When I was a young woman in Kolkata, I’d go to the annual book fair armed with a sack. Yes, a sack. Even at the age of 12 or 13, I knew from long experience that I’d need it. Because I’ve never bought books in ones or twos; I always buy almost whole bookshops’ worth.
That’s because of three things. 1. I live to read. 2. I live in constant fear that I’ll have nothing to read (it’s called abibliophobia). 3. I like to own my books.
Cut to the new millennium and the online bookstores, and by about 2005, it was clear to me that either I stopped buying books or I bought a new flat to keep my books in because my own flat now had very little room left for me.
There were books packed tightly into the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the living room. There were books crammed in all the cabinets, including those in the kitchen. There were so many books on my bedside tables that I couldn’t even see the tables. There were books on the floor, on top of cupboards, among my clothes, on the bathroom flush tank, everywhere.
Given the cost of a flat in Mumbai and the fact that if I had the money to buy a flat in Mumbai, I’d spend it all on books, clearly, I had to deal with my collection drastically: give it away. And this might have been the hardest thing I’d ever have done, the kind of thing accompanied by full-on Hindi movie histrionics (Nahiiiiiiiin! Mat jao!) if it hadn’t been for a most fortuitous event. My building had an infestation of bedbugs.
Here’s the thing about bedbugs. They are not only disgusting creatures that look like a cross between a watermelon seed and a zombie cockroach, they are virtually indestructible. You can’t simply pest control them away via a gel-filled syringe. You have to spray every millimetre of your house every three months till they’re annihilated. And that means taking everything off your shelves every three months and putting them back again.
By the third time I had lugged my books off the shelves, the flush tank, the tops of cupboards, etc, I was clear that no way in hell was I going to put them back again. So off they went: to libraries, friends, and NGOs. And would you believe it? I wasn’t emotionally destroyed. I was elated. My god! I did not have to lug those 20 tonnes of books around anymore. And heavens! Look at the SPACE I had for new books.
Of course, I didn’t give everything away. I kept a few hundred books I cannot live without. But since the bedbug experience, I cull my books every year. I take each book I own off its shelf and ask it a question: Will I ever re-read you again? If the answer is yes, it goes back on the shelf. If the answer is no, it goes on the pile of give-aways my friends can choose from.
Over the last few years, I haven’t had many books to cull. Hardened by my ‘few possessions in case of bedbugs’ philosophy, I bought a Kindle, and aided by my rapidly fading middle-aged eyesight, I began to prefer ebooks, on which you can adjust the font, to the real thing. Now I have 876 titles on my Kindle. On my shelves are about 200 books.
I don’t need a sack when I buy books any more. I don’t need a new flat to store my collection. I just need a new Kindle. Actually, six.
From HT Brunch, October 16, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch