MANY INDIAN readers should be grateful to Pradeep Sebastian for having turned them to a particular kind of reading — Books about Books. Through the irresistible enthusiasm of his newspaper columns he introduced many of us to the wit and elegance of Anne Fadiman, the literary fantasies of Jasper Fforde and more sedate collections such as Ruined by Reading and Lost Classics. More importantly, he gave a (slightly too) polite voice to the subculture of the obsessive reader and compulsive collector. The Groaning Shelf, a collection of Sebastian’s columns, is an opportunity to glimpse these bibliomane passions at large and at small.
For those who have lost themselves in the Books on Books genre before, the preoccupations of The Groaning Shelf are familiar — the book as object of insane affection, the book as art, crazy collectors, marginalia, first editions, lending, borrowing, coveted libraries, imaginary libraries and so on into a world that Borges and Alberto Manguel have made their own.
The primary difference between Sebastian and any of these other bibliophiles who have written about this private passion becomes evident swiftly. Fadiman (Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader) or Francine Prose (Reading like a Writer) or Maureen Corrigan (Leave me Alone, I’m Reading), leave you with a sense of enormous intimacy. Their reading changed their lives, their lives changes their reading and they tell you so with great flair and honesty. This book, while packed with information on Books about Books and guaranteed to send you hungrily and tenderly to a bookshop, tells you nothing about Sebastian. He does introduce you to a whole lot of wild characters from the book trade who seem to have written nicely about their lives as readers and collectors. Sebastian’s mild grip on the narratives of these essays makes you want to abandon him and seek the Cool Books and Cool People he has written about instead.
A RATHER large gap in this book is the lack of information on Indian readers, collectors and bibliomanes. Apart from a few throwaway teasing mentions, Sebastian either bemoans the lack of interest in serious book collecting in India or, even more strangely, asks the reader if there are any legend-worthy collectors in India that he has somehow missed.
The preoccupations are familiar — the book as art, crazy collectors, marginalia, coveted libraries, borrowing
More annoyingly, The Groaning Shelf is light on flair. Take the chapter on titles. Sebastian says, “It’s delightful when titles are borrowed and played around with. A great example of such title-skewering is when culture critic Gilbert Adair called his book on literary theory bashing The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice. A spin-off, of course, of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Any play inherent in Adair’s title is murdered by this damp description. In the absence of insight and panache, this book becomes a collection of excellent annotations. It is not a Book about Books. Sebastian is, as he confesses, a meta reader, writing a Book about Books about Books. And like Naseeruddin Hodja’s soup of a soup of a soup made for a friend of friend of friend, it’s a bit thin.