Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Books Here, Books There

After many attempts I finally started reorganizing my disorganized books today. While doing so I reflected on how my book habits have changed in the year I moved back to Dhaka.

The single most important change is this: back in the US, I relied on libraries for a large chunk of my reading matter. In Dhaka I am on my own.

So, if I want to read a book I don't own, I must buy it. English-book selection in Dhaka - while better than before - it still modest. I monitor the stores carefully, pouncing on new and interesting titles when they show up - assuming they are priced right.

Yes, English books are expensive here. Dropping USD 8 on a book in the US was not a big deal, but out here, spending Tk 500-600 on a book somehow does not feel right. Luckily there are breaks to be had. I picked up Ian McEwan's Saturday for Tk 325 (from Omni) and Amitabh Ghosh's Hungry Tide for Tk 450 from Aziz Super Market.

Ah, yes, Aziz Super Market. This is the new book mall in Dhaka. It is truly wonderful. And if there are not enough English books, the shortage is made up by the Bangla books of all kinds.

Another issue is protecting books that I already own. They require vigilant maintenance. For example, while reorganizing my books today, I purged a good many of
cockroach eggs, and ended up lining the shelves with roach-killer poison. Then I worried about the books getting poison on them, the story of the King and his Doctor playing in my mind.

Any travel outside the country presents an opportunity to acquire more books of my choice. Careful lists are written and re-written, often to be superseded by the books that I see on beguiling displays at the actual bookstore. Sometimes my "list" books are no good - Don DeLillo's Underworld was disappointing - while a displayed book - such as 1599, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare - turns out to be a treat.

Then there are books that I could have, should have bought while I was still in the US, but did not. But maybe that direction is best left unexplored.

More heartbreaking is when I look for a book I know I have but cannot find in my shelves. I lost it - or maybe even gave it away! - while in the US. Or perhaps they were lost in transit. A bundled edition of Updike's Rabbit novels, a 100-year retrospective essay collection on Paul Strand the photographer, along with Edward Said's Orientalism, are some that I search my shelves for in vain.

I have much to be grateful for, though. All my autographed books have survived, including those by Syed Mujtaba Ali and Ansel Adams. I had had the good sense to
pick up all of Garry Winogrand's exceedingly rare photo monographs. The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a book of words and photos by Langston Hughes and Roy de Carava is a book I love much and turn to often. It was a lucky day that I decided to splurge on that one.

Finally, the entire world of Bangla books is now open to me. It is a joy to discover new talents as well as the works of older, established writers (well some of them anyways :-) ) And I have already started collecting autographed copies: the first two were Syed Manzurul Islam and Muhammad Zafar Iqbal.

So I ask myself, isn't it nice to come home, and proceed to complete the reorganization.

[King and Doctor story: many many years ago, a King had a trusted doctor who took very good care of the King. The King liked the Doctor which made others in the Court jealous. So they conspired and convinced the King that the Doctor was a Bad Guy. The King decided to behead the Doctor. The Doctor said, please grant me one last request. I want you to read a book that I will leave for you, but read it after you kill me. After Doctor is beheaded King sits down to read the book, finds pages sticking to each other. So he moistens his index finger by licking it and uses it to separate the pages. The book is the Doctor's life story. At the end it mentions the unjust beheading, and says that the Doctor got his revenge by lacing pages with poison which the King has by now ingested. As the King reads this in horror, the poison starts to act and he dies.]


Zafa said...

Ihtisham bhai,

Sounds like you have an impressive collection.
Have you checked with to see if they’d waive the shipping fee if you ordered in a bulk? But then you could probably order the Asian edition through the local dealers.

You won’t have to worry about the toxicity of the roach baits if you don’t spray anything directly on the books, rather put baits at the corner of the shelves, and clean the shevesas frequently as possible (to remove eggs and droppings). The common baits in U.S. contain ~2-3% hydramethylon – that has no known long term effect on humans (but then again the data came from tests on lab animals).

If your library is not air-conditioned I’d worry about humidity too that could soon harbor molds (just as hazardous as you know I'm sure).

Rajputro said...

I think you've already read most of these, but still you can give it a try. Although I hate it to read on the PC. A paperback version is always more reading friendly.

Hammad said...

As an avid reader, and someone who is not really keen on reading ebooks, I understand your situation. I myself get my sister (in the US) to send me huge load of books each summer, but it hardly seems enough. The 500-600 bucks that an English book costs here is quite taxing on a student like me.

ulysses said...


Thanks for the reassurance about the bait, and also the warning about airconditioning. You are right, I really need to fix that.

I will check with Amazon and Powells, but I think the problem may lie at this end - with - ahem - Postal Service irregularities :-) But certainly worth exploring.


Thanks for the pointer. I have also downloaded from Gutenberg. Some very interesting books there, though it is harder to read on the PC. Out of print books are available, including many by R. L. Stevenson and Richard Burton (if you are into the real-life adventure genre.)


You might ask your sister to buy books for you from Public Library Book Sales in the US (if she does not already do so.) You can get really good value there - newer books at very reasonable prices.

Thanks for your comments everyone.