Posted by: cochinblogger | November 16, 2010

A Book in Hand Is Worth Two on the Internet

The book caught my eye at once. The title was arresting: Wild Ducks Flying Backward. The cover belied the title: it showed ducks flying in both directions, forward and backward. The subtitle (or supertitle; it was placed over the title) was “The Short Writings of Tom Robbins.” I had not heard of Tom Robbins. I flipped through the book with the practiced ease of the habitual bookshop browser, sending the pages flying backward in the wake of my fingers. Tom Robbins was an American fiction writer with an original, unusual style, and this book was a collection of his nonfiction pieces. Now, that aroused my interest; I’m an inveterate reader of nonfiction and essays. The price of the book was Rs. 80, which was reasonable, but I put the book down with a sigh. I’d been buying books with alarming regularity from this used-book (“pre-owned books” does not work for me) basement exhibition, and had decided that some self-denial was necessary.

So why did I enter the basement exhibition and court temptation in the first place? Oh, that was to ensure that I didn’t miss any must-have books. These are books that are budget independent, books that are so good that I simply must have them. Wild Ducks Flying Backward, intriguing as it was, was not a must-have book, I regretfully decided. Patting myself on the back for my financial prudence and discipline, I walked out of the exhibition without a backward glance.

On subsequent prospecting visits to the basement exhibition, the duck book, lying next to a book about the history of tractors in the Ukraine, drew my eyes like a magnet. Each time, however, my ample reserves of discipline and iron self-control enabled me to walk out empty-handed. However, for some unfathomable reason, the book began to prey on my mind.

I looked up Tom Robbins on the Net, and turned up this intriguing article (see The following excerpt sold me on Tom Robbins:

When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period.

Next, he rereads the first sentence and starts writing a second, rewriting it again and again until it shimmers. Then, and only then, does he add a period. While working on each sentence, he has no idea what the next sentence is going to be, much less the next chapter or the end of the book. All thoughts of where he is going or where he has been are banished. Each sentence is a Zen universe unto itself, and while working on it, nothing exists but the sentence. He keeps writing in such a manner until he eventually reaches a sentence which he works on like all the others. He adds a period and the book is done. No editing or revising in any way. When you read a Tom Robbins book, you are experiencing the words not only in the exact order that he wrote them but almost in the exact order that he thought them.

“But wait a minute,” I interrupted. “The first sentence of your first book, Another Roadside Attraction, is ‘The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.’ Are you telling me you wrote that sentence having absolutely no idea where it was leading?”

“Yes,” he said. “I knew I could explain it later. I like painting myself in corners and seeing if I can get out.”

Here was a writer who could spend all day polishing just one sentence, who trusted his sentences to lead him where they pleased, who liked to fight his way out of the corners his sentences painted him in. What a writer! The duck book immediately was promoted to the must-have category.

That evening I rushed to the book exhibition after work, only to meet with a bitter disappointment: the duck book had vanished! I searched high and low, to no avail. Some like-minded browser had walked out with it. I was crestfallen! Evening after evening the book had winked at me from the shelf; conspired with the fan overhead to coyly flutter its cover at me; had eyes, it seemed, for me alone. I kicked myself for not foreseeing the inevitable outcome: the gnashing of teeth that is the fate of all who succumb to the coquette’s wiles. I walked out of the exhibition in a black mood.

After spending the next few days cursing my misplaced sense of financial prudence and discipline, I hit upon a plan. One of the hats I wear is that of teacher, and one of my students, a couple of generations downstream of me, had once told me that she found all her books on the Net, in response to my polite inquiry as to what books she read, and whether she’d visited the basement book exhibition (which, by the way, stocks a dazzling array of titles and has something for even the most jaded book lover). I told her that some of the books at the exhibition were rare, an observation she countered with the boast: “There’s no book I cannot get on the Net. Torrents …”

I’d considered buying a copy online, but the thought of paying up to ten times or more for something that had been in my grasp unleashed the skinflint in me. I buried my ethical reservations, and the next time I met her, asked if she could try and get me an electronic copy of the duck book, by hook or by crook. By now, I’d come to look at this as a battle of wits between me and the duck book, a battle I was determined to win. However, a couple of weeks later, she was forced to admit defeat. She had found all the books of Tom Robbins, except the duck book. She was as disappointed as I was, for a different reason: for once, the Internet god had failed her. As for me, my god had failed me — and not for the first time.

In the ensuing weeks, I managed to put the trauma behind me. I did buy a Tom Robbins novel as recompense for my loss, but it lay unopened on my bed; the duck book was my true love. I continued to scour the basement exhibition for must-haves, and the duck book, like an old flame, slowly faded from memory.

Then, last week, when I walked into the basement on a Saturday after depositing my sons in church for a Sunday School rehearsal, I spotted a pile of must-haves: abridged classics for young readers. Carrying the pile of books in my arms, I strolled over to the popular fiction section, and — WHAM! There was the duck book, on top of a pile of bestsellers, winking at me. I grabbed it with both hands before someone could preempt me, scattering the classics on the floor in the process. Upon further investigation, I found no fewer than three different editions of the duck book. I selected the one with the largest type.

I’d seen the book in the nonfiction section earlier. Now, someone had moved it to the popular fiction section. Tom Robbins was primarily a fiction writer, so this was a pardonable error. Also, I now realize this was probably why my student failed to locate the duck book on the Net: this nonfiction effort by Tom Robbins probably did not exist for most of his fans.

I plotted my next move carefully; there was yet one piece of unfinished business. For my next lecture I packed the duck book together with my usual lecture notes. I stopped my student-accomplice in the corridor, opened my bag, and brandished the duck book triumphantly under her nose.

Her eyes widened in surprise, her mouth formed a silent “O,” and she stood stock-still, frozen. I then delivered the coup de grace, hissing out the words through clenched teeth: “A book in hand is worth two on the Internet.”

That did it! She swayed on her heels, then slowly collapsed on the floor (doing a fair imitation of Orwell’s stricken elephant), but I was kind enough to interpose my shoe between her skull and the floor.

Update: I’ve just read this: Oh, well, such is life. 🙂


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