Book review: The Groaning Shelf, by Pradeep Sebastian

(Published in Biblio, July 2011.)

The Groaning Shelf and other instances of book love
Pradeep Sebastian
Hachette India,
Rs 395, 295 pages
ISBN: 978-93-80143-03-3

In 1994, the Internet in India was an infant, alien presence, and to log on was akin to conducting an arcane temple ritual. With sufficient patience and enough supplication, the creaking modems of those days might grant you a brief, tantalizing darshan, a quick glimpse of what it meant to be in the presence of the strange god called the Internet.

Pradeep Sebastian and Sven Birkerts occupied very different imaginative spaces in that year. Sebastian, the Hindu’s articulate, incisive, gently brilliant literary columnist, wrote about his love for the printed word, with the accent heavily on the “printed”. First editions, secondhand bookshops, the love of the musty, distinctive scent of books—these were what he celebrated in his column, as much as the richness of literary content.

For Birkerts, 1994 was the year when he published The Gutenberg Elegies, which would become a landmark collection of essays marking the advent of ebooks (and the presumed death of print). The Internet had already changed the way Americans read, understood and processed the world, and Birkerts was one of the first to chart—and comprehend—the order of change upon us. We were shifting from a print culture to an electronic culture, he said, much as there had been a shift, centuries before, from an oral literary culture to a written literary culture. However, this shift would take less than fifty years, not centuries, to come about; and this shift would also involve a transition in how we understood the practice of reading and writing. Birkerts was prescient in many of the fears he expressed in The Gutenberg Elegies—language would erode, becoming less complex; readers would have to “incessantly reposition the self within a barrage of onrushing stimuli”; we would experience a waning of the private self as we became more and more enmeshed in electronic webs.

In just 17 years since Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, these are some of the trends in publishing and reading that have changed. E-books have grown in popularity and availability and e-readers from the Sony E-reader to the Kindle and now the iPad have encountered less resistance than many champions of the book accepted. Language erosion has, according to some experts, happened; but this has also been accompanied by the rise of what might be called e-creoles, often complex sub-dialects used on services like Facebook and Twitter, rich in their own ways of combining symbol, smileys and text, expressive and constantly morphing. Traditional bookstores across the world have been under threat, with independent bookstores and large chains alike going under; the cult of the bestseller and the mass-market paperback dominates a great deal of reading. There is a question mark against the concept of territorial copyright; and there are fears that between them, Google and Amazon might own too much of the world’s electronic libraries and bookstores.

That is, of course, a paragraph of over-simplifications, and it is also a demonstration of the limitations of print. In its current form, flat on the printed page you are reading, the previous paragraph conveys only a limited authorial summary of almost two decades of complex, fascinating and challenging arguments. In its electronic avatar, it would have been possible to link the first sentence to the predictions or analyses of Marshall McLuhan, Zizek or Nicholas Negroponte; to link the second sentence to stories from, say Wired or BoingBoing on the rise of e-reading; to link the third sentence to blogs like Language Hat and Language Log, and so on. Deprived of the backbone of the electronic world, of the potentially intense engagement and architecture of the Internet, what you have left in this paragraph is just an unsatisfactory skeleton. (Note: Since this version is online, I’ve included some links as illustrations.)

• * *

According to the formidable Nicholas Negroponte, the end of the book in its current, physical avatar is closer than we think—he gives it about five years. Observers of the Indian publishing scene believe we have a little longer than that—the physical book will probably never phase out entirely in a country known for its ability to exist in several centuries simultaneously, and even where it does, the process is likely to take ten to 15 years.

It is in this context that Pradeep Sebastian’s The Groaning Shelf, a compilation of writings on the book and on bibliophilia, must be read. This collection of brief, engaging essays—many of them drawn and reshaped from his columns for The Hindu and the Deccan Herald—is at once a nostalgic elegy for the physical book, and a stirring defence of its virtues. Sebastian represents one end of the ebook-versus-printed book debate; he stands for everyone, every reader and writer, who believes that our world would be diminished if we could no longer hold bound volumes in our hands.

