The Shelf


In the last decade there’s been a lot of discussion on e-readers and what they mean to the future of the book. Back in 2000 John Updike, in an essay reflecting on what he would miss about books if they go extinct, wrote about The book as furniture, The book as sensual pleasure, The book as souvenir, and Books as ballast. The debate has continued over the years, its intensity reaching a crescendo with every new advance in technology. More recently I’ve seen, through some blogs of book lovers, early signs of acceptance of the e-reader as an alternative. The practical advantages of the electronic version seem to be, if only slightly, edging out the charms of the much-loved paper-bound form. And if you were to believe the statistics, people with e-readers are reading more books than they did before – a healthy sign for the future of words and sentences.

I do not own an e-book reader. The iPad at home has an iBooks application, but I seldom use it to read books. I do use the iPad to catch up with blogs, and as a result I am reading more blogs these days – sitting on the couch or curled up in bed – than I did before, slouched awkwardly in front of a PC. When it comes to books, I’m happy staying with the paper version. The reasons are mostly personal. Books have a certain presence in my hands, a sensual feeling I wouldn’t wish to renounce. I like the look of a book lying, half open, on the bedside table or on the sofa. My memory of a book read in the past is linked to the design of its cover and the texture of its pages, abstract notions that form an index in the mind’s archive. But there is another quality that we tend to overlook, one that, I suspect, will be hard to replicate in the digital form: collections of books on a shelf are visible in a way their electronic versions aren’t.

* * *

Not too long ago, after months of looking for alternatives, we decided on a bookshelf. It was a popular model from IKEA, with frames of white and shelves you could vary in height. I took a day off work to set it up. (The excitement reminded me of my younger self, refusing to go to school the day after dad brought home a shiny new bicycle, my first.) I took pictures in the process, and created a video out of them.

The shelf now has a strong presence in the apartment. Gravity too, but not everyone who comes home is attracted to it. Those who are tend to lose themselves looking at the titles and later apologise for being asocial; they also pick up some, promising to return them soon.

I often find myself stopping at the shelf, involuntarily, to look at a spine that suddenly seems interesting. It may be a book I’d forgotten all about, or one I never knew existed, or even something I periodically return to. Sometimes, sitting in the dining area when I turn towards the shelf a book I spot makes me curious, and glancing through it starts me off on a new journey, a path that leads to more books, loosely connected to one other, forming, in my mind, the outlines of a story, a narrative I never could have imagined before.

The transparency – towards our collections – the bookshelf creates, and the chance encounters with authors, characters, places and situations it prompts is, to me, the strongest reason I’ll stick to books for a while. I do not see a “digital bookshelf” coming close, in the near future, to a book collection housed in wood and placed along a wall.

But over time the way we interact with collections will evolve. We’ll grow more comfortable browsing them through a screen displaying titles (and perhaps their covers.) Libraries will morph into large halls not with bookshelves but terminals allowing access to the entire digital archive with a few keystrokes. Your home will come equipped with wall-to-wall screen displays showing titles from your collection, images you can touch and explore. Lending to a friend will be a matter of a digital command, and your shelf will tell you which of your friends is reading what book.

* * *

These thoughts on the bookshelf have triggered an idea for a series. Every now and then, after picking a book – previously read or unread – from the shelf, I could perhaps jot down an extract and publish it in this space. Over time it may grow into something worthwhile, a digital counterpart to the physical shelf, with notes on the book and comments from readers.

I do not know how far this will go, but let me start anyway. I begin with Ka.


Roberto Calasso
Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

One day, Indra began to buzz around the ancient hermitage of the rsi Gotama. The sage had gone down to the river for his morning ablutions. His gloriously beautiful wife Ahalya was sitting in a flowery clearing, rapt in thought, playing with some twigs. Disguising himself as Gotama, Indra went up to her. Mimicking the ascetic’s voice, he said: “Woman of admirable calm and slender waist, I wish to unite myself with you, for the pure pleasure of it.” Ahalya looked up and immediately saw through the clumsy disguise, in which, rather than the solid build of Gotama, a bull among his fellow seers, Indra’s slimmer, adolescent body was all too evident. Bored with her life in the forest, she consented to the false husband’s proposal, but in such a way that the god would appreciate that she had immediately recognized whom she was dealing with and meant to be possessed by him, not her husband. She headed for the hut.

I haven’t read the novel, although it has been a part of my collection a long time, one of the books I shipped from India when I relocated to Germany ten years back. The book was recently in the news again – a translation in Tamil was just launched in Chennai. The Tamil version is based on the English one by Tim Parks, a translation of a translation. And if you think of Roberto Calasso’s work as a translation of ancient Indian myths, you can add another layer to it.

12 thoughts on “The Shelf

  1. I read a great deal of German literature in the original. First editions of Hans Fallada’s “Wolf among Wolves” and Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” in the old Fraktur (the old German gothic script) give me a joy which these little “etch-a-sketch” doodles NEVER could. Updike did not live long enough (sadly) to see the proliferation of these infernal
    “cool” little monstrosities. I do admit to being 68 years old. ‘Nuff said.

    1. Wonderful to see someone speak up passionately on this subject. I see what you mean Michael, but sooner or later “the old German gothic script” will turn up as one of the typefaces one can choose on those “little monstrosities”. The effect will be far from the original, but e-pundits will use it to project their ideas on the evolution of writing.

      1. A typeface does not alone make an impact .But, I will say that when I, in a letter to Germany, switch to the Fraktur (for which I’ve got Software), the intent is usually to give a yuk (laugh). The beautiful dustcover of your featured book “Ka” would, of course, also be lost. I am in a bit of a mental bind over these Kindles. I recognise their value and great potential but one still looses some sort of truly emotional connection accompanying a book. I admit to shaving every day and polishing my shoes.

    1. Thank you for this hint, Bunny.

      I’ve been putting it off so that I can read some ‘original’ Indian mythology first (The only ones I remember reading are those sketches from the Amar Chitra Katha series!). But perhaps I don’t need to worry about this and should simply plunge in.

      1. Plunge.

        In fact, it was after reading Ka that I went on my mythology trip. And very satisfying it is, I must say.

  2. I completely love the video of the bookcase filling up. I could watch it over and over. A great example, I suppose, of what creative use of technology can add. I love the internet. I’ve loved books much longer. So far, they complement one another and don’t much overlap. Lots of things I don’t want to read on screen. That may change if/when I get a hand-held screen-reader. But I can’t envisage the change being more than gradual and partial.

    Oh, I do love the video.

    1. Thank you, Jean. The video was another instance where the possibilities of technology surprised me – it was my first attempt at constructing a video, I loved working on it and am happy with the results!

      A hand-held screen reader is a blessing, especially if you read a lot on the internet. With more competition – the iPad copycats are on their way – the prices will surely drop and the options will improve.

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