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All those precious pages

For readers, An Inky Parade is an addition to the growing oeuvre of books about books and book-collecting as a serious hobby

Akankshya Abismruta Published 19.04.24, 08:43 AM
Representational image

Representational image Getty Images


Author: Pradeep Sebastian


Published by: Hachette

Price: Rs 799

In his interaction with Philip R. Bishop, scholar-collector of Mosher Press Books, Pradeep Sebastian requests, “a more personal account of collecting and dealing in Mosher.” He is drawn towards detailed, enthusiastic experiences of collecting fine print books, the hunt, the chase, and the transaction of a manuscript. Many collectors shy away from enunciating the details but his bibliophile hero and an ardent Mosher Press
collector, Norman Strouse, does not.

For readers, An Inky Parade is an addition to the growing oeuvre of books about books and book-collecting as a serious hobby. Sebastian takes the readers to the enticing world of the antiquarian book trade that remains hidden from even the bibliophiles. Speaking of his hometown, Bengaluru, the author mentions that private circulating libraries of the 1970s have vanished and second-hand bookstores have mushroomed not only in the city but across India. Yet, a deeper engagement with books in auction houses, antiquarian bookshops, and a functioning, rare book trade remains absent. This book is Sebastian’s contribution to filling the gap in books about bibliophily by Indian writers and he provides a long and rich appendix for readers and book-collectors to engage deeply with this subculture.

An Inky Parade is entertaining in ways that it leaves the reader chuckling in disbelief at the extent to which book collectors can go to rescue books from people who cannot maintain them, or how collectors can lure people to show off their collection — an incident that took place when Sebastian visited the notorious collector of Kodaikanal. The early sections of the book introduce the reader to this unfamiliar world through familiar terrains running from Chennai to Delhi.

It focuses on the obsession sellers have with rare books, often divided into two sections on their shelves: for sale and not for sale. Describing the obsessive intensity of Madhava Rao, the antiquarian from Bengaluru, Sebastian says, “Though sometimes the bookseller himself didn’t know it, other books not marked thus could also suddenly turn unbuyable.” In his quest to find antiquarian bookshops, he also comes across Nirmal Kumar, probably India’s first bookseller to publish a rare book catalogue, who inspired the character of Sidhu Jyatha in Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories.

Upon establishing the eccentric and obsessive nature of a book collector, the later parts of the book focus on details about rare books. The rare book trade is one based on aesthetics rather than the book’s content. It examines the visual finesse of books — illustrations, illuminations, design, typography, bindings and letterpress fine printing. For a reader with an interest in the making of a book as a physical entity, this becomes a guide. He/she is introduced to the trade, given the history of different presses and manuscripts, shown the difference between a manuscript and its prospectus and enlightened by the importance of both, and made aware of the monetary investment required to be someone who chases after “an edition, in the hope of finding intimacy and connection beyond the words inside a beloved book to the palpable material — cardboard, cloth paper — of the book itself.”

The title of the book pays homage to one of the most popular, self-taught bibliographers and incunabulists, Solomon Pottesman aka Potty or Inky. He treasured books to the extent of keeping them in bank vaults lest his house got flooded.

This is also a trade that is driven by luck. Sebastian emphasises his luck, good and bad, in getting the scripts he desired. A step-by-step guide for early bibliophiles, this book makes one cautious about colloquially using words like readers and bibliophile or vintage and antique interchangeably. It also holds the author’s reflections on his bibliomystery, The Book Hunters of Katpadi. However, the tales of different presses, their histories, the details of scripts and typography are lacking in engagement. Every description converges into the idiosyncrasies of the one willingly drowning in the world of antiquarian books.

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