Sunday, October 09, 2011

On Books

I believe bookshops have fallen victim of books.

Why else, as more people read books and talk about books, bookshops keep disappearing? Recently, another grim report pointed out more high street bookshops went bust, and appealed, in a very British fashion, for more government support. It is as if subsidies will save bookshops, while books desert them.

I love books and bookshops. I spend entire afternoons, when I can, browsing through bookshelves. I buy a lot of books online, but that has no pleasure. It is not like feeling the book in my hands and knowing whether I can read the book, whether I want to read the book, before buying it. Amazon has done a lot - allowing me to peek inside the books - but still bookshops retain their charm. Amazon does not, even with its considerable resources and best efforts, give me the conversation I can have with a fellow book-lover at the counters of my favourite bookshops.

I think the worst enemy of bookshops have been the bookshop chains. They are usually quite good in finding and stocking the right titles, but they treat books as commodities to sell. And, when books become commodities, their innards could be stripped and digitized, and they could easily be sold, at a discount, on the web. The bookshops die, then, and with it, the book-loving, though book-reading may go on.

Books are, as I am trying to make the point, an object of love, a piece of identity of the person who owns them. It is only a sign of time that one believes that Kindle can become a repository of our personal library. Despite its great storage capacity and other numerous technical advantage, Kindle is good for books which the owners want to hide. Indeed, this allows a wonderful way to read Erotica standing in the middle of a crowded bus, but one wouldn't want to read an identity-defining book in that manner.

I have seen, in a different context, what happens when bookshops die and the government tries to step in. This is in Calcutta, my home city, where I spent numerous hours, during my college days, hanging around in College Street, a square lined with bookshops and cafes, publishing houses and second-hand bookshops coexisting side-by-side, a place full of smells and talks of books. However, when I returned there after two decades, on one of my trips home from England, I saw a place transformed: The once-proud publishers and bookshops are now desperately dependent on government purchases for state libraries. Again, this is stripping books of their character and identity, and equating them with what's inside them: The beautiful books of my college days are now all reduced to flimsy pages and cheap covers - it did not matter any more if anyone wanted to preserve them, but it is good business if the state libraries keep replacing them from time to time.

But I am an optimist and think that books are reaching a tipping point. They have sort of reached the heights of being impersonal and electronic books will finally kill off the ugly books and online bookstores will kill off the bookshop chains. Then, we shall, yes only a handful of us, ironically the long tail of book purchasers, the lovers of books, get back our bookshops and conversations, our books which will have a personality and be a piece of our identity, which will be a tool not just for quite reading but our connection with others.

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