Friday, June 2, 2023

The Scent Of An Ancient Paperback

It felt good to pick up an old, ragged paperback after such a long time—to touch and feel the withering edges, to carefully read the fading, dirty-yellow pages, and most importantly, to experience that age-old odour of a book that was published more than three quarters of a century ago. Hemmed inside a fortification of eBooks and audiobooks, I perceived that I never missed the experience of reading a physical book. But when a good friend highly recommended and lent me an ancient copy of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, I decided to take the plunge.

I grew up in a home that was abundant in books and magazines. My father had a collection of hefty classic novels, many of which were published by Penguin. One of my uncles also had a formidable collection of English novels, most of them mysteries, crime, and war novels. At a time when I used to dabble in short Malayalam children's books and periodicals and abridged, illustrated children's versions of English classics, these paperbacks stood majestically on bookshelves or in adult hands, inviting me to enter adulthood quickly and derive the pleasures of paperbacks.

I spent my childhood in a village, and most of my reading activities centred around our village library. Once, when I selected a Malayalam novel, the librarian asked me if I read English books. When I affirmed that I liked reading English books also, armed with the reading experience of a few Hardy Boys novels and abridged classics, he opened a small cupboard in which there was a row of paperbacks in English. I picked an old biography of Bruce Lee, who was sort of a mystical hero for the boys of our generation. Thus started a love story of decades that resulted in devouring all the books owned by my father and my uncle, as well as trips to several used (pre-owned, to use the right jargon) book stores across different cities.

Sometime in 2005, I did something revolutionary. I read a whole book on a computer! I still remember that it was Mario Puzo's crime novel, The Godfather. Though I managed to collect hundreds of ebooks in PDF and Word within days, I read only First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer and a few Asterix comics. Within years, I discovered ways to read ebooks on computers and even on my feature phone (it was the pre-Android days). With my first Android phone, sometime in 2011, I also discovered EPub and fell in love with the format. Along with it, ebooks became my preferred reading method, and the used book craze subsided. Also gone were the whiffs of old paper, mildew, and dead bookworms wafting through my senses when thinking about books.

When I picked up the copy of My Family and Other Animals, I did so with a certain reverence. Along with the book, I drifted into a plethora of memories from the past—of a small cupboard in a financially strapped library, of a volume of the collected stories of Mauppasant, of countless basements and dilapidated halls that sell old books, and many, many more. The content of the book also helped, as it was about old memories and remembering all the joyous moments and small pleasures of nature and human behaviour. It is also about remembering all the hardships and sufferings, but then focusing on all their hilarity and laughing off the past while marching into the future.

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