For the first 10 months of my life, I thought books were for eating. Then I learned to associate, and concluded that they were something big people held in their hands when they told stories. Some day after my second birthday, I realized that it was the books that held the stories, like glass vials containing shimmering magic potions, and on that precise day, I became a book collector.
It’s been three decades since then, and I have graduated from hoarding picture books under my bed to demanding (and getting) a shelf of my own in my parents’ bookcase to stowing my clothes in my suitcase so that I could use my hostel wardrobe as my bookcase to deciding to move into an ancient house in the suburbs just because it had rooms big enough to store my future collection.
Book-collectors are a different species from your common and garden bibliophiles. Characterized by a ruthless glint in their eyes and a marked lack of scruples, they are often excessively obsessive and competitive when it comes to their hobby. They make occasional forays to bookstores and lit fests, but are most at home in their own libraries, which they guard fiercely. Do not be fooled by their harmless, nerdish facade and threaten their sanctum; people who make that mistake make it only once. Only once.
If you want to be a book collector, or suspect that you are turning into one, here are some things you ought to know to prepare yourself:
That’s obvious, but it is easy to underestimate just how much space. Let me put it this way: you need ALL the space. Book shelves? Miles of them. Crockery cupboard? They work very nicely. Glass case for knickknacks? Just throw out the knickknacks. Top of cistern? Line it with a newspaper first. TV stand? You’re a book collector, why on earth do you even own a TV?
They will ask why you need so many books. They will tell you there are such things as ebooks. They will say your house looks like a mausoleum. They will gift you a kindle. They will try to give you the number of a therapist. If they are smart, they will not have this conversation in the vicinity of your shelves, or you will brain them with a thick hardbound.
You will stop inviting people into your home, especially the people in Point 2 and others who will say insane things like “Have you read ALL of these?” or “Wise people read books; fools buy them.” Eventually, you will tire of telling guests you do not own any (**insert name of writer you hate**). You will find yourself entertaining, and visiting, only those people whose tastes in books resonate with you.
Presumably because they hear the word ‘library’ and assume it means the books are for circulation. A younger and more naive you would have actually liked the idea of a friend or family member reading a favourite book of yours, but life will teach you that people may lose your books, lend them on to others, forget or deny they ever borrowed them, or the very worst of all—return them creased. You will learn to say no, or put up signs on your shelves saying “Not To Be Carried Out Of The Premises.” People will still go on asking, though.
But you will grudgingly respect them, because unlike the petty criminals who lose your books, the thieves are your Moriarty. They are collectors, like you; they need to own what they covet. And let’s face it, you’ve stolen your shares of books too, though you certainly do not do that anymore. You will understand their urge, and you will neither remove them from your life nor stop inviting them, though you will keep a very close watch on them when they visit.
My parents are my favourite persons, and I am theirs. But when I am leaving after spending a week with them, they check my bags. I cannot do the same to them, they being the people who gave me the gift of life, but I have trained my dog to growl threateningly whenever they approach my bookshelves. Visits on either sides are often interspersed with exclamations of “Isn’t this mine?”
Remember what I said about throwing knickknacks out? You don’t actually need them, because you will find that books can be used as decoration perfectly in every room. They jazz up a living room more than any crystal vase could. They make a bedroom more cozy than a painting would. They can also be your coffee mug coaster, your door-stop, your fan during a power cut, your laptop table, teething toy for your dog or child, a plate for dry snacks, pillow, clipboard, hard surface to draw or write on, white surface to draw or write in, something to throw at your spouse when you are mad. Thin books will be bookmarks for fat books. Fat books will be book-ends for thin books.
Because it has been ingrained into you that throwing away books, even if they are grimy second-hand paperbacks, even if they are terrible samples that writers have sent for review, even if you own multiple copies, is a sacrilege. You cannot even gift most of these away, because you have built a reputation as a gifter of awesome books, and that will come crashing down.
Do you arrange your books by size? In chronological order of publication? By genre? By nationality of writer? In alphabetical order of writer’s last name? If you figure out the most ideal way to arrange your books, do let me know.
You will try to deal with everything—heartbreak, loss, celebration, boredom—by book shopping. Eventually, your pile of to-be-reads will grow into a mountain and you will realize that you might not finish it in your lifetime. You will vow not to buy another book till you have finished at least half of Mount TBR. Then your favourite writer will release a new book. Sigh.
As a necessary evil. Because at one point you will concede that while you absolutely must read every single thing written by Agatha Christie or Sue Grafton or Stephen King, it is not physically possible for you to make space for all of these on your shelves. You will peer suspiciously at the kindle that person in Point 2 gifted you, then decide to give it a try. You will still not love ebooks, though, and you will make your disdain public at every opportunity. Though you will find yourself using that e-reader more and more often.
You will realize that books are meant, like the Velveteen Rabbit, to be loved till their fur falls off. They don’t want to be worshipped, they want to be used, and roughly. It will dawn on you that a battle-weary, love-fatigued book looks far more gorgeous on your shelf than a new one ever could.
Books from a series must match in terms of publisher, edition, and design. Books from the same writer should also, as far as possible, be all paperback or all hardbound. You will scour the internet looking for a specific edition instead of just buying what is readily available and probably cheaper. If all of the books you own in a series were purchased second-hand, you will not buy the last book new. You will look around till you find a second-hand copy.
After you are dead, that is. If you have children, you will wonder if they will have the time, space, or inclination to maintain it. If you are child-free, you will try to influence the reading habits of nephews, nieces, and the children of close friends so that at least one of them will be worthy of inheriting your library in a few decades. You will hope that there is no life after death, because you certainly don’t want to look down and see your collection going to dogs.
It will be your shelter in a storm, your adventure, your space capsule, your pirate ship. There will come a time when you will no longer define your library, but instead will be defined by it. It will be your home.
All drawings made by a group of three very young artists, “The Non-functioning Scribblers“, please click on the link to reach out to their Facebook page.