By Sindhu Shivprasad
The summers of high school were eight weeks lived between a haze of pages, books borrowed and exchanged (even secreted away) with abandon.
The exchanges were facilitated with much gusto in rooms, parks, benches by the streets, friends looking over shoulders as the item in question was reverently drawn out of the bag. Some sealed the exchange verbally — “I’ll give it back to you in two weeks” — and the deed was done. Others laid out sacrosanct rules. “Don’t fold the corners. Don’t mark the pages. And for God’s sake, don’t underline anything”.
I have an elderly neighbour who keeps two copies of each book — one for reading and the other for lending. When asked why, she said, “my books are sacred”.
“Sacred” has been used as a stand-in for “religion” for so long that it’s become almost synonymous. But there’s a class of ‘sacred” that refers to things set apart with special meaning and not necessarily connected to anything religious, spiritual or metaphysical.
Sounding very much like German theologian Rudolf Otto, American psychologist JH Leuba suggested that the experience of the sacred is characterised by “an element of awe… The sacred object has a hold upon us, we stand in dynamic relation with it, and this relation is not one of equal to equal, but of superior to inferior.”
I like to observe this in others — the reverent handling of pages, the ginger grip over a paperback so the spine doesn’t crease. Much like the devout scrabble to touch the feet of statues or hold hands with holy seers, even the most upright can fall to weeping at the sight of certain books, begging to hold them in their hands. In essence, they feel what author, educator and priest, Andrew Greeley describes: “By the sacred I mean not only the other-worldly, but also the ecstatic, the transcendental, that which takes man out of himself and puts him in contact with the basic life forces of the universe.”
If you’ve said— or heard someone say —something to the effect of “I lost myself in a book”, you’ve felt this. If you’ve curled up to read a novel and felt as though there were two of you — one curled up on the couch and one hurtling through the pages — then you’ve felt this sacredness.
But like there’s more than one way to love someone, there’s more than one way to love a book. Of course, some cults and sub-cults declare the other blasphemous, but the truth is simple: one book can be revered in many ways.
The platonic lovers read books and keep them only in their hearts and minds, if at all. They don’t actively disrespect the book, but they don’t leave way-markers to say they were here, either. If one “buys books intending to read them” and “reads books only in certain situations” were a Venn diagram, platonic lovers of books would fall into that overlapped territory. They’re most likely to pack a recent bestseller in their rattan bag for a beach day or optimistically buy one at the airport bookstore but crack open only a few pages before falling asleep.
There are the preux lovers, for whom form is inseparable from message. These are the ones who strive to preserve the purity of a novel assured to them by their first-hand bookseller. They carefully mark pauses with magnetic bookmarks and high-quality post-it notes aligned to the line they stopped at. Not for them the creased spines, dog-eared pages, and watermarks from dropping a V.E. Schwab into the bath one tipsy night.
No, these are for the physical lovers, the ones for whom some books are as familiar as a partner’s skin. Touch breeds intimacy — marks of use are marks of love. They leave their footprint — dried flowers, bus tickets, clean leaves off the floor, demonetised currency, letters from a daughter, strands of hair — behind with the boldness of a graffiti artist in broad daylight. The book itself is but a vessel, and they prop it open with whatever’s within arm’s reach: the dog’s tail, an AirPod, or the wrapper of a Twix bar. These are the people who know what it is like to love something to pieces.
And then there are the intellectual lovers, who care to pry open layer after layer and document what they find. The most permanent way-marker— writing in books — has haters and zealots in equal proportions, and this is the class of the latter. After all, the margins — or “sophisticated information-processing space”, as mathematician-philosopher John Dee calls them — often hold more heart-stirring epiphanies than diaries can hope to match. These people might also prefer to read vandalised books over virginal ones, getting caught as much in the flow of the text as in the passions of the reader that came before them.
When I was younger, I was much like the preux booklover I describe: a young novel for a young girl. Smudges, watermarks and left-over mementoes invoked the same ‘ick’ in me that vaguely disgusting bugs did. When you’re young, it’s customary to assume ageing is something that happened to other people — I, however, extended that belief to my straight-spined, pristine novels.
Cut to now: in my late twenties, grey hairs are shooting up from my skull at an alarming rate (a hereditary disposition I give my father much grief about). My oldest books haven’t fared any better, ravaged as they are by time, bathwater, and a 2-month sea voyage from Nigeria to India in ‘06. My early-edition Harry Potter copies, in particular, are now perilously held together by duct tape and makeshift covers. (I’m yet to find Inkheart’s Silvertongue in the real world, but I continue to hope).
Over time, I became less preux and more physical, choosing secondhand books over pristine copies for the same reasons that I’d once detested them. “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore!” exclaimed Henry Ward Beecher once, and while I can stand strong in a Crossword or an Amazon, before my favourite Church Street antiquarian store, I am weak. My excuse is that it’s a lot more exciting to be the next in line for the throne of a kingdom contained within 600 pages.
I still draw the line at marginalia, though. It feels too much like watching a movie at the cinema while Chris Hemsworth’s dialogues are punctuated by boos, expletives or, if it were Mark Twain sitting beside me, vicious comments like “The Droolings of an Idiot”.
Inscriptions are yet another marker on the long-winding road of time and an invitation to re-imagine what circumstances this book has been through. These are marks that even preux lovers can’t deny because they rank highly in the eyes of a true bibliomaniac, glossing over the worst wear and tear. Even at their briefest, they tell a story, like a lovingly inscribed “To Mom” in a heartbreakingly unused novel on a used-book shelf. Indeed, a stroll through a secondhand bookstore is a study in betrayal, distance, and the melancholy effects of time. A secret taken to the grave is now out in the open for hundreds to witness.
In a Ziploc on one shelf in my library sits a battered first edition copy of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, passed on to me by another elderly neighbour whose home was suddenly devoid of seating space. An inscription on the flyleaf (instead of the title page where only heathens write) reads: “Berhampore, 1908”. This doesn’t hold a candle to most inscriptions out there, including Lord Byron’s 226-word note to Countess Guiccioli, which ends with, “Think of me sometimes when the Alps and the ocean divide us — but they never will, unless you wish it”. But it is a relic of our colonial history, bequeathed to me.
So it’ll remain: the small book’s journey over Hill Difficulty and the Valley of the Shadow of Death ending on this twenty-something-year-old’s shelf, cheek and jowl with other hand-me-down slices of history and mystery.
 Gallant in French
 American writer
 Nineteenth century US minister and speaker
 Australian actor
Sindhu Shivaprasad is an essayist. Her work has been (or is set to be) published in The Yorkshire Post, Kitaab, The Curator, Thrive Global, and more. When not at her day job or curating for her magazine, Ex Libris, she’s usually curled up in a patch of sunlight with a paperback and lemon tea.
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