On Fossicking for Books

It was the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell that first allowed my latent book collector soul to surface. I had found Justine, half hidden in the stacks of an ancient forgotten library in Bangalore, and recognized the author only as Gerald Durrell’s brother. Having read enough of GD’s early childhood books (a trilogy, if I remember right, starting with My family and other animals, and I’m sure the other two will come back to me, or not, forcing me to check wikipedia), I realized that Lawrence Durrell was none other than the writer brother Larry. But what I read was an entirely different class of literature, and LD enmeshed me into his Alexandrian world.

Of course, in those days, I couldn’t afford to buy new books, even if I could find them, and my only hope was to search for books in the few used bookstores of Bangalore. Over the years, I formed a routine of periodically conducting ‘sweeps’ of the bookstores, and at one point even made a rough guide to the used bookstores of Bangalore. It was a curious routine, no doubt familiar to many aficionados of used book stores, the constant searching seeking for the right title. The element of the hunt. The apt word is fossicking, very common in Aussie slang, meaning to sift through the land for gems. After a while, it became more and more an art to fossick for books, to let your eye glide over the stacks, not even consciously reading the titles, automatically eliding the innumerous copies of romance novels and the thrillers, till, by chance, or by design, a book’s title jumps out of the stack, suddenly snapped into focus and then you reach for it, dreamily, while little waves of satisfaction mounts in your heart. It was a hobby, and a distraction, a few hours of losing myself in the hunt.

It became my mission to find all the four novels of Durrell’s quartet, in the same edition that I’d first encountered them. It wasn’t easy. I found Justine fairly easily, I think it was more popular than the others for some reason, but as time went by I slowly added to the set. Clea and Mountolive came next, while Balthazar proved elusive. I eventually found Balthazar in another edition, and this set off the search all over again. But this time I only found Mountolive. When a friend bought me a new edition of the Quartet, all four in the same volume, so shiny and complete, I was happy, but the thought of the missing volume never really left my mind. And when I did find Balthazar in the old edition, my hopes were dashed to find that the book was so beaten up that a sizeable chunk of the novel had somehow disappeared.

My well worn rounds of the used bookstores came to a halt when I moved to Israel for two years. Not realizing, not really understanding what it meant to be in a country where the main language was not english, I really hadn’t given the book situation any thought till I got there, and found myself anxiously browsing the tiny tiny english sections of even the major bookstores. And since I lived in the middle of the desert, hardly a multicultural hotspot in amenities if not with people, books in English became a luxury. I did manage to find one really good used book store with a pretty large (by Israeli standards) English books section and that kept me going, and the occasional trips to Tel Aviv was a source of much joy. The worst part of leaving Israel was leaving the books behind. I sold most of them back to the same bookstore in Ber Sheva, and they didn’t give me money- they only offered me book credit. So in the end, I exchanged my multisplendoured collection for a single edition of Don Quixote, a book I’d never read. It seemed oddly poetic to replace many novels with arguably the first modern novel. But by and large, till I got back to India and subsequently Australia, times were grim. Australia was a revelation. A huge Borders bookstore at my doorstep, where one could conveniently buy just about anything, if one was willing to pay the steep prices. And it was very weird. Books that I had sought for years, and bought feeling like I’d stumbled across a rare treasure, despite their battered and timeworn looks, were now available to me in fresh first hand guises, mocking me with their first world availability. It was all there in the open, it was like fossicking in a jeweller’s shop.

Of course, Sydney also had some used bookstores, and I did do the rounds there as well, but they were oh so orderly, books neatly classified into themes and sections. No chance of stumbling upon an unexpected book, only unexpected copies. This curiously lessened my inclination to prowl through the bookstores in Glebe and Newtown, though each visit was still enjoyable. My collection built up pretty quickly. Rather than fossicking for literature, I was looking for natural history books, mainly books on Australian spiders. I’m happy to report that at the end of four years, I eventually managed to find pretty much all the different books on Australian spiders. While the spider books were truly found objects, the other books were all neat and modern, and would have stood out in my old collection in Bangalore, different in their crispness.

