Pradeep Sebastian’s Must-read ‘Books on books’

The Groaning Shelf

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic, who has been writing articles for The Hindu, Businessworld, Deccan Herald. He recently wrote a book about (what else?) his love of books, called The Groaning Shelf, which has been garnering excellent reviews. We asked him whether he could make us a list of favourite books about books and writing, and he happily obliged. Here goes:

Nabokov’s Butterfly and Other Stories of Rare Books
By Rick Gekoski
In Nabokov’s Butterfly (in some editions titled as Tolkien’s Gown) high-end rare book dealer Gekoski tells the stories of 20 rare books that passed through his hands. The inside lore on trading in rare books is sumptuous but equally fascinating are his meetings with unexpected book collectors like Graham Greene. Gekoski’s specialization is rare 20th century books. Apparently the bookshop Gekoski owns in London stocks only 50 books. But each is worth a fortune.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
An absorbing account of rare book thief John Gilkey and his nemesis, the rare book dealer turned ‘bibliodick’ Ken Sanders, and how he stalked and captured this century’s most relentless and successful book thief. Among the many first or rare editions he stole were Catch 22 ($3,500), Lord Jim ($3,000) Samuel Becket’s No’s Knife ($850), Kerouac’s On the Road ($4,500) and first editions of Winnie-the-Pooh. In all, perhaps books worth $200,000. Her book is also a seductive look at the obsessive world of rare books, collectors and dealers. What her book is really about, she notes, is ‘people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.’

A Gentle Madness
By Nicholas Basbanes
Now in its twentieth printing, Basbanes’ classic history of bibliomania has sold more than 120,000 copies. (One of the most prized possessions in my library is a signed, inscribed – alas, though, not to me – first edition of this book). Today, with five more books about book culture, Basbanes has become a highly respected bookman. A book series that is, in the author’s own words, ‘a comprehensive guide to the literature, history, romance, apocrypha, folklore, and the mechanics of book collecting’.

The Eyre Affair
By Jasper Fforde
If you’re not already a fan of the Thursday Next series, welcome to the parallel literary universe of author Jasper Fforde where that seminal dream of every bibliophile – the desire to step into the universe of a favourite book – comes true. To this literary fantasy, Fforde adds a new dimension: fictional creations are able to escape into the real world. In the bookish universe created by him in The Eyre Affair (also  Lost In a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels), literature has become central to everyone’s life. In the first book, The Eyre Affair (rejected 76 times before Penguin finally signed him on), his literary detective Thursday is forced to alter the ending of Jane Eyre! Isn’t the idea that a reader can enter a book, interact with characters and even change the ending irresistible to a bibliophile?


By Anne Fadiman
A slender, witty volume of 18 personal essays that recount a life-long engagement with reading and re-reading. “A few months ago my husband and I decided to mix our books together,” she writes in the first chapter, “Marrying Libraries”, “by far the hardest task came at the end of the week, when we sorted through our duplicates and decided whose to keep. I realised we had been hoarding redundant copies of our favourite books `just in case’ we ever split up.” She writes of her book addiction wittily, commonsensicaly, joyously. Fadiman’s book-haunted voice should speak for bibliophiles everywhere.

The Library at Night
By Alberto Manguel
Manguel’s celebrated A History of Reading is another classic in this genre. In The Library at Night, he notes that ‘libraries have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been seduced by their labyrinthine logic.’ Manguel is a magnificent, impassioned reader among bibliophiles. His erudition and scholarship are unorthodox, eccentric and capacious, ‘For the cosmopolitan reader’, says Manguel, ‘a homeland is not in space, fractured by political frontiers, but in time, which has no borders …I wouldn’t define myself as a writer. I would define myself as a reader.’

An Empire of Books
By Ulrike Stark

‘The history of the book in India is a history largely untold,’ notes Stark in her book on early print culture in India. Her focus is the Naval Kishore Press of Lucknow (1858), one of the most successful publishers in 19th century North India, and the largest Indian-owned printing press in the subcontinent at that time.  With intrepid scholarship, she traces the long, dramatic journey of the book in India.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Great list – looking forward to reading some of these.


  2. Posted by Rakesh Khanna on May 14, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Cool list, Pradeep… But what about “The City of Dreaming Books” by Walter Moers? Awesome fantasy adventure with books that kill people! Optimus Yarnspinner vs. the toxic terrortomes!


    • It certainly is a fantasy adventure! Did you know that several authors in the book are anagrams of famous authors?

      Honj Steak = John Keats, Aliesha Wimperslake = William Shakespeare and Elo Slooty = Leo Tolstoy, among others.


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