Unfinished stories

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With Diwali round the corner I was ordered to start clearing up “your things”. I hardly have any clothes or shoes or other such things. But I do have a lot of books and they clutter up the flat space. So I invited neighbours to come and help themselves to whatever I thought I could discard. Only two came. One is a genuine collector and the other was a 12-year-old child. Around 500-odd people live in our housing society. That tells you something.

Actually, the cleaning started five or six years ago. I had found that I was running out of shelf space for books. So I started giving them away. I used a simple criterion: am I likely to read these books again? I retained the ones I thought I would read. The rest I distributed to friends. I got rid of around 150 books, mostly fiction, this way. But even that proved inadequate because I kept acquiring new ones. Eventually, I decided to be utterly ruthless and took out nearly 300 non-­fiction and reference books and donated them to my old college, the venerable Hindu College of Delhi University. It is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. But more about that next month.

Meanwhile, there is another question, namely, what is harder than giving away your books? Put differently, at which point in life does one stop buying books? If, like me, you tend to read a lot, you will see how tiresome this problem can be. My wife and sons have been telling me to switch to electronic text. My wife even bought me a Kindle. But despite trying quite earnestly, I haven’t been able to make the switch. And the travails don’t end there.

People will happily give away the books that gave them pleasure but not the half-read or totally unread ones that obviously didn’t give much pleasure.

When I was sorting out the books to discard I found many that I had read only half or less. When I asked my friends, they also said they rarely managed to complete a non-fiction book. Later, when I thought about it, I found this to be an interesting economics problem, namely, if only half the book was likely to be read, had I been paying double all my life? When I asked an economist friend about this he said this is known as the problem of indivisibility. For example, you can’t pay for just half a container. You pay for the whole thing. That’s why importers share containers. The same is true of food, too. You pay for a full plate and it’s up to you how much you eat from it. Just because it’s too much for you, the seller won’t give you a discount. Ditto for books. You can’t buy a part of them.

A related problem is size. If fatter books mean higher cost and therefore higher price, why publish fat books that people can’t or won’t buy? I asked a publisher friend. He said a higher price means a higher commission to the wholesalers and retailers.

Then there’s the waste aspect. People complain a lot about waste but never complain where unread books are concerned. Try eating only half a pizza and someone will scold you immediately. But half-read books? Not a chance. Why, no one will even know. A related paradox is that people will happily give away the books that gave them pleasure but not the half-read or totally unread ones that obviously didn’t give much pleasure.

When I asked my wife about this she said there are some follies, like husbands, that one grows fond of. Much as you might want, you can’t give them away. That was a clever answer, but I reminded her that old books, unlike old wives, don’t nag all the time. And started reading my new book.

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