New York amazes every time. The energy and the spirit of being on the move amazes me. I have seen this energy in Mumbai. But New York is special in that the city is without pretensions. People walk and speak fast and seem to hurry up even to the cafeteria. You get a sense of the world coming to an imminent end and hence push the food as fast as you can.
This does not stop with the cafeteria. The rush to the subway – the underground train network – is equally fast. People don’t walk; they sprint even on walkways. And the energy is contagious. You get on soon and start sprinting.
And I sprinted to ‘The Strand’ book store, one of the oldest and grandest that boasts of an 18 miles book line up. And boy, it was worth the sprinting. It sure had the 18 mile book line.
The book store starts from the outside. There are $1, $2 books on sale. They are the used books and are some of the books are too good to ignore. I spent 30 mins ogling at this treasure trove. There were books from 1920 to 2014. I was so mesmerized by this impressive lineup that I forgot to get into the store. I made a note of the books I needed to buy and stepped into the store.
Inside the store, it was magical realism at work. Virginia Wolf , Thoreau, Malala and many others stared at me from their books. I moved to the second floor that had books on the art and architecture.
I stepped into the third floor and entered a Victorian hall, or so I thought. The air smelt of ancient books. The aroma of Victorian vintage was in the air. And then I saw shelves and shelves of classics that date back 100 years. From Shakespeare to Milton to Frost to Hardy to Edgar Allan Poe to Shelly, everybody was there, stacked in the form of leather bound and hard bound books. Many books were signed copies as well. Religion, Philosophy, Economics, Poetry, Literature and Medicine lined the walls in the form of yellowing books.
I was unable to take my eyes off many of those masterpieces. I took many of those and tried to smell them – a practice from childhood days. I seemed to feel the age of the book. In many handwritten notes of the erstwhile owners of the books, I tried to live their lives and feel their feelings. The ageing books transported me to times unknown. In the book by Churchill, I felt world war two happening. I thought I faintly heard bombs falling over London.
In a copy on Jewish Holocaust, I saw the shivering handwriting of one Mrs.Rosenthal saying ‘Gift to my grand children Robin and Mathew dtd 29 Nov, 1973’. I was one year old then. I just imagined the number of times the book would have been read by then. If Mrs.Rosenthal had grandchildren in 1973, where would she be now ? Why did Robin and Mathew give up this treasured copy ? I was feeling history in my hand in the form of an ageing book. There were old copies of first person accounts of holocaust survivors and their flight to freedom in America and elsewhere. I never knew that so many books on holocaust existed.
I opened a 1903 edition of ‘History of Westminster Abbey’. I had indeed opened history. I was looking into the very page where the original owner would have looked in more than 100 years ago. I felt a presence near me. Probably the rightful owner was also looking into the page, standing beside me. I read a couple of pages and returned the book to its place.
There were many elderly people who were particularly interested in historical books. I saw a 70 year old gentlemen who, with a walking aid, was trying to reach out to a higher shelf to lay hands on some vintage book. What inspires this man, to braze the cold , walk with an aid and come to a book store, of all places, to try and get a vintage book ? The undying passion for books probably grows with age. The more addicted to books you are when young, even more addicted you would be, when older, so I thought. I helped him reach the book that he wanted and that turned out to be ‘Nixon’s Defense Papers’. ‘Nixon didn’t get justice, my son’, he said and walked to the counter to check the book out.
I was astonished to see whole racks of books devoted to Nixon, Abe and Kennedy. How many authors have analysed the lives and times of the past Presidents?, I thought. While some focused on Jacqueline Kennedy and her affiliations, there were others that spoke about the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’. ‘The Killing..’ series on Kennedy and Abe was all over the place.
Much to the consternation of the wife in Singapore and emboldened by her absence in New York, I splurged on some rare topics and bought a bundle that included a comparison of Marx, Darwin and Wagner. Under the garb of buying for children, I made with quite a lot.
I shall write more on the books that I had bought in the series of reviews that I plan to write.
If you are in New York, never board the return flight before a visit to The Strand.
Did you have similar experience in The Strand or in any other book store ? Do share your experiences.