There is infinity within the infinity, you can touch one to taste the other!
Just the way we read books to taste the human condition. We are the middle and always will be but the desire to clasp the literary universe with our bare hands pushes us an inch closer to its edge every time we close a book and open another. Though I wonder if my desire knows its way! For a speck floating in space, direction does not exist. What exists is an intimidating eternity cast in a written word, a fraction of which can be found in my orderly urban living room. In here, a mere 40 inches of cheap wood decorates Dante’s hell, Darwin’s revolutionary evolution, Kant’s painstaking rationale, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, Gabriel’s solitude, Greer’s feminism, and Das’s difficulties on its chest with a calm that has stormed the mankind for centuries. There is joy in collecting these souvenirs as much there is flawed naivety in defining reading with the works of a few immortal gods & goddesses of literature. Truly, the facade that is my bookshelf, is the whole foundation of my reading. However, this facade doesn’t hold up for long or at times, for anything other than a famous title. Beyond here, I do no better than the floating speck as I wander confused about which book should I read next. Beyond here, I simply rely upon the internet and its witless response to my dumb inquiries to fill up the negative space on my shelf. Unmindful of the fact that books too succumb to populism and algorithm! The real question, however, is, do I have to? As I scratch this itchy notion to converse with the laid-back book explorer in me, I hope I can identify with others who suffer from the same fixation. I hope this post trifles with the numbing mindset of all who believe buying books is the same as buying groceries online.
As it happens, I occasionally struggle with feeling content over what I read. Most often than not, it is the too-hard-to-surprise, snobbish, serious reader in me. Or otherwise, an armored one, shielded with high expectations and acclaim tagged along by a popular book. And worst of all, a fashionable algorithmic who is reading what everybody else is reading. Very rarely, I have enjoyed a book that I discovered on my own or the one that is popular for all the right reasons. I presume it is something of a newbie’s anxiety. It indeed is a reader’s imperative to discover all that great intellectuals had to say to the entire mankind; as it is for the knowledge-building character, books are built of. One can look at my bookshelf and agree with the urge for an insatiable curiosity to mine this word-ly wisdom. But if you look closely behind this grand asset, you will also find an anxious, tired reader, buried under the weight of sophistication. I left I know Why The Caged Bird Sings in the middle because of the uninspiring writing from an inspirational survivor. I completed One Hundred Years of Solitude only because I wanted to distill magical realism from pure fiction. I couldn’t! And it was in that moment of shuffling from one half-read book to another, I dawned on the curious speculation that might have to do with my too-alert approach to approaching reading itself.
However revelatory it is to be, reading should never be confined as a pursuit of collecting pearls. To an ocean with infinite diversity, a pearl is just another beautiful accident.
The rest was like pulling the right thread without having to untie every difficult knot. I was reading what I knew or heard about. And I knew what the internet taught me. My boredom stemmed from my inability to experiment with the infinity over narrow windows of Amazon & Flipkart. The smart algorithm wasn’t smart enough to suggest the un-algorithm. (Not yet at least!). The comfortable, time-saving, economical online book-buying wasn’t so flawless after all! And here I am writing a post exploring what it means to explore books!
To see a bookstore as a store that sells books is to compartmentalize breathing from life.
So, in search of a book, I came to examine all that’s seeded within my curiosity for curiosity towards books. In this case, the paradox of you don’t know what you don’t know fits perfectly to size and scale my ignorance. This shapeless, formless, invisible dark ignorance could only be lifted off by something that truly outmatches it in wit, inclusivity, and outreach. It turns out, all my pseudo-philosophical pursuit needed was a tangible, well-lit, local bookstore filled up with the scent of old and fresh books. Still, one needs a grain of philosophy to look beyond the designer walls and commercial tradecraft of a bookstore. It figures, how one sees is as much of instinct as what one sees. To know a bookstore by bone and brick, one has to cross over the threshold of accustomed sight and understand how books collectively, interact with the space around us, and play with our inner being. Simulate yourself in an empty room and imagine it filling up with books bit by bit and feel how the changing environment guides your emotional and intellectual temper. Drive yourself to a bookstore and it will replicate this simulation in the most joyous, inspiring way possible, thawing your frozen sensibilities rendering you intellectually vulnerable. Would it be then fair to say that in the guise of a few walls, it is, in fact, an alive, real-time internal process that coalesces elements of fancy decor, intellectually aesthetic accessories, bestseller windows, rare collections, limited editions, empowering book recommendations, precious conversations to yield a critical function? Would it be poetically just to pitch a bookstore as a miniature infinity that you or I can touch to taste the infinite literary universe?
