Swans Commentary » swans.com January 16, 2012  



The Book: A Palimpsest Of Many Tales
One from the Author; the Others, of the Readers


by Raju Peddada





"I know every book of mine by its smell, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things."
—George R. Gissing (1857-1903)

"A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul."
—Franz Kafka, 1883-1924


(Swans - January 16, 2012)   The last week of every December, since 2007, has become irretrievably melancholic for me. Today, the year's second last day, is all leaden, with that drumbeat of a drizzle on the skylights, intensifying the pall. Such a gloomy setting normally induces me to look for my old books to caress. In one corner, there is this two-foot stack of sepia-toned books with understated monochromatic dust jackets that I have no intention of reading. I bought them for their anachronistic presence, the bygone tales they carry, and their timeworn texture, when dust jackets were not pretentious composites of screaming Barnum & Bailey posters. There are many books with evidence of previous ownership. I don't erase those names, but add my name in pencil on the second page. They are rare first editions with personal inscriptions from people who had vanished long ago.

As I gingerly open one of these books that once graced someone's shelf, or caressing hands while being read, I am drawn into mysterious rooms with people I had never known. What is mystifying is the inexplicable de-materialization of something very tangible, like a book, which transforms to a vector of pleasure and passing time, involuntarily connecting people of disparate times, lives, and places, who derive identical pleasure through their comprehension. Books are Casanovas, they cavort with everyone, they go from lap to lap, from shelf to shelf, and from generation to generation, without remorse, becoming reticent palimpsests of tales, sordid and exciting, of their owners. Would Casanova ever talk to his present woman about his previous woman? In fact, when a book ages, and survives to tell its tale, the story it holds inside almost becomes anticlimactic; the intriguing story then, is the story of its survival through the vicissitudes of ownership and handling. In a weird inverse osmosis, the story migrates from the inside to the outside, drawing someone like me. Old books are like old people, their inner and outer experiences coalesce into something beautiful, irreplaceable, and priceless.

Oh, how I missed many an opportunity in Bombay, with empty pockets. I walked, famished for books, piled on tarps featuring the British Empire, with their mildewed covers and English names inscribed inside. Books that had come into the bazaar in the '40s and '50s, languishing in that dreadful humidity, decades after the British had left the Indian subcontinent. I can still conjure up the Victorian drawing rooms with the masculine aroma of the cigars, from the khaki- or cotton-suit-clad Englishmen enjoying their Indian-Virginia tobacco, the tea from Darjeeling, and their cotton from Gujarat. The dust jackets evoked the vast panorama of their Raj -- the images become inexorable, hijacking your consciousness to the realm of yesterday. Old books are not just books, they become our booking agents, they book our tickets to a place we envisage and covet, enabling our vicarious travel without ever moving an inch in our chair, especially if we have imagination.

My travel depended on the title, the book jacket, and the inscription inside, as to the destination to which it teleported me. The personal inscriptions had become intrinsic to the book. I would like to share with you some "transports." Here's a favorite: The Last Empire: Photography in British India, 1855-1911 inscribed "To Marilyn, Christmas 1976, love D" -- a '70s publication, but the dusty gold cover, with a moody black and white shot of the ceremonial British withdrawal at the Gateway of India, Bombay, in 1947, summons up the vanished colonial era: tea parties, governors' balls, pageantry of the queen on her visits, and the steam railways. I am certain that Marilyn, whoever she was, reveled in identical evocation -- perhaps her father had served in India with the British Army, and was in that ceremonial picture at the gate. I'm a specter, hovering over "D," seeing him inscribe the book for Marilyn, with a smile spreading across my face, knowing full well that I will rescue the book 36 years later.

Another pristine book that I treasure is Confessions to a Heathen Idol by Marian Lee, published in October of 1906, inscribed in pencil on the first sheet after the cover "Annette, Rose - god, how I hate monotheism." A prophetic confession by a lady from the Victorian era, which resonates vibrantly today with folks who are seeing through the obsolete-vacuous doctrines, dry of any real spiritual water. A classically hypnotic and distressed gray letter-pressed book I possess is a 1925 book from England titled: Modern Masters of Etching: Sir Frank Short, R.A., P.R.E., 44 Leicester Sq. London. The hermeneutical inscription in fountain pen on the first page is rather poignant -- "Fred, hope you can draw like Mr. Short by the time I come back, dad, 20-10-39." I cannot help but wistfully visualize the father giving the book to his beaming young son before leaving to be deployed somewhere in the looming world war. Did this father ever come back to his son? If Fred was ten years old in 1939, he would be 82 today. What I have here is a treasure, a relic of a father-son relationship, long dissolved, that actually breathes tragedy. Why would something like this be sold? There is a story behind the migration that few will know.

