Old books give us new life The joy of browsing in secondhand bookstores is indescribable.
Whatever the weather — wet or dry or cold or hot — this is the season for long reads. In the last 10 days, I’ve had the good fortune of visiting two topnotch bookstores in San Francisco, both of which stock new as well as used books. One is Dog Eared on Valencia Street in hip Mission, and the other is Green Apple on Clement Street, sort of across a fabulous eating place called Burma Superstar (go for their samosa soup). Dog Eared is across Udipi Palace which serves supersoft idlis.
At Dog Eared I picked up a discounted edition of In Other Words, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s book written originally in Italian. I had seen it in a local bookstore in Chennai, but hadn’t even flipped through its pages owing to some kind of snobbery. Her Interpreter of Maladies is a brilliant collection of short stories, as also Unaccustomed Earth. But they are written in English whereas this one — In Altre Parole, in Italian — seemed to be more in the nature of an experiment. Had to be excessive and indulgent was my uninformed verdict and so the book remained ignored. How ignorant that was I realised when I finally started reading it. First of all, it’s a bilingual edition. Secondly, it is about language and relationship with language. Many of us have grown up in the shade of the colonial umbrella and who, practically all their lives, have had to deal with being ‘Englished’ and distanced from their own mother tongues or languages. Jhumpa’s (this is her ‘dak’ or pet name; she’s actually Nilanjana Sudeshna!) exercises with learning to read and write in a language she fell in love with and all the consequences of such a love affair make perfect sense. And of course, she writes exquisitely — at least the English translation is ‘essensual’ Jhumpa; I can’t speak for the Italian! It is, as Howard Norman has written in The Washington Post, an “evocative, unpretentious, astute account of a writing life.”
I had seen What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund two years ago at another fascinating store, again the old and new kind, in Berkeley, called Moe’s Books. This time I bought it. Mendelsund is the associate art director at Alfred A Knopf (publishers). “The story of reading,” he writes, “is a remembered story. When we read, we are immersed. And the more we are immersed, the less we are able, in the moment, to bring our analytic minds to bear upon the experience in which we are absorbed. Thus, when we discuss the feeling of reading we are really talking about the memory of having read.”
“…this memory of reading is a false memory,” he claims. The story called reading, he reminds us, “is a story of pictures, and of picturing” and he sets about trying to show us how through a highly visual exploration of the theme in this elegantly produced black and white production.
There was also a 16th birthday present waiting to be bought: What better than a book? Dog Eared gave me what I think is perfect for a child of Indian parentage born and brought up in the US: Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, a graphic memoir in conversations often with her six-year-old about race and colour and choices and being different. Ironic, funny, perceptive, insightful, straight from the shoulder, the book holds the promise of resonance that I hope my niece will find comforting.
It appears that a 25-year-old called Richard Savoy founded Green Apple Books in 1967 after a stint with the army. He possessed a decent stock of books, comics and National Geographics and with that he opened the store. One of the oldest bookstores of its kind in SF, Green Apple is regularly voted the best bookstore in the Bay Area, having grown considerably in size and stocks.
I didn’t even have to go inside the store — except to pay — to pick up three potentially luscious reads. Standing out on the pavement in brilliant sunshine that cut through the nip in the air, I perused the rows of used books and pounced upon The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan. Set in Canada and featuring a detective called Esa Khattak, the mystery awaits my eager attention. Zehanat Khan has a PhD in international human rights law and was Editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl, the first magazine targeting young Muslim women. At $1.98, it seems to be a steal, as also the other two books I bought, at the same price apiece.
The sticker on A Woman in Jerusalem by A B Yehoshua says it’s a Los Angeles Times Book Prizes winner. Look elsewhere and you find it has been voted best book on many fora, including Publishers Weekly and Washington Post. Again, this is a writer I haven’t read: a prominent Israeli author, Yehoshua lives in Haifa and writes in Hebrew. The story is about the unidentified victim of a suicide bombing and the effort, prompted by guilt on the part of those concerned, to find out who she is and give her a decent burial. This passage from Washington Post Book World says it all: “While the novel is always aware of the sorrows of modern Israel, it soars of wry wise far above the battered landscape … The result is a small masterpiece, a compact, strange work of Chekovian grace, grief, wit and compassion.” Already, in the first few pages, you experience the wry wit conveyed felicitously in Hillel Halkin’s translation.
The third book from Green Apple is Trail of Crumbs, a coming of age memoir by Kim Sunée who was abandoned in a Korean marketplace, adopted, and raised in New Orleans. Her life becomes even more dramatic and it is only in the kitchen that she gets in touch with her inner self. There’s something about books, about food that is humanising in a unique way: think Baking Cakes in Kigali, The Settler’s Cookbook, Chocolat, Peaches for Father Francis, Julia and Julia, The Hundred-Foot Journey… it’s a long list. The quote from writer Flannery O’Connor prefacing the memoir is particularly appropriate for this book about displacement: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.” It’s a good one for life, really.
Just like all the place used books have is on the shelves of stores such as Dog Eared, Moe’s and Green Apple. Or Blossom Book House on Church Street in Bengaluru, a precious go-to for anybody who loves books. You will never be disappointed, you will never leave empty-handed, you will always be filled with the anticipation of a satisfying read. How can I forget Half Price Books, also in Berkeley, which yielded a wonderful book about mothers and daughters called The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd?
Perhaps all bookstores should also carry used books. May be good for the stores. Besides, readers inevitably reach a point when they’re forced to clear out their bookshelves. Even hoarders. Space is constantly under pressure. The best place we could send our well-loved friends is to a bookshop where they will be nurtured until someone comes along to care for them all over again. And for that to happen, we need to keep our books in good shape, unmarked, dusted clean and neatly-thumbed.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.