A bookstore is an inspiration that inspires by intimidating even its established, addicted readers! Unassumingly, for someone who is not aware of the book-lover inside him, it is bound to come off as a force shattering his conditioned education built up over years of carefully constructed, selective knowledge, in a matter of minutes.
The question of how a bookstore works way better than its internet counterparts needs your senses to be at their naked best. Behind and before every book that you touch over to explore, your eyes skim through bundles of them, your ears listen to the titles speaking to you, the grip judges the ethos of the book with its binding, fonts would develop your mood, and so on. That’s what bookstores do! They refine our literary reflexes so that we not only enjoy reading but enjoy the very experience of arriving at it. Where internet surfing is a push, a bookstore is a pull to which a book-lover gravitates without even knowing it.
How do they do it?
Before dismissing a small couch or a mini-lounge in a bookstore as decor, one needs to rest in it to understand the ecosystem he is in. To come by an unusual, underrated, unexplored piece is to come by the effort put in by the owner of a bookstore, into building a collection that is sustained purely by his instincts. That’s one unique aspect of a bookstore. A keen desire to serve the readers’ community takes its owner through book exhibitions, literature festivals, literary societies, events, seminars, and much more just so his instinct can travel further and farther to hopefully end up as an inspiration for someone to read. Even though it is becoming increasingly rare to come across a passionate or a well-read bookstore owner, I like to believe, small, local, independent bookstores continue to be driven by such an agent. How would you see a collection at such a store to be any less of literary interest compounded over years of exploring millions of books? From silently rejuvenating tired faculties to opening up to new content, bookstores push boundaries to liberate a seeker from the occupied territories of knowledge and myths by building bigger, better ones. But what else can it say about or do for a book-lover? The statement about bookstores building literary intuition and exposing rusty instincts hints us to a precaution worth the cure itself. The simple measure of browsing is a higher act of letting our inner being play and surprise us by bringing about impulses, depths, and leaps quintessential to exploring and eventually arriving at better books.
I chose to write this post after randomly landing on an inspiring video of Babloo Chakraborty, a middle-aged bookseller at the famous Flora Fort, Mumbai. Mentioning him is both essential and complementary to the narrative. A random roadside book-staller lacks pretty much all the sophisticated elements I have been bragging about throughout this post. Only until you hear him or hear from him about books. With his meager means, Babloo dares to see through his customers with a shrewd eye and recommends books that he believes are worth them. Years of voracious reading have enabled him to not just survive but evolve and culminate into and as a human bookstore. Zooming out of this simple sufficiency, I can not help but overstate how much a rocky, steady bookstore can do given the momentum, and thankfully, I do carry an example on me.
In the heritage city of Jaipur a bookstore has managed to stay relevant, rich, and reciprocal amid the shrinking landscape of physical bookstores. A visit to Rajat Book Corner tells the story of how far can love for books travel and arrive into the lives of thousands to change it for better. Author interactions, children’s story-telling activities, book-discussions, literary awareness campaigns, regular at the bookstore, collectively bring out its true character for others to revel in it not just functionally but spiritually as well! What looks like an engaging platform today, back in its time, was just a small stall that helped arranging academic books for a small community of readers. The success story of its radical transformation into becoming Jaipur’s literary-hub, transpires hope and ambition for both booklovers and sellers who are driven by more than just material success.
However, to create a parallel between one bookstore and another is neither ideal nor an idea I am pitching. Where each bookstore projects differently and in different capacities, the value it delivers is the same in spirit and essence; it mirrors the reader’s inner chaos both as a quest and as an answer. What matters is how they sustain millions of unknown, uncelebrated writers who might never become mainstream, by stocking, resting, collecting their narratives in rushing times to reflect upon the literary abundance and diversity of our world. Wondering if it would be quite a tour to cover how bookstores are different from each other and hoping to come by curious titles for my bookshelf, I am on to a bookstore now!
Wish you all happy reading! Browse safe, stay safe!