"The fact is, for the book-collector the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves."
Academics are plagued with an irreconcilable contradiction throughout their lives: between what they need to write and what they want to write. In this publish or perish market, writing for pleasure seems to be a dying pastime. I have been wanting to write about my library for well over a year now; in this time, I have successfully defended my thesis, published an article in a peer-reviewed journal, written some book reviews and political commentaries - in short, significantly expanded my CV.
It was only while moving to Bangalore with my partner and unpacking my things that the inner urge to write this piece became most intolerable. Such is the case with some writings; if cooped up for long, they have a way of forcing themselves out. This piece (in 2 parts) on 'unpacking my library' is greatly inspired by Benjamin's original essay by the same name, though I will state with some feigned humility that it makes no claim to be of similar literary quality.
Wherever I travel, I pack my books first. I moved to Bangalore with two books for academic reading, Don Quixote (which I have failed to finish despite being at it for several months now. I have finished other novellas and short stories in between though), Pablo Neruda's Canto General, and my 'shit book' - TS Eliot's On Poetry and Poets. My 'shit books' are books that I read when, and only when, I take a dump and concomitantly, these are books I read with more discipline than any others. Among some of my famous 'shit books' are Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra and the 781 paged selected works of Lenin. Along with my shit books, there are three other types of books I try to read in a day with some discipline - a work of poetry, a work of fiction, and a work of serious non-fiction. So, a minimum of four books will always be on my person when I travel. The rest of my books was packed and parceled by my partner with much help from my mother, with much care. Because, often, travel is the enemy of book-covers. And while I do not judge a book by its cover, it is nevertheless important to me that the cover is intact. This might be the conservative in me confessing.
Benjamin states that the book-collector finds himself in "a state of dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order." Even as I obsess with placing my books in a premeditated order, disorder does inevitably creep in. Arranging books is like running a state; as much as you desire order, there must and there will be space for disorder, not because this disorder is a malignant external entity, but rather internal, even integral, to the system. For instance, I arrange my books in shelves thematically. Within a shelf, they are placed according to size, descending in height from left to right. Yet there are exceptions. For instance, you will find the works of Darwin in the Theology shelf, along with The Talmud, The Four Gospels, and the Rig Veda. And you will find Samuel P Huntington in the Postcolonial studies shelf. These are, of course, deliberate puns on my part. I am just pointing this out here to show that there is ultimately a totalizer who/which fits disorder into order.
Currently I own 980 books (and 26 photocopied books). A small number when compared to Umberto Eco's 30000+ books. However, I can take some pride that George Orwell had less than half this number when he was almost twice my age. While Orwell is hardly an intellectual of merit like Eco, he did write some good essays like the one on 'Books v. Cigarettes' where he shows that the average Englishman spends more on smoking than on reading. I should confess that I too have spent more on cigarettes than on books, but no complaints here, as the money invested in smoking did not prevent me from investing in books. On the contrary, the pleasure of reading a gripping novel, moving poetry or a profound philosophical treatise is accentuated when accompanied by smoke and the occasional glass of Scotch.
Of my books, 334 are works of fiction - this includes drama, myths, and epics. 65 are what I would classify as English Classics, 48 are French Classics, and 34 works of great Russian literature. I own 30 mythologies and these include Mesopotamian myths, Greek epics and Nordic sagas. Chief among these is The Mahabharatha, of which I have four versions, one classic adaptation and one contemporary 'pop culture' retelling. A prized asset among my Mahabharatha collection is the unabridged 10 volume box set of the epic, which was lovingly gifted to me by my partner.
I have 11 books of Shakespeare, including the Penguin|Viking edition of his complete works. I own 10 books of Marquez and 9 of Llosa, though I prefer the Peruvian to the Colombian. Those who observe my fiction collection will notice that apart from these two giants, there is very little representation of contemporary writing. Well, that is just because I believe life is too short to be reading writers of my own time. And from my time-zone.
My partner, a publisher of critical social and political works in Tamil, is also a bibliophile in her own right and has a splendid collection of Tamil literature. Sadly, the few Tamil books that I have purchased by my own, I keep in hiding mainly because I read them rarely. This would seem ironic for a person who has written quite a bit about Tamil politics. But then, I do not need to be a patron of Tamil culture for me to be an analyst of the Tamil polity.
Besides, I still havent read Boccaccio, Hugo, Dumas, the Brontes, or Faulkner to be spending great time on Tamil tales - as it is, I already spend a significant amount of time on Tamil cinema. Anyway, my collection of works of Tamil literature is greater than my collection of Indian literature, 13:3 respectively. I am happy to own the first Tamil novel Vedanayagam Pillai's The Life and Times of Pratapa Mudaliar, Pudumaippittan's short stories, Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan, and a brilliant anthology of Tamil short stories spanning over a century. Of course, all of these are in English. I do read in Tamil occasionally when required for academic or political reasons, but English is the only language that gives me the best aesthetic pleasure.