And then in Mexico. Being in a spanish speaking country, and a country that loves literature is very frustrating. I found tons of authors I’d never heard of, writing books that seemed to me supremely interesting if only I could approach them. My spanish is still struggling, every page is littered with words that force me to scurry through the dictionary, every sentence is slow to read. I know that I’m merely impatient, the language will come with time, but for a year, my reading has shrunk again. Occasional book orders from Amazon, while they help, are almost beside the point for a book fossicker. There is no element of finding, of seeking: there is only the pointing and clicking and having your wish gratified, and there is definitely no shade of the unexpected find, or the incongruous discovery. In Xalapa, there are a couple of bookstores that have a section (a shelf!) of english books hidden in the far corners (curiously, among the spiders), but really nothing you wouldn’t find in the book exchange shelfs of backpacking places. And this was the situation, till I found the streets with the old books in Mexico City.

I have been going up to Mexico City pretty frequently, but it’s always been for some specific thing or the other, and rarely spent any time being a flâneur. But this time round, I had a few hours to spare, and we were staying downtown in the hotel with the most amazing roof ever, and wandered off looking for a bookshop. At a street intersection, on a whim I asked a guy who was handing out leaflets where I could find some bookstores, and he casually said that there were dozens a few blocks behind the cathedral. And so I found Calle Donceles. The name rang a bell, an internet friend had been to Mexico City a while ago and had written about this street (sadly, the report is offline), and I started walking along the street. No luck. I found a couple of Christian bookstores, not surprising since it was just behind the cathedral, but after an hour of walking I was ready to call off the search. I walked back the same way, and just as I was about to turn back the way I came, I decided to follow the road on the other direction. And then I hit pay dirt. A small section of the street was the books section. Atleast ten old/used bookstores stood clustered around each other, and as soon as I entered one of them, I instantly felt at home. The books were mostly Spanish, but I found entire shelves with books in English. And the books were highly disorganized, with all sorts of titles making unlikely neighbours. The strange thing was I found so many of the same titles that I frequently encountered during my sweeps in Bangalore. I guess at some point all these extremely popular books had dispersed all over the world, dispersed explosively and settled in odd nooks and crannies. Old friends, in familiar editions peeked out of the shelves. I found books, that I would have bought in a heartbeat, if I hadn’t already got them. I spent only two hours among the bookshelves, but the minutes flew by me, the reverie descended, and almost without thinking I added books to the collection already forming. Some were books by favourite authors that I’d never read, and some were entirely new titles, and yes some were even text books that would have cost an arm and a leg first hand. I cannot imagine how much richer this place will be when I finally can read Spanish with fluency, because each cavernous bookstore held so many treasures.

Despite the thrall, I had to rush through the bookshops, making only a sort of reconnaissance, and storing away their locations for later foraging. All the old habits came back to me, the manner of searching, the relaxation that comes despite the awkwardly tilted head, and always that smell, the pervasive smell of the old books. And then, in that small section, a dead end in that labyrinth, among all the yellowing paperbacks, a shelf half hidden by packs of unpacked books, I found a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar. With all pages intact. It was like meeting an old friend after many years, and picking up where you left off, and that all the time in between eliminated. The Quartet is complete now.


7 thoughts on “On Fossicking for Books

  1. A great article! I loved it. I have been to an old bookstore in Nottingham and though it was quite ‘sorted’ out, it still had a unorganised feel to it and thats what I loved about it… these bookstores tell you about the place, city/town/country….Its a comment on the place and people and for myself whether I will like the place or not!

  2. Dinesh! I loved to read your article and I remembered the time when Bird without wings kept my sanity in an awful recovery room of a hospital. Thank you! your book made a difference at that time in my life. Keep collecting against the odds and writingggg.

  3. Hi, Dinesh. We recently received a registration request on Desi Writers’ Lounge, an online writing workshop, with the exact writing sample as your post from 2009 here. Whenever we find a match of the writing samples online, we contact the original posters to make sure that they have applied and to ensure nobody’s lifting their work without permission. So please let me know (in the comments or via email) that you have applied for membership so we can process your request. Thanks!

    Waqas Naeem, DWL Workshop, info [at] desiwriterslounge dot net

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