The BS column: The Collecting Impulse

(This first appeared in Business Standard, Speaking Volumes for April 26, 2005)

Which reminds me: if anyone knows of good books on collectors/ collections/ collecting in India, please tell me about them? I’m also looking for books about books by Indian bibliophiles (and yes, I’ve seen Tharoor’s latest).

My prejudice against book collectors was formed in haste and repented at leisure. The first person I met who called himself a collector had a small but interesting set of first editions. These, like his other books, were carefully kept but so jealously guarded, with dragon locks and remonstrances, that I was left with two lasting impressions.

The first was that the books most beloved by collectors were ones as pristine as possible, with perfect, unfoxed pages and unmarred spines. The best book, by logical extension, was one that had never been read at all. To my mind, it seemed to set up collectors as the exact opposite of book lovers. To a true booklover, a book was only an oblong, inert object until it had been read; to a true collector, the perfect specimen was something that had remained virginal, untouched by readers, and would be kept in that state forever. The second impression was that all collectors were essentially misers, hoarders of wealth in the form of books that they seldom read but would not allow other people to read.

Over the years, this early prejudice hardened. The salary of a journalist was not the stuff that enables anyone to build up collections of their own. The books that passed through my hands were printed in the modern fashion, on indifferent paper. The ones that were loved were loved for their contents, not for the way they looked; some few, when they passed through the hands of publishers such as Sanjeev Saith and Ravi Dayal, had clearly been cherished as objects in their own right. The majority were just objects to be sold, not objects of desire. The famed bookshops in Simla and the Sunday book bazaar in Delhi yielded curiosities rather than beautiful books.

We all have our personal monuments to false arrogance. Mine lay in a claim that could either be made by a purist booklover or by an absolute philistine: the claim that what mattered was just the text, not the book. I made this claim before I had read Robertson Davies on the subject: “It is splendidly austere to say that Shakespeare is just as much Shakespeare in a paperback edition as he is in the beautiful Nonesuch Press edition of 1929 or the First Folio of 1623, but not all of us are such literary Calvinists. We value beauty and we value associations, and I do not think we should be sneered at because we like our heroes to be appropriately dressed.”

Oh, the force of that gentle rebuke. It travelled well across the gulf of years and genius that separates someone like me from someone like Davies, and I fled into the arms of that old standby, 84 Charing Cross Road . But I landed on the page for October 15, 1950, where Helene Hanff wrote: “The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home…”

I found myself sneaking over to the shelves that contain one of the very few treasures in a bibliophile but defiantly anti-collection home, where all the books are well-thumbed and dog-eared and marked by the passage of time and our love of them. Among the cheerful spines of paperbacks are the austere leatherbound spines of ‘The Library Edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment’. Not a collectors’ edition, but as I turned the pages, I recognised that there was quite a different thrill to reading Burton in an edition “illustrated by a series of seventy-one original illustrations reproduced from the original pictures in oils specially painted by Albert Letchford” than there was to reading him in the plain vanilla Modern Library edition.

It was at this point, when I was caught between a Calvinist’s love for books as just the text and a far more carnal love for books as objects to be devoured with the eye and the imagination as much as the mind, that Ruchir Joshi, a writer friend, called and asked if I’d like to meet Glenn Horowitz.

Glenn is something of a legend in New York circles, a book collector who assures acquaintances that he’s in the game as a businessman, but whose obvious love for books is inescapable—and contagious. His firm has dealt with and represented the collections and papers of writers as diverse as Amiri Baraka and Vladimir Nabokov, Hunter S Thompson and Nadine Gordimer, Alfred Dreyfus and Peter Carey. Many years ago, he acquired the correspondence between R K Narayan and Graham Greene, bringing to the acquisition the same knowledge and desire that he employed when acquiring Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate notes. He was among the first in his family to go to college—Bennington, where he was taught by Bernard Malamud and where, for a while, he intended to write nothing less than the great American novel. It was the deliberate extinguishing of one desire, the urge to be a writer, that kindled another kind of passion for books.

Seeing India through Glenn’s eyes was illuminating. He hadn’t met too many collectors, or perhaps he had met only the kind I had encountered—men whom he dismissed as hoarders. Horowitz, like a handful of other book dealers and collectors across the world, is more a “literary diplomat”, a broker of literary history, than a miser or a hoarder. In the brief time he was in Delhi, he raided bookshops in the way Genghis Khan might have sacked a minor kingdom or two—not an epic foray, just an exploratory excursion that served to keep his hand in.

When we met, I bombarded him with questions about collecting: how did it work, how would he make the distinction between India’s better-known English-language authors versus the sometimes more redoubtable regional language authors, where did literary archives end up, what did the ordinary reader have to gain by this strange pursuit?

His response arrived in a large cardboard box, which we opened and ravaged to discover book catalogues. Here was the Beat Generation, here was Jack Kerouac’s disillusion and frustration and creativity all muddled together. Here were Nabokov’s butterflies; here was the history of James Joyce’s Ulysses and its obscenity trials. F Scott Fitzgerald’s signature, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s collections of books, the drawings of the Beat writers… Little pieces of literary history detonated on my desktop until finally, I thought I began to understand the impulses of collectors, who must be entrepreneur and librarian, businessman and literary historian, diplomat and cutthroat bargainer all in one.

4 comments

  1. so true so true …love your turn of phrase -literary Calvinism though is definitely not my virtue…so i totally sympathise with the other side – heeroes being dressed is a delightful image !

  2. Very interesting blog. Did you come up with any books on Indian bibliophiles? The only book that is sort of related that I know of is “Autographs of Indian Personalities” by SS Hitkari (Phulkari Publications, 1999). I’ve been collecting RK Narayan for 15 years now, but still haven’t found a good source for Indian editions of his books. Any ideas?

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