Not a quick read

by Ahalya on September 12, 2012

When I first met the man who is now my husband, he was so impressed by the speed with which I devoured books that he thought he would impress me by taking me shopping for books.

We came back home in a cab, with four cartons of books, a huge grin firmly fixed on my face, and an equally huge frown on his forehead.

Actually, let me rewrite that version of history a little, I was happy because I had managed to get Terry Pratchetts and Jasper Fforde, Alexander McCall Smith, and John Sutherland, and Meethil was already thinking ahead to how he would fit in his lovingly but hugely exploited bookshelves, the huge tomes on the history of Genghis Khan, natural history, travelogues, Plutarch’s lives, renaissance inventions, and various books about animals, history, and art that he had purchased. Oh and he prefers hardbacks. He has to be classy that way.

When we opened the boxes, I realised what I was missing out on. The deep reads. The books that invite you to live in them for an hour or maybe a few days, stroll through picture galleries, sleep under a new concept, have lunch with a profile, and wait for someone with a war. And the hardbacks, they are sexy for a reason, you cannot just read them anywhere, you have to be ready and comfortable for a hardback.

My books on the contrary were very interesting of course, featured powerful wordplay, plots that made me blink in happy wonderment, and got over quite soon. I hardly ever went back to them more than once in two years, if ever, and all of them were never more than 300 pages long, and it was shockingly obvious how much I seemed to prefer fiction over everything else.

That shopping trip changed the way I buy books now. Take for instance E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I almost didn’t buy it, because it was expensive, could not be carried around, and although it was quite a page-turner for a non-fiction book, it was quite formidable. This is a heavy book. In all senses of the term. I take it one page at a time, and feel supremely wise after I do.

Gombrich shows you how to read art by breaking its history and influences down to its basic building blocks. At 637 pages, this Phaidon masterpiece cannot be hurried. With full-colour photographs and the author’s erudite-loving-white-haired-Uncle style of explaining history, this is a book I would love to bequeath to someone.

Another book we purchased was Anne-Celine Jaeger’s Image Makers Image Takers. After I flipped through all the photographs and didn’t read a word, I felt guilty. So I decided to read the book one photographer at a time, and what a learning experience this has been. So now I know how to read modern photography art as well, why some ordinary looking pictures define great skill and how light, nudity, and fashion are employed by a photographer to create an emotional reaction.

But my favourite purchase so far has been Alpha Beta by John Man who cannot be human. I am amazed at the depth of his knowledge. He writes about the history of the alphabets as though it were as full of thrills as an Indiana Jones adventure, and it turns out he is right. He has also written a book called Atlas of the Year 1000, The Gutenberg Revolution, and is quite an authority on Genghis Khan.

These days, I almost only buy non-fiction, books about books (as the owner of Fact and Fiction in Delhi put it), books about literature and reading, the history of various people, countries and concepts. I find that apart from adding to my knowledge, nowhere else can you see the art of writing so exposed and beautifully naked. Without plot, adjectives, and dialogue to hide behind, and with armies of concepts to explain, the author has to really make every word count. As an editor, I enjoy my favourite pastime, can I delete any word here or is it fine the way it is game. As a writer, I try to not be envious but just a humble student. And as a reader, I feel smug that I get John Berger, Richard Dawkins, Colm Toibin, Melvyn Bragg and David Crystal. And I still read faster than my husband.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gayatri Ugra September 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Hello both of you. congratulations on your marriage.All the best, Gayatri.

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Zubin Kabraji September 14, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Ouch, ouch …..

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