Mihir S Sharma: Festivals and bookshops

We are into October, and there is the faintest chill in the air of an evening. The festival season approaches - the season, that is, of literature festivals. There are now dozens of them across India, and even a few that exist only online. We have taken to the book-festival format like a starving man to water, and it is still not entirely clear to me why. Why should a place like India, where a few thousand copies make a best-seller, where publishers market novels by stressing the authors' MBA, and the only place in the world where Paulo Coelho is a superstar, be the home country of literature festivals?

The oddness of this struck me doubly last month at the literature festival at Boulder, Colorado. The festival, where I had gone to speak, was organised by the team behind the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF); and there were echoes of that carnival everywhere, from the Rajasthani umbrellas at the entrance to the Boulder Public Library, to the colourful streamers stretched over the auditoriums that recalled the roofs of tents on Diggi Palace's lawn. This was the first year that Boulder was holding a book festival, and naturally it didn't have the vast size of JLF, where as many as 10,000 might crowd into a session. But the auditoriums did get filled - even on the Saturday evening when the University of Colorado's football team took on Colorado State - and the questions were engaged and spirited. Everyone - audience, participants, organisers - expressed the hope and expectation that the festival would grow. After all, they said, there was nothing like it in the region.

That fact is perhaps odd - because Boulder felt like a bookish town. If festivals are assumed to be one pillar of book culture, the two others are certainly bookshops and public libraries, and this town had both. The Boulder Public Library, where the festival was hosted, is a lovely building in a truly extraordinary setting: set right in the middle of a public park, with a cafeteria built actually over the creek that runs through it. The town's main street, Pearl Street, has no fewer than four bookshops that I counted: not just the big Boulder Bookstore, which partnered the festival and had a typically wide selection, but something called Left Hand, which fed the good Bernie Sanders-supporting, hybrid-driving, alternative radio-listening people who seemed to make up the majority of the city.

And, most importantly, a second-hand bookseller called Red Hand. I spent a blissful few hours there, reacquainting myself with the joys of old, cheap books. Truthfully, even in places unfortunate enough to be without good public libraries, you can tell the quality of the local book culture by searching down the used book store. By that yardstick, book culture in both Delhi and Kolkata has declined; no longer can you get the great bargains on College Street in the latter city that you used to be able to, and the Sunday market in Daryaganj feels like it has been taken over by reprints of textbooks. The best thing, on the other hand, about Bengaluru is not its overhyped weather, but the extraordinary selection over several floors at Blossom on Church Street. I failed to exercise sufficient self-restraint there a few months ago, and managed to put my luggage over Indigo's limit. I blame the pricing; who prices the Penguin History of England series at Rs 50 each? It would have been a crime not to buy as many as I could.

I used to have an addiction to second-hand books. I thought I had slowly overcome that, although relapse continually threatens. The most important part of the cure was shock therapy: when I had to move continents, and couldn't move my painstakingly built-up library with me. I had to give away or sell most of those, many to my local used bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Truthfully, there is nothing more painful than being in a wonderful second-hand bookshop, with a few bucks to spare - but an air journey away from your own bookshelves.

America does not have a reputation for being a country that reads, but it really should. The subway in New York is full of people at rush hour, clinging on to railings but somehow turning pages on paperbacks with one hand. You can pass the New York Public Library at dusk, as the lights come on in its famous reading room, and then duck behind it to Bryant Park for a coffee looking up at the Empire State - and perhaps something from the "take a book, leave a book" trolley next to the famous open-air reading room.

But nothing really compares with feeling part of the constant circulation of pages and ideas that is central to book culture, the very circulation that literature festivals can but stimulate - that feeling of satisfaction that comes with a few hours to spare, and an entire store of used books from which to choose the afternoon's entertainment and instruction. I stood in the basement of a bookstore on Cambridge's Massachusetts Avenue last week, in that very happy position; surrounded by the familiar shelves of what had once been my local store, where I had both bought and sold books. One title caught my eye - a Margery Allingham mystery I had put off reading for years, in a familiar Penguin pocket edition. Well, I thought, why not this afternoon? I took it off the shelf; turned to the front page; saw, with amusement, my own name inscribed there; and put it back. Clearly, it could wait a little bit longer.

mihir.sharma@bsmail.in

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