Spring Cleaning (or The Art of Hoarding Books)

I’ve been spring cleaning, which is to say, going through my massive hoard of unread books and admiring their covers. I dip into one or two, read a paragraph here and there, pick up a couple that I know I have to begin immediately; then, stopped short by the accusing glance cast by the half-red book beside my pillow, I tuck them into the to-read pile whose turn comes before that of the pile they were previously in. While I do this, I also pick out a few books that have served their purpose and need to be released into the universe — in this case, the library on Mount Road or the used book stall at Mylapore.

I am slowly becoming comfortable with the idea of giving away books. The prospect was anathema to me until recently, but practicality demanded that I made room for new purchases. I finally donated a bunch to my library last year. I gave some to the owner of the Mylapore stall, where we had found a signed Mark Tully on our first visit. The owner had taken over the small business from her father only recently and we wanted to help her in some way, but the lockdown hit soon after and we had to wait for several months. I realise, after letting go, that I don’t even remember the names of the books any more, which makes all that attachment meaningless. However, my philosophy has its limits.

I keep more than I give away. The main reason is that I haven’t yet read most of my books. And there are some I might never give away. Pretty covers, presents, the places where they were bought, the book itself — there are several reasons. And when there aren’t any, I’m not above inventing some. We’ll talk about them some day, but you might want to see and hear a few genuine reasons now:

Look at this gorgeous cover!

Ruskin Bond introduced me to Rumer Godden in Love Among the Bookshelves, and there’s been no looking back since then. I’ve read several of her books; Black Narcissus, with its haunting cover and discord, is perhaps my favourite. I own only two of her books, this and The Battle of Villa Fiorita, and while I’ve read the latter (plain cover and all), I’m definitely keeping both the books. Godden is precious.

I’m keeping this for the sake of times gone by. The Madras stamp, the indiscriminate Eloor stamp, the stern instructions…it is a shame the Chennai branch of the library had to close, but maybe if we will it hard enough, it can return some day. (The Hindu carried a nice little piece on the Kochi-born library last month.)

Two reasons here. The first one is, of course, the illustrious line-up on the scorecard; the second is that the cover reminds me of my copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co. Further, we take the sport pretty seriously in this household, so there is no way a cricket book will find its way out.

Again, look at that splendid cover! This book features Roald Dahl’s first story, A Piece of Cake, written in 1942. It has prints of his handwritten notes, which grew into some of his famous children’s books. I have a soft corner for Dahl because his autobiography came to my rescue during a reading (and all-round) slump a few years ago. Also, standing on the shore of Cardiff, I saw the Norwegian Church where he was baptised, from a distance. I couldn’t have better reasons to keep this book.

And with that, we’ve barely begun. More covers and reasons to keep books coming soon! Meanwhile, know that you are not alone in your tsundoku. (And if you’re not given to it, we have to revisit our acquaintance.) G. and I will show you cartons of books — novels and non-fiction on economics, cricket, travel, and philosophy — that we have accumulated over the years. Sometimes we have physical versions to keep and Kindle versions to read. So never fret: if you ever look at your unread pile and wonder what will become of you, think of us.

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