The author & journalist Pradeep Sebastian is based in his homeland of India, but has had several extended sojourns to the United States in recent years. It was during one of these visits, about three years ago, that he contracted what appears to be chronic bibliomania, specifically the strain privata torcular. India, as he’ll discuss in the Q&A below, does not really have a tradition of book collecting (much less bibliophilia), and the modern fine press movement never got a toe-hold. Being already bookishly inclined, he was primed for seduction by the materials, methods and aesthetics of private press books.
Pradeep used his new-found passion as the basis for his first novel, The Book Hunters of Katpadi. The book was published in hardcover in late 2017 by Hachette, but available in India only so far. The story centers around an antiquarian bookshop in Chennai (the capital of the Indian state Tamil Nadu), its owner Neela and her apprentice Kayal, and the discovery of an apocryphal manuscript by the English explorer Richard Burton (below). Events are populated with the kind of odd, colorful and scheming characters that anyone who’s spent time at book fairs or in shops will recognize (including the bookseller who tells you that, while everything in the shop is for sale, unfortunately the book you’re interested in isn’t, no matter which book it is; see here for an account of Pradeep's real-life encounter with one such wastrel).
Pradeep’s novel, like Neela, has an underlying activist agenda: to develop and promote a culture of book collecting in India. Pradeep’s strategy to achieve this in the novel is to liberally sprinkle bibliographic arcana & asides throughout the well-plotted and quickly paced book. (Mentions of HM in the novel brought it to my attention, but I wouldn’t be posting this interview with Pradeep if I hadn’t enjoyed the book. Plus, he just seems such an enthusiastic and joyful person, two adjectives – and possibly the noun too – that would never be used to describe HM.)
Pradeep is back in India at the moment, so we conducted this interview by email. ¶
HM: Give us the short version of your life, particularly when, where & how books (or more specifically, book collecting) came into it.
Pradeep Sebastian: I became a collector the day I happened on my first fine press book. I had no desire (or the financial resources) to be a collector, but the beauty and brilliance of press books compelled me to begin collecting them. It happened by chance. One day, using a university’s Interlibrary Loan service, I requested a copy of Joel Silver’s Dr. Rosenbach and Mr Lilly, and instead of sending me the trade edition, they sent me the letterpress Bird and Bull edition! I relished everything about it, and if I recall correctly, I held on to it as long as I could, using up my two renewals. I returned it reluctantly. I felt as if an exotic, strange and exciting creature had flown away from me. Could I get one for myself? No; even the lowest priced copