Second-hand books: Passing on the magic

Lalita Iyer | Updated on August 23, 2019 Published on August 23, 2019

Many uses: Long after a book you owned has left your shelf and travelled to someone else’s — handed down, stolen, lost or sold — a part of you lives in it   -  KAMAL NARANG

Bought at a steal or stumbled upon in a trash heap, second-hand books are storehouses of personal histories, often captured in a forgotten bookmark or a fading inscription

I don’t remember exactly when my love for second-hand books began, but I do remember scouring the footpaths of King’s Circle in Mumbai, where my aunt lived, to make my birthday money stretch — I was looking to see just how many Agatha Christies I could buy for the ₹100 or so I got each year. Sometimes, I came back with at least five or six; they would last me the summer vacation. I remember calculating that I could have bought just one new book with that money, and feeling smug at my smart thinking.

Like me, there are many who find joy in browsing the remnants of other people’s collections — and often accidentally discovering writing of the kind you never knew existed. This is precisely why second-hand bookshops came into being, I think. At least, that’s how I found George Mikes, John Berendt, Bruce Chatwin and Penelope Lively.

Long after a book you owned has left your shelf and travelled to someone else’s — handed down, stolen, lost or sold — a part of you lives in it.

Stand-ins for a bookmark — bus or train tickets, newspaper cuttings, leaves, pocket combs, movie tickets, twigs, hair pins (I once even found a grocery list) — lie there, cocooned, waiting to be discovered by the new owner.

Like how a copy of the hard-to-come-by Good Wives (Louisa May Alcott) that Dinoo Gandhi received as a prize in 1964 at Kimmins High School in Panchgani had gone to (or bought by) Firuzi Dabri at Sunil Book House on Grant Road (the address stamp says Bombay 7, so this was pre-1995), before I found it in 2014 at a second-hand bookshop in Malad. And the best part of this story is that, somewhere between 1964 and 2019, pages 28–33 had gone missing (most likely due to weak binding, and not ripped off) and someone had actually taken the trouble to typewrite the missing pages and reinsert them!

Or, a battered copy of Heidi (Johanna Spyri) I bought at a raddi, or trash recycler shop for ₹10 that was liberally stamped by the library of GC Shah Sarvajanik English High school, its original home.

Inside was a slender handmade bookmark with the words “Learn well your English prose and success will touch your toes” from a Khushboo.

Recently, I stumbled across a lovely hardbound copy of Little Women (May Alcott) at my local second-hand bookshop. When I opened it, I realised it was a gift to a little woman on her 14th birthday in 1988 by someone called Sanum. Was she an aunt, a friend or a classmate, I wonder. And did the recipient, Reshma, turn out to be the woman Sanum might have wanted her to be?

My hardbound copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (my super efficient mother gave away my childhood copy when I moved out) came from Literati Bookshop in Goa — a charming old villa for all things old and wonderful. It was also here that I picked up Ursula Sedgwick’s My Learn-to-Cook Book, my son Re’s first cookbook, which had been originally gifted to a Sherry in 1973 by Aunty Banso, Uncle Keki and (perhaps their children) Ketayun and Minso. Perhaps Sherry (or her mother) had further inscribed it with “Sherry’s first cooking book”, which makes me believe they had a lot of fun cooking from this book, as did Re and I, although it was more about baking — cheesy baked potatoes, zoo biscuits, fruit crumble, tartlets and fairy cakes.

My copy of The Tao of Pooh (Benjamin Hoff) had this on the inside title page:

“To Zenia

Because She Dared to Ask Me a Riddle

Love, Rooks.”

I wonder what riddle that was and whether Rooks did solve it and did that annoy Zenia.

I came upon a bounty of used Alain de Bottons at the Redondo Beach public library in Los Angeles during my 2005 visit — On Love, Kiss and Tell and The Romantic Movement for a dollar or two each. The lovely Arundhathi Subramaniam, poet and author, had spoken highly of de Botton, but I hesitated to spend ₹600 on a new book, so this proved a windfall. Sadly, none of the books had inscriptions.

At a time when libraries and second-hand bookshops, even iconic ones, are shutting down (the New and Secondhand Bookshop in Mumbai’s Kalbadevi was a recent casualty), I find myself seeking out the local raddiwala for my fix of the old book smell.

In the last few years I have started rummaging through the ‘Books by Weight exhibitions’ in my neighbourhood and, although the deals are good — The Way Things Work by David MaCaulay for ₹300; a hardbound Best of James Herriot: Favorite Memories of a Country Vet for ₹500 — the purchases felt sterile and empty of feeling. There were no long-forgotten bookmarks or inscriptions to be unearthed, no mystery backstories to be traced. These are the books that were probably never homed and likely sold for a song or dumped by publishers or libraries due to excess stock or some such.

The books are not even organised by title or author, but simply left there in loose categories of fiction and non-fiction.

I understand that serendipity is still in play but it was terribly annoying to find Murakami’s The Strange Library hanging with Chetan Bhagat’s The Girl in Room 105.

But the most precious second-hand book yet, for me, was an English-German-French illustrated dictionary that my late father-in-law had lovingly saved since 1980, when it was first gifted to his son and then came to be mine, 38 years later.

“I feel like a part of history, mamma!” Re said, when he read the inscription inside from his grandfather to his father.

He is.

We all are, when we hold a second-hand book in our hands.

Lalita Iyer is an author and journalist based in Mumbai

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Published on August 23, 2019
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