for them had passed, just in case I ever needed them again. It turns out that I have many kinds of “just in case” books - not only dictionaries, but books on grammar, on language use, on art, on pets, on needlework, on cooking, on gardening and various passing interests. I am, it appears, a collector, and my affinity for used bookstores feeds this habit. What drives the habit of amassing books? Should I curb it? Is book collection similar to, say, shoe collection? Am I an Imelda Marcos with a penchant for paper rather than leather? The answers did not occur to me easily. I began with the premise that book collection is somehow superior to shoe collection, but that assumption was quickly dismissed: What if the books were on hateful propaganda, on eugenics, or on something equally deplorable? In such a case, shoe collection would emerge as the worthier pursuit. Thus, I concluded, there is nothing intrinsically superior about books. That they carry ideas and knowledge of some sort is incidental, and it does not make book collection any more laudable than collections of items of fashion, of vanity, or symbols of wealth. My instinct, however, insisted that amassing books, if not superior, is quintessentially human in ways that amassing other items is not. Jerry Seinfeld’s Porsche collection, for example, does not stem from a long tradition of vehicle collection. The same cannot be said of books. Book collection dates back centuries. No sooner had books (or primitive versions of them) existed, than man began to accumulate them in libraries. The 30,000 clay tablets with cuneiform scripts at the Library at Nineveh in Mesopotamia, the collections of papyrus scrolls from excavations of ancient Egyptian cities dating back to 1300 BC, and The Great Library of Alexandria all exemplify that the practice of accumulating written knowledge in a repository for later access and use is a long-established human trait. It is practically coded in our genes. As books came to be widely available household items, book collection too became household practice. Curbing this habit would be equivalent to thwarting a basic human trait, I surmised. I reveled in this discovery, feeling pleased that my random and impromptu excursions to used bookstores need not be discouraged nor be a source of guilty reflection. I was merely a victim of my own genetic make-up. As encouraging as this line of reasoning was, it still cast doubt on the idea that book collection is driven only by the desire to have information readily and easily accessible. In the age of Google, with instant, virtual access to information at our fingertips, the premise that we keep our shelves stocked in order to have potential answers to hypothetical future questions is weak. The real impetus that drives us to be consummate information compilers and collectors lies elsewhere.
Books are entwined with our identities. Our shelves are perhaps visible, tangible extensions of our inner selves. If we are what we amass, book collection affords us the singular opportunity to display and reflect multiple aspects of our complicated identities. Unlike the art collector, the car enthusiast, the coin collector or the philatelist who demonstrates in his collection only a single facet of his or her multiple interests, your personal library has the potential to represent the entire you. This ability to capture the whole person under the umbrella of one collection has made libraries (personal and public) long-standing, universal phenomena in the literate world. Our enthusiasm for books and libraries is also evident in our fiction. There are many libraries and librarians (villainous and heroic) who feature in fiction genres. Our pre-occupation with libraries even in our imaginations is a natural consequence of the prominent status we have given to books as collectible items. The fictional library most written about is probably Jorge Louis Borges’ ‘Library of Babel.’ This hexagonal-chambered library with a copy of every book that ever existed is a metaphor for the universe. Setting aside the details in the story and their connotations, the idea of a library being chosen as a microcosm of the world is almost inevitable. If Borges had not created that fictional scenario, then someone else would have. Books are so closely entwined with our identities that they even take on a mantle of anthropomorphism. Why else would we protest, ban and try to banish ideas that are in conflict with our own beliefs? We behave as if their existence in print were a tangible threat not just to our ideologies but a peril to our very existence. Book-burning and book-banning are the underbelly of the coin of externalizing our identities onto books. Radicals who fight to keep books and certain kinds of knowledge away from young, impressionable minds are not stupid, narrow-minded zealots. On the contrary, they are acutely aware that our personification of books has its consequences. They strive to limit exposure to multiple viewpoints and theories, and promote only their own because they recognize, better than others, that the printed word has as much agency as people do in shaping our lives.
The idea that our bookshelves contain personifications of ourselves is most evident in the case of a person in exile. In his article, ‘The Lost Library,’ written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman evokes a sense of loss not just for his country and the people he left behind, but for his books that he personifies as his “companions:”
“Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world…….How often, during the years of roving, had I not dreamed of the day when I would hold in my hands the first book of my lost library, place it back on a shelf, turn and reach for the next one, untouched during all those years, thumb it, read a couple of lines, glide into those pages and find a note scribbled in the margin by my younger self, and then look up as if roused from a delirium, the next volume calling for rediscovery, how often had this future been evoked?”
Years later, after the ousting of Pinochet, when Dorfman returns to his country and to a fraction of his personal library that survived the regime and a flood that destroyed many boxes containing his books, he writes of his experience re-uniting with his companions of old:
“True, reading from here and there in my library was like taking a trip in a time machine. Every volume I dug out of its box, saved from the soldiers and the deluge, offered me an expedition to the past, a geological inquiry into the layers of the life I used to live, a way of communing with the eyes and mind of the boy, and the adolescent, and then the young man who slipped into the covers of this novel or that treatise on philosophy, meeting old friends again.”
One can argue that libraries lost due to exile or immigration can be easily replaced if we ignore, for argument’s sake, the issue of financial costs of replacement. Although it’s natural to assume that one copy of a beloved book is just the same as any other, that assumption falls apart the instant books are personified. As Dorfman’s essay suggests, when you celebrate re-uniting with the very books you held in your hands as a child, as an adolescent and then a young adult, you endow books with qualities that transform them from mere objects to objects with unique individual histories. The essence of a used bookstore lies in that recognition. You relish the fact that the books you buy there have made journeys of their own, that other pairs of hands have touched the very pages you turn, and that others’ eyes have perused or skimmed over the exact print that your eyes now parse. You believe that you are shaping the book’s life as much as it may shape yours.