Amid the bustling activity at the recent London Book Fair, India’s most famous film lyricist Javed Akhtar lamented on the lack of reading culture in India. “That’s the real issue, but nobody here is talking about it,” an animated Akhtar said on the sidelines of the fair.
“Do you know how books are selected in some of the homes in my city of Mumbai? They are chosen by interior decorators.. by interior decorators! If you have brown-coloured furniture or a carpet, you must have brown-coloured books,” the award-winning poet is reported to have said.
He may not be very far from the truth, because the fact is, there are more books bought than read in the city. And the ones that are bought are sometimes governed by aesthetic decisions rather than literary ones. Which is the basic difference between book buyers and book readers. Visit any book exhibition, say the Strand Book Fair or the Crossword book sale and you will notice the former buying a lot of look-good books, perhaps books that they will never read, books that make for great display.
Interior decorator Hazel Choksi, who specializes in furniture design is not surprised by clients asking her for book recommendations to match their décor. “Coffee table books are usually display books. If you have a cabinet, these are the ones that are displayed in the front, and not all of them may be read. These could be books from lists, eg: top five books of the month.
Does she get asked by clients what books should they be displaying? “Well sometimes, and we make recommendations based on their sensibilities. Like Bachanalia by Bhawna Somaiya or Still reading Khan, Mustaq Sheikh’s biography on Shah Rukh Khan, if they are inclined towards Bollywood. Or a gourmet food book that is rich in pics, like Padma Lakshmi’s Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, or Indian cultural books — on maharajas, textile, architecture, palaces.” She is particular that the books should reflect the sensibility of the owner of the house.
“You don’t want a client to feel that they don’t belong in their own home,” she adds. Else, autobiographies of political leaders make for great coffee table books, like MK Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, but we don’t always recommend those.”
Kumpal Mittal, another interior decorator feels such decisions are usually reflected in office décor and residents often tend to me more personal and sentimental about the books they keep.
“Residences are very particular about their space and even though they may not read the books, they would want those that they can relate to, eg. Amitabh Bachchan’s autobiography.”
Offices on the other hand are another story. “If it’s a lawyers office, it would be usually done in beige and brown, so a coffee table book with a dash of red would work quite well.”
Those big bucks
Sivaraman Balakrishnan, Crossword’s deputy manager, marketing throws some light on the trends in coffee table book sales, typically the ‘display’ books, which are usually their big ticket items, with prices ranging from Rs 800
to Rs 15000.
“While people don’t specifically ask for ‘look-good’ books, there is a certain trend in gifting options. For example: Bachchanalia by Bhawna Somaiya, Raghu Rai on India, Mustaq Ahmed on SRK,” he says.
How is he sure these are gifting options and not bought for individual consumption? “It’s chiefly the timing of purchase, and the price points which point to the fact that it may perhaps be a gifting option.
Due to their nature and the price points, such books have a longer shelf life at the store and are slow moving items. They usually sell the most during the months Sept-Jan, the gifting season, that also coincides with an influx of NRIs. Books that are hot-sells in this period include: Bombay 100 years ago, the 501 series — must see movies, must read books, must visit places (all at Rs 800 each).
Of the trend in the year gone by, he says that the MF Husain book, 88 Husains in oil, sold ten copies, but at Rs 15000 each, it was a good year, and typically must have been a gifting option. Another top-seller was Mario de Miranda, a compilation of his cartoon collection — at Rs 2700, it has already sold 340 copies over the last five months. Other favourites for gifting include Still reading Khan, AB is a legend, The Bharatpur Inheritance, Jewels of Nizam, which has sold 75 copies in the last two years at a price of Rs 3500.
Two in one
Jerry Pinto, bookaholic, author and poet, sums it up. “Well, everyone will have an Aravind Adiga or Gita Hariharan on their shelf, whether or not they read it. The one they will certainly read is a Chetan Bhagat.”
So does he tend to sum people up by the books they keep? “I always have an inbuilt suspicion of anybody who doesn’t have books in their house. I do understand that everyone who reads doesn’t not have to buy, and there are libraries and all of that, but a house devoid of books makes me wonder if the inhabitant is a serial killer or an axe murderer,” he says.
“And then there is another set of people who manufacture an entire aura with the books they keep and constantly keep talking about how this edition is better than that one or gloating over the 12-volume dictionary they just got,” he continues.
Pinto is of the firm opinion that books should be about pleasure, fun.. you may like to keep some advanced literary theory, but there’s nothing wrong with still stocking your favourite Enid Blytons. “It shouldn’t be as if your entire world is defined by them. Just a bit of you,” he concludes.