The Polonius Bookshelf

by Ashish

Guests at home are a wonderful thing. The house is filled with laughter – of the drunken kind, more often than not, but that is neither here nor there – with people and with a warmth that is very welcome indeed.

On the liabilities side, it is also filled with people who stand in front of your bookshelf, hands on hips, and murmur approval of your refined tastes in books. You nod along, of course, because you are a good host, after all. But you know as well as I do that the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, your palms are a little sweaty and your heart is experiencing feverish palpitations. For sooner or later, and you know this as well as I do, said people will pull out a book with a little exclamation and go “Hey, do you mind if I borrow this one? I’ll return it as soon as possible!”

Sure, sure. Go ahead.

Haan, haan, please!

Of course! Why not?

Or some riff of your own choosing, but largely along the lines noted above. Because much as you’d like to say, “Err, actually, no. You, or someone like you, has borrowed my copy of “Open” by Andre Agassi, and hasn’t returned it yet. I have been looted far too often to ever let anyone borrow so much as a back issue of Pune Plus – let alone the literary masterpiece that you are holding in your hands right now”, you know that you never will actually say those words.

You will smile weakly and play that age-old, aforementioned riff. And bid the book a fond adieu.

It cuts both ways, I hasten to add. I’m sure I have been guilty of borrowing many a book that I honestly thought I would return, but completely forgot to. Only to rediscover it many years later in a musty old corner of some suitcase. By which time it has become mine for keeps, naturally. So as I said, I’m not claiming for a second that I’m always the aggrieved party – but the wound cuts far deeper when inflicted on me than the other way around.

The only rule that I have when it comes to books I own is that nobody can borrow my leather-bound collection of Calvin and Hobbes. It is a set of three, and it is something I guard with my life. Everything else is open to negotiations, and history is witness to the fact that I am a rather poor bargainer.

Fellow bibliophiles have evolved varied defence mechanisms over the years, much as Darwin said they would, and they have had varying degrees of success. An ex-colleague would flat out refuse anybody and everybody – in his own words, even his grandmother wouldn’t stand a chance – while a friend has an immaculately maintained card cataloguing system. I can never be as rude as the former, or as organized as the latter, so I’m resigned to the weak-smile-on-the-outside, rising-fury-on-the-inside routine.

And that explains why I finally became, with much reluctance, the proud owner of a Kindle.

I had many reasons to not own one up until now. My biggest fear, and one that has still not gone away, is that I like to read a few chapters of whichever book I happen to be reading just before I fall asleep. And when I say just before, I mean up until the point where the book drops out of my grasp. And I don’t care to what degree e-ink resembles a printed page – you can’t drop a Kindle, and that’s all there is to that.

All the other reasons for not possessing an e-reader also remain valid at the point of writing. The intoxicating smell of a new (and an old!) book, the joy of spending hours in a physical bookstore, the delight one gets on finding an old, long-forgotten book in the back of a cupboard during a spring-cleaning session – all are sound reasoning.

But you can’t borrow or lend kilobytes on a Kindle.

And that, if you ask me, clinches the argument.


P.S. It was a hard-bound copy. Of Open, by Agassi. It was a gift from the missus. If the ‘borrower’ is reading this, please get in touch. All will be forgiven.