Tuesday, 22 November 2011

By, Of and For Book Lovers

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.

-- The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

Book love can be obsessive and to a degree far greater than one might think possible for  something so benign as a few pieces of paper with some ink on them. But for those who know the power that a good author can wield with words, it is not a strange thing to imagine oneself completely lost. Reading a book about book lovers then, is almost like introspection. At so many points does one pause to say "Oh! I totally know where that feeling is coming from!" And so it has been with me. Over the last couple of months, I have completed two books based on a central character who runs or rather helps run a book shop. These books have engaged me far more, to the extent that I have forgotten meals (after a very long time) or other pursuits in order to finish them as soon as I possibly can.

The first was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - a recommendation and gift from a dear friend. It is a mystery novel of sorts where a boy, whose father owns a antiquarian bookshop, traces the anguished history of author Julian Carax and tries to discover who is destroying Carax's little known works. Along the way, the boy discovers love and friendship in unlikely quarters. While the plot of the mystery became predictable after a while, the book kept me bound by virtue of the protagonist's fierce desire to protect the last known copy of The shadow of the wind, the last novel by Julian Carax. As someone who fears the demise of physical books in the face of the advent of ebooks (there are many points for and against that debate an I am not getting into it here. Suffice to say that I love my paper books to the ends of this earth and have no qualms carting them around with me no matter where I go), I can empathise with the boy's anguish as he fears an author lost to the world.

Zafon's prose is beautiful as he paints Barcelona in shades of antiquity. It seems a world far far removed, untouched by technology, where friends meet everyday and lovers write letters (a lost art!). He manages to transfer the moods of his protagonist on to his reader (or was that just me) and so compels one to finish the journey so normalcy in life may be restored.

The second book was The Thirteenth Tale, an excerpt from which appears at the start of this post. I picked up this book from a list on "Best book cover art" on Goodreads. I fell in love with the rich cover and then the plot summary intrigued me. For once, I went in search of an edition with exactly that cover and though I found other editions with different covers more easily, I wouldn't buy them. The Thirteenth Tale, is about books and stories on almost all levels. It is the story of a famous but reclusive author who decides to tell her true story before she dies. Vida Winter has invented many histories for herself while she was alive but as illness eats away at her, she decides finally to tell the truth about her past to Margaret Lea. Margaret Lea is an equally reclusive biographer and prefers to write biographies of authors already long dead. Margaret's father owns an antiquarian bookshop where Margaret has spent all her childhood. At the time of Vida's invitation to be her biographer, Margaret lives in an apartment above the bookshop and spends most of her time with the old books and almanacs there. Vida's story eventually also helps Margaret deal with events of her own past that she has not yet been able to come to terms with.

As author and biographer talk, they reminiscence about their favourite books. Jane Eyre makes a repeated appearance as do Sherlock Holmes and Wuthering Heights. Books become expressive of personalities and behaviour as Vida's doctor recommends that Margaret read Sherlock Holmes in a bid to snap out of her winter induced depression. Setterfield explores how story telling is central to human life, how stories can be more powerful than the truth and most importantly how the telling and receiving of stories is cathartic. When Vida talks about the stories we weave around our birth, it takes me back to conversations with my parents as they described my birth and early childhood - moments that are not a part of my conscious memory but at the same time stories that I can now tell as if they were. The Thirteenth Tale hooks you in the dreamy manner of a book that promises to transport you to a different world. It makes you lose yourself in its folds by describing exactly that feeling of being lost in a book and completely cut off from the rest of the world. For any bibliophile, making the journey with Margaret and Vida, is at many points an introspection with the luxury of some outsider actually naming in words the way you feel inside when you read those words.

For that introspectiveness, I have enjoyed reading books about fellow book lovers. A genre that I intend to explore not for its plots but for the insight that it brings to me.

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