I had bought Divisadero at the Calcutta Bookfair 2011 at a secondhand-books stall for a nominal price. Having read a couple of Michael Ondaatje’s books before, Anil’s Ghost and his family memoir Running in the Family to be precise, and having loved both for the incredibly beautiful, visual langauge that characterizes Ondaatje’s writings, I craved for more. When I rescued the book from under a miscellaneous pile of novels, cookbooks, self-help books etc., I was too taken in by the blurb and the name on the cover to care about the cover itself or the physical appearance of the book.
It was much later, when I took it out from my heap of acquisitions and began reading it, albeit haltingly, that I paid some attention to the cover on it, the quality of the paper, the white space in the margins, the font and the clear print, in addition to the paragraphs, pauses and idiosyncracies in the syntax. Over the last year, I kept revisiting the book and discovering something new each time.
In the meanwhile, I had visited the Thieving Magpie exhibition, been privy to the making of the Seagull Catalogue 2011–12 and had alighted from the intellectual high horse that so many readers straddle, to realize that reading a book is, at the most basic level, a physical act and that a reader cannot afford to disregard the extra-textual elements as indispensable but secondary. From the moment of choosing a book in a bookshop, flipping through its pages, inhaling the aroma of fresh print to lounging with the book, reading silently and yet hearing voices of its characters inside the head, or reading out sections to a like-minded lot, we undergo a sensuous experience unwittingly—or even a sensual one as Pascal Quignard expounds in The Roving Shadows. Logistics apart, I feel, this is the only thing that distinguishes a printed-book-reading experience from an e-book-reading experience, and enhances the chances of the survival of the printed book in the long run.
When I went back to Divisadero the second time, I had begun reading Ivan Vladislavic’s ‘The Book Lover’, a wonderfully original short story centred round love of books and love of booklovers, and buying secondhand books. This time, I had been influenced by the discerning eye of the narrator in the story, who neither thinks a detail too insignificant to report nor misses an opportunity to elaborate on it, whether it is editorial, design-related or even regarding production.
The cover of Divisadero carries a lovely photograph by Willy Ronis, of a recumbent woman, staring vacantly at a point beyond the scope of the picture, looking at her past, perhaps, or even her future. By her side, on a table, lie signs of her everyday existence in the present, but which could well have been things from her past. The banality of these items acts as a bridge on the gulf between the past and the present that the characters try to create constantly. It is not the cover of the book (it is intriguing but not inspiring enough, though the woman in question could be identified with every significant character in it, male and female) nor the plot that makes it one of my favourites. It is the rough edges of some of the pages. The pages must have come stuck together and the previous proprietor must have painstakingly separated them in his or her ardour to read more. He or she has left no signs of a meticulous reading, however. There’s no marginalia, not even a name scribbled anywhere to announce ownership, nor a doodle. Except for the rough edges and the somewhat well-thumbed cover, this book is rather reticent about its previous life, and that does not fail to stoke my imagination. However, on bad days I resign to the fact that I may have been unnecessarily romanticizing its past. This particular copy might have landed in the seconhand-books stall precisely because of its ‘imperfect’ make.
Be that as it may, this book helped me discover my predilection for old, secondhand books. I did not notice before, but I have always loved the slightly moist, starchy texture of old books, the accumulation of years in the yellowing paper, the musty smell, the pattern of holes that silverfishes make and snippets of the previous owners’ lives pressed between pages. And this parallel process of building their lives retrospectively with bits and pieces held together by imagination, along with that of the characters in the book, is also a process of memory making. I add to my oeuvre someone else’s memory, someone else’s nostalgia. It is not plagiarism, only the way of literature and the printed book.
The Seagull Catalogue 2011–12 does that and a little more. It validates old memories, gives them longevity, creates new memories. It shows that a book is a thing to be read in its entirety, to be seen and heard simultaneously. And it also shows that to connect memories, one doesn’t even need an old book.
Sohini Dey, Assistant Editor, Seagull Books