The Groaning Shelf is really the distilled essence of one reader’s love affair with books, complete with the inevitable moments of darkness and disillusion. It opens with a description of a condition common to those who live their lives in reading, publishing and writing—a moment of turning away from reading itself, becoming, in Sebastian’s phrase, “a lapsed reader”. For him, this is the moment when he shifts from a deep engagement with the content of books to a deep fascination with the form. “The pleasures of bibliophily for me lie in fully embracing the book as material object: its bibliographical aspects—binding, edition, condition, rarity, and typography matter to me as much as their literary content.”

In the first few sections, Sebastian moves through all the complex and beloved rituals of the true bibliophile. Like Walter Benjamin, he derives pleasure from unpacking his library, aware that in describing the humble and yet intently engaging process of rearranging books on a shelf, he is joining a long line of writers from Benjamin to Geoff Dyer to Anne Fadiman. Alberto Manguel and Coleridge share his search for the perfect bookshelf; Baudrillard and Sontag help him understand the romantic richness that lies behind the process of becoming a book collector, an obsession that goes beyond the merely acquisitive. First editions—the hunt for them, the joy of possessing an untouched, perfectly preserved first edition of a Nabokov or an RK Narayan—lead him to the very Indian neglect of these aspects of book-love. He will, later, meet Bibi Mohamed, an antiquarian book dealer in Manhattan who is one of the very few experts in her field of Indian origin; and he will also write with some feeling of the relative absence of book history in India.

Perhaps the only disappointing section in this collection is ‘Writers’, which offers a series of short profiles of writers from Pico Iyer to Ayn Rand, Pankaj Mishra to JD Salinger. The short essay form, with some pieces just two or three pages long, works very well with Sebastian’s bibliophilia—by moving from the joys of reading in bed to the tale of obsessive collectors, he creates a map of the reading world, and a timeline of the development of the kind of reader of books Anne Fadiman would have classified as courtly rather than carnal. But while these brief profiles are necessarily limited—they must have been written for magazine or newspaper publication—they work only as introductions, and often leave the reader wanting a great deal more.

This is the danger of any collection of essays by a columnist, especially one as sensitive and as thoughtful as Sebastian—the truncated length of the essays whets the reader’s appetite, but leaves it unsatisfied. Even within these, though, there are moments of recognition and pleasurable insight. Writing about Pico Iyer (“Thomas Merton on a frequent-flier pass”), Sebastian instinctively does what any committed reader will do when he comes to Iyer’s novel Abandon. He places it among its natural family: “Reading it, you are reminded of other stories about God amidst lovers. I thought of Shadowlands straightaway—the story of CS Lewis and his love, Joy Grisham—and of another little known, astonishing book titled A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken…”

All of his instincts are of this order—the instincts of a disciplined, accomplished reader—and this collection is perhaps the first in many decades in India to celebrate books and reading. The Groaning Shelf has the same directness and ease as Sebastian’s columns: it was written by a reader for other readers, and that is its greatest strength. The moments of serendipity compensate for the inevitable disappointment of wanting more than just this collection of essays, however valuable in themselves; there was a deeper book, the personal history of an Indian reader, waiting to be written, and though it is unfair to criticize Sebastian for not having written it, it is tempting to ask him to write it some day.

As a reader, I am on the other side of the divide from Sebastian, wedded more to the content of books than to their form. Many of us “carnal readers”, to use Fadiman’s elegant division, are fascinated by the promise of the ebook revolution, and are happy to jettison the paraphernalia—the groaning shelves—that accompany being a book lover. Sebastian’s essays are a reminder of courtly love, and all that it can bring: the frisson of learning the arcane terminology of the book trade, the joyous serendipity of browsing in secondhand bookshops and finding what you didn’t know you needed.

Perhaps one of the loveliest essays in The Groaning Shelf is about a visit Sebastian makes to “the bookshop that every bibliophile secretly fantasizes about… an entire bookstore full of just books about books.” Behind that deceptively simple phase lies a lifetime of the love and passion that only the true, dedicated reader knows.





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