I succumb to the enchantment of books very easily and end up buying or collecting more books than what I can chew and digest. Some books remain untasted for years and in many cases I have followed Francis Bacon’s advice by reading them “only in parts”.
Umberto Eco’s huge personal library proclaimed his insatiable lust for books, and he took an impish delight in leading his gawking but boorish visitors, on the false scent. To one such curious, nosy parker who had perhaps, little, or no interest in books, and wondered whether Eco had read all the books in his capacious library, he said something to the effect that ‘no, this is my weekend reading. My main hoard is elsewhere. Mine, of course is nothing compared to the great professor of semiotics, polyglot scholar and renowned intellectual, but even in my modest collection, whenever I look up at the bookshelves, I sigh the lack of time or rue my tardiness for not having read all of them, from cover to cover. Like Seneca, when I go to bed, I tell myself “Today I forgive you. But tomorrow ...” That, however, does not seem to have improved matters.
“You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older,” I sought solace in, Nissim Nicholas Taleb, “and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” I am not sure about accumulating knowledge but the ‘anti library’ is slowly growing and I fear that just as the collision of matter and anti-matter promises a cataclysmic end – of – the – world – what if the collision of library and ‘anti library’ may lead to some minor explosion, an apocalypse at smaller scale.
My father was a cross word freak and a great gormandizer of books. Though trained to be a lawyer his passion for reading claimed him entirely. In his efforts to ignite a curiosity in me not only for mathematics, but for a whole lot of other things, led him to acquire many books for me. So, on my shelf sit curiosities like Fantasia Mathematica and Mathematical Magpie, books of 60s vintage, sit with my own acquisitions.
He introduced me to Arthur Porges’ classical story on Fermat, The Devil and Simon Flagg , as a child. (I have read it several times now as an adult). A man challenges the devil that he could give him a task which the devil could not perform even in twenty four hours. "My question is this”, said the man , “ Is Fermat's Last Theorem correct?" My father explained to me that Fermat’s Last Theorem was the most difficult problem in mathematics . I am supposed to have asked him ‘more difficult than the table of twenty six.’ He said, ‘way more.’ Since then I have been in religious awe of the Fermat’s Last Theorem, feeling somewhat relieved at the same time that the theorem in question was his last .
The devil set the terms refusing to take him as a slave in case he won. "I deal only in souls. There is no shortage of slaves. The amount of free, wholehearted service I receive from humans would amaze you.”( I have heavily underlined this portion!) To cut a long story short, the devil, the doer of impossible acts was defeated by Fermat’s last theorem.
My father’s diligence alas! did not improve my standing in mathematics( such as it was!) but it imbued in me a curiosity about the subject much beyond my capability. So I always aimed higher than I could shoot. That is how I got to surround myself with a lot of books on mathematics and mathematicians, always meaning to wade through them with stoic patience , grit and determination. One of the by-products of this is Fermats’s Theorem in four versions, including Andrew Wiles’ and Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem , explained and simplified for laymen. Apart from Nagel and Newman’s classic Godel’s Proof I have the shiny new Godel’s Theroem , Its Incomplete Guide To its Use and Abuse by Torkel Franzen, books on David Hilbert, Gauss, Cauchy, Abel, Cantor, Weirestrass and of course several on Ramanujan. Burnished by deference and blackened by incense, they occupy a distinctive corner on the shelf. My only encounter with many of them was when I opened them to write my name to establish ownership. I wish it was as easy to own the content but I will speak of my missed opportunity to master mathematics some other time.
There was a time in my life when I could relate to Pablo Neruda’s lament in his memoir, “ A bibliophile of little means is likely to suffer often. Books don't slip from his hands but fly past him through the air, high as birds, high as prices.” But a bibliophile suffers in equal measure when books start raining in great profusion : it is great pleasure but brings with it great pain too. Aware of my separation from my horde of books, my daughters , who are bibliophiles in their own rights, have plied me with a whole lot of books in these last lockdown months , many of them are my old favourites , but many that I had not read. Despite my best efforts many remain unread .Books have been not only the solace but sustenance during days of forced separation from the world outside. But now the very presence of so many of them which I crave for when I cannot find them, has a hugely distracting presence. They fail to entice or hold my attention for any length of time. It agitates me, it confuses me. A profitable reading depends on your ability to obtain and hold attention. I will tell you what.
I was reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Calling Of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth last evening, nicely cruising along his elucidation of ‘public history’ and ‘cloistered history,’ which lead me to think of my own many notes to myself on epistemic violence to the history of Indian independence. The thought also crossed my mind that half-finished “The Loss of Hindustan The Invention of India by Manan Ahmed Asif, and a very interesting paper by Sanjay Seth: Reason or Reasoning? CLIO OR SIVA? Sanjay Seth remain to be finished. My sense of guilt was made worse by that insistent tom tom inside my brain, reminding me the presence of a partially read Burkhardt and a book of Norberto Bobbio, of whom I was unaware until very recently.
Confused as to the order in which these books need to be marshalled for reading or rereading, unable to choose between Dipesh and Manan I settled for the well-trodden routes, via many well-loved diversions. Yesterday I found myself checking out for the umpteenth time Lucky Jim to see what Dixon was up to and then dropped in to catch up on Bellow’s Herzog . Italo Calvino’s General camping in the library assessing the dangerousness of books in his unputdownable story The General is a favourite port of call.
For the night cap I picked up A Wall Of Two , a collection of poems of Henia and Iloma Karamel .These poems were written by two survivors from the camps of Hitler’s pogroms , poems of resistance and suffering from Kraków to Buchenwald and Beyond. To be continued .....
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