Tuesday, July 26, 2011

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.

Speaking Volumes: Reading on rent: ebooks

(Published in the Business Standard, July 25, 2011. Will probably do an expanded version of this soon, with a greater focus on reader's rights and how we stand in danger of losing them.)

It takes less time than you might guess to convert a reader wedded to the idea of the physical book into a Kindle or an iPad enthusiast.

As most ebook newbies have discovered over the span of the last few years, the switch to reading on a device is smoother and easier than anyone would have predicted. The smell of the pages, the feel of the physical book, the pleasure of flipping through a book; these are easily, and seamlessly, replaced by the screen experience.

I read faster on a Kindle than I do on the page; the e-ink and the ability to format the size of the font to my preferences on the page work beautifully for me. Scrolling through pages is automatic, and while I missed page numbers and think ebooks should offer both options, it’s interesting to use the percentage method.

Percentages make me evaluate more sharply whether I want to continue reading or not, in a way that page numbers never did. At 42% of the way through a tedious, limply written family saga, evaluating whether you want to spend precious hours of your life struggling with the remaining 58% becomes surprisingly easy. This can also be daunting: who wants to know that days of reading have taken them a mere 16% of the way through Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake?

Moving from the physical book to the ebook, the switch is both sharper and less threatening than I would originally have guessed: like moving between cities, rather than shifting from one house to another. The Kindle, the iPad, the Sony Reader and other devices answer the big fears we all had about shifting to ebooks. Yes, the ebook is portable; the few situations in which battery life or screen brightness are problematic are rare in real life. As I adapted to the fact that the Kindle allowed me to have a portable library, not just a portable book, my reading habits changed. It was easier to browse through six books on similar subjects when you didn’t have to hunt through your physical shelves to locate them.

Nostalgia for the printed word on the physical page ebbs fast, in the face of the very real conveniences of ebooks, the ability to make marginalia which will never deface the books, to customize the page, to buy books that are hard to find in India. Kindle readers downloaded George RR Martin’s Dance with Dragons two weeks ago—it is yet to arrive in Delhi’s bookstores. The ebook version of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower was available three weeks before the first Indian reviews came out. Unless publishers enforce a deliberate territorial lag on ebook versions, this is one of the joys of reading the virtual book: you don’t have to wait for weeks, sometimes months, for the books you love to come into your library.

But there is one thing missing from the ebook experience, and it’s a big one: a sense of ownership over your virtual library. In order to prevent piracy, the industry doesn’t allow owners to download books onto your hard drive. Looking at my virtual shelves, I am struck by the knowledge that these books are in effect, there on rent: Amazon, or the publisher, could delete them from my library faster than you can say “disapparate”. (This is one of the reasons why Richard Stallman militates against ebooks—he thinks that in their current form, ebooks offer readers diminished rights over their own libraries.)

For those who think that this is unlikely to be a problem, consider possible situations: a publishing house may recall editions, or replace a virtual edition with a cleaned-up, or bowdlerized, version. A regime may demand censored editions of certain books, before it will allow Amazon or other ebooksellers to set up shop.

Those paranoid about government interference point out that one’s Amazon wishlist or virtual library may be used as evidence against you, much as suspected Maoist sympathizers were recently being prosecuted on the ridiculous charge that they owned copies of Bhagat Singh’s speeches, in Chattisgarh. And there are far less sinister, more plausible, scenarios, where a customer’s dispute with Amazon or other booksellers might lead to their accounts and virtual libraries being frozen.

There are far too many benefits to e-reading for people like me to abandon the ebook.
There’s the not insignificant pleasure of knowing that you’re saving paper, dead trees and acres of shelf space. There’s the pleasure of cross-referencing within your virtual library, and access to the excellent Kindle Singles—standalone longform articles, hard to get anywhere else. Buying ebooks allows me to buy the most obscure, the hard-to-find, the out-of-print; or to get my hands on a favourite writer’s book faster than Delhi bookshops can get the book to me.

It’s not nostalgia for the physical book that we should be debating; that argument, sadly, is unlikely to move generations who are growing up reading on screen and on Kindle. But ebooks raise a whole set of questions about reader’s rights. At present, the shift from the physical book to the ebook has resulted in a loss of ownership, and a potential loss of privacy and other rights, for readers. That’s where the debate should shift, in the next five years.

Speaking Volumes: An epic wait

(Published in the Business Standard, July 18, 2011)

“Spent a morning writing and we are now in sight of Minas Morghul,” JRR Tolkien wrote cheerfully to his son Christopher in 1944. He was happily occupied, despite the tendency of the book to grow almost of its own volition, and believed he would finish soon.

It would take a full nine years before Tolkien was writing to his publisher to finalise the titles of the book: should it be The Return of the Shadow, or would The Fellowship of the Ring fit better?

Readers of JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy were fortunate. The three books that made up The Lord of the Rings were published between 1954 and 1955. There was little gap between reading about the hobbits of the Shire, and the siege of Minas Tirith--the relatively small delay was caused by the post-war paper shortage in Britain.

Reading the two great epic fantasies of our time—George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books--has been a process closer to reading in the days of serialization, when you had to wait for the next month to find out what had happened to your favourite character. Fantasy fans will complain that I’m leaving out Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and several other epic-length works, including Terry Pratchett’s beguiling Discworld saga. This is true, but one could argue that these two modern sagas have made the most impact on the public imagination.

Rowling’s world defined the imagination of an entire generation, and perhaps the luckiest were the readers who were pre-teens when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1995. They grew up along with Potter, Hermione, Ron Weasley and company, and that is a rare, truly magical experience for any reader.

But it’s the Game of Thrones series, created by George RR Martin, that is likely to be far more influential in its impact than the Potter books. The forces of evil and good in Harry Potter’s world are predictable, and despite the deaths of beloved characters, there is still something childish and safe about a saga set chiefly in boarding school.

George RR Martin’s books are like a bloody history of a world and a set of countries you know intimately and believe in implicitly—despite the fact that the kingdom of Westeros exists only in his mind. For fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series, the wait between each Game of Thrones novel has tested their patience. Perhaps no other modern author has had such an intense relationship with his audience, with many fans becoming upset, almost abusive, at the long delays.

The first volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series came out in 1996, and immediately drew readers in. Martin’s tale of warring kingdoms in Westeros and Essos includes some classic fantasy elements—dragons and direwolves—but the appeal of the books to adult readers stems from the fact that they work in the same way that a history of the Mughal Empire or the Tudors works. From the first book, A Game of Thrones, to the recently released A Dance With Dragons, Martin has held his readers in thrall through a 15-year period.

The rewards and frustrations of reading a saga through that length of time are unlike any other reading experience. I caught up with Martin just after book two, A Clash of Kings, came out in 1998 and only had to wait two years for book three, A Storm of Swords. It took five years till book four, A Feast for Crows, came out, and another six before I and a million other fans could get our hot little hands on A Dance With Dragons.

Why didn’t we abandon the books, given that there are so many great historical sagas and fantasies out there that have the merit of being already published, in complete sets? Part of it has to do with Martin’s storytelling, and the complex, utterly gripping world he’s created, where the unlikely hero in a series that has few heroes may be a manipulative, scarred, amoral dwarf called Tyrion Lannister. But part of it has to do with understanding that the slow, often frustrating process of following an author from one book to another makes us, witnesses to publishing history.

Tolkien’s readers were lucky that they didn’t have to wait for nine years while he worked out the kinks in his saga. But in a way, all those readers who kept faith with Martin over 15 years are lucky, to have watched the evolution of one of the greatest modern epics of all time. Martin’s legion of fans will have to console themselves with that thought for the two, or five, or six, years it will take before the next book, The Winds of Winter, comes out.
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