What Makes a Book

How do you pick your books?

A few days ago, I read an article on the books blog of the Guardian which mentioned how certain books are worth owning just for their covers. Oh, the pleasures of possession! While being too possessive about books is probably viewed as plain old selfishness, you must take into account how much it pains the owner of a much-loved book to see the beginnings of a dog-eared edge or fingerprints on a glossy cover…it isn’t like the yellowing or the brown spots that are the sign of age and make the book seem very real, if you know what I mean.

I looked at the books I brought back from the library yesterday, stacked now on my table, and scrutinised their covers. All Quiet on the Western Front has a yellow, faded, blurred cover that reminds me of the inky black pictures from the World Wars, the Dandi March and the numerous sessions of the Indian National Congress, where row after row of faces stared ahead, unseeing and thoughtful; Annie Besant wrapped in a shawl, a graceful womanly presence among the straight coats and khadi kurtas and twirling moustaches of brave, troubled men. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Old Love has a quirky cover with figures in sharp lines, for some reason making me feel like an undergrad in a musty room in a University hostel, preparing for a lesson in literature. (Don’t ask me for an explanation on the comparisons; I have none.) Animal’s People is simple and plain, nothing much to write about, a little like A Thousand Splendid Suns, but not quite as bold. Kanthapura is colourful and very like the copies of R K Narayan’s novels. Different publishes, yet similar styles. Was that some kind of stereotype for pre-independence Indian authors writing in English?

I picked none of these books for their covers. It was the blurbs that attracted me, and I must confessed that the fact that Animal’s People was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker made me more than justifiably curious. I never learn, you see. The Booker winners or contenders have never really satisfied me. Kiran Desai was okay, Arundhati Roy got rather repulsive at times, Anne Enright was sometimes incomprehensible and absolutely revolting most of the time. I still expect better from Indra Sinha, though. Hope and optimism, that’s the new me. The reason I picked up Kanthapura, though, was downright silly. True, I wanted something earthy, rustic and Indian after the overdose of ‘civilisation’ I’d been subjecting myself to, but what really spurred me on was the realisation, when my roving eyes suddenly hit the name, that my mother had studied it in college for the prescribed ‘non-detailed’ lessons. The funny part is she hardly remembers anything of it now, but I’m extremely keen on reading it. Raja Rao isn’t as impressive as Narayan, but maybe that is the way he intended the narration to be. Atleast that’s what he says in the foreword.

I do pick books for their names, pretty often. Famous names, attractive names, curious names. Covers don’t really matter. Names are more powerful than covers, I think. Think of A Brief History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and The Hindi-Bindi Club or The Saree Show (or some such title). Which of these would I rather read? I’m probably being silly, but the first inexplicable, mysterious title attracts me infinitely more than the other two which sound like books written by aspiring Page 3 women, wives of businessmen or writers for a vague, glossy women’s magazine that has little of sense to offer. (I’m way off the target in all probability, but come on, I think NRI stories are causing an overkill. Culture shocks are inevitable, but we definitely have more to us than garish colours and raucous Aunties.) Covers come later. It is indeed a delight to run your hands on the raised letters of a smooth cover or on the spine of a book, but it isn’t quite as much a deciding factor for me as the name of the book.

In the end, though, it’s what is inside the book that matters most. The keen, sharp feeling of disappointment that shoots through you when a book you expected much of fails to deliver, when writers flatter to deceive; the extreme delight and thrill that comes from brilliant writing- such real emotions these are, capable of making or breaking a day. Oh yes, words do create magic.

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