Books live way beyond their seemingly one time use, becoming inheritances for others. They are the best prostitutes one can buy. They give pleasure to one after the other, by opening up and revealing our own musty hidden lives. One such book that reminds me of my "indiscriminate" years was Thoreau on Birds from 1964. It is a beautiful brown book with descriptions of birds by the woodlands sage himself. In 1969, Gary S., my boyhood friend from GK, in New Delhi, a residential enclave, gave me a book, The Observer's Book of Birds by S. Vere Benson, 1967. I still have this memento in my library -- it reminds me of my careless years as a teenager with an air-rifle who binged on ornithological annihilation.

The England of Elizabeth by the redoubtable A. L. Rouse, an Oxford scholar on the Elizabethan age, is a sublime tome, inside out. It is the 1951 first U.S. edition, first printing from Macmillan with a tastefully understated dust jacket in dark caramel, graced by a Tudor pattern on the perimeter, with Celtic lettering. This is a precious book for me. It came from the library of a Captain Gayle H. Somers, 1891-1976, who had inscribed his book boldly "Capt. Gayle H Somers. USA. Retired - Swanton Ohio." When I Googled his name, his grave site came up at the Swanton cemetery, with his parents there: Orren and Victoria Somers, 1870-1962 and 1871-1943, respectively. This book's mysterious peregrination from Ohio to Illinois is inexplicable, but it fell into my hands in tantalizingly pristine condition. Incidentally, one of my favorite historians, G. M. Trevelyan, Master of the Trinity College at Cambridge University in the 1940s, had written a glowing review when it was released in England. Rouse and Trevelyan, being mutual admirers, often reviewed each others' work in complimentary terms.

The Crusades: Iron Men and Saints by Harold Lamb (1930) is another visual masterpiece. The dust jacket illustration and design by Keith Henderson is naively "folksy" in depicting the 12th century crusaders in teal, vermillion, and ochre, with a medieval calligraphic text. The reproduction of a black and white Harold Lamb picture on the back cover is distinctly poor in quality in comparison to the flat colors on the front. I guess the halftone film work was not yet up to par in the 1930s. The Ex-Libris plate affixed inside claimed "L. Lueen Jack." I couldn't find anything on this individual, except that she or he was from the class of 1966 at Northwestern University -- I may be wrong. I often contemplate how people would react if I tracked them or their descendents down, and asked if they ever wanted the book back.

Here's another classic: What I Really Wrote About the War by George Bernard Shaw in 1914, republished in 1931, that I will read one day, but till then I am going to enjoy the aesthetics of the aged dust jacket, with its forthrightly naive realism, illustrated in ink, with brush in flat symbolically accurate war colors of red, black, and gray by illustrator Alexander Nesbitt. This is essentially a journal on the rigors of war by the pre-eminent playwright of the 20th century, inscribed by the previous owner James J Mady: "Armco & R.E. both wish you a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year, 1940." After some research I found a James J Mady Jr., a licensed clinical psychologist in South Carolina, probably Senior Mady's son. Interestingly, this happens to be a psychological work by Shaw, and Mady Sr. must have been a war veteran, and now Mady Jr., a psychologist -- how linear can it get?

I will leave you with two seminal sociological studies by preeminent experts in this field. Both books are extremely rare and topically alluring, to say the least. The first one is a 1956 edition of The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of the Brazilian Civilization by Gilberto Freyre. Reviewer Bertram D. Wolfe of the New York Herald Tribune claimed it to be a rare literary and scholarly achievement on the Latin American, especially Brazilian, social thought. But what makes this, for now, more interesting is the inscription inside: "Forgive me for being frank, I'll be your slave for the rest of the term if you come back - Kent 11/22/58." This passionate plea is as intriguing as it is poignant. Was it a student trying to get back his girl, or a roommate? Further more, the book had never been opened, no student markings, no wear on the dust jacket; it was probably a gift that must have been rejected. Small messages hold big stories, if one can meander in speculation.

Finally, the best of the whole lot is this book by Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, 1961, translated by L. A. Manyon. This is considered as a masterpiece of historical synthesis in the finest French tradition on the subject of feudal existence. I distinctly remember our history professor, K. Bateman, at the Art Institute of Chicago, while discussing the renaissance society, mention Marc Bloch's Feudal Society as the masterwork on sociological discourse. I noted down Marc Bloch as Mark Block, and simply extinguished his name from my slate for almost twenty years, only to suddenly find the first edition in mint condition at a rare-books store. The book is graphically resplendent, in a horizontally distressed wood grain dust jacket, with a yellow-black woodcut of a medieval scene, flanked top and bottom by a custom cut typeface for the title and name. But what urged me to plunk down $40 for this fifty-year-old book was the positively personal and "medieval" inscription inside, in red ballpoint pen: "I want to breed with you, Rebecca - spring 1963." I look at the book today, and wonder who this lucky guy was, or did he ever get lucky? Rebecca probably did breed with someone, but I am certain not with the man her young body fantasized -- irony of life. We dream about Apollo and Venus, and end up breeding with Epimetheus and Medusa. Books, actually, are our mirrors.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 16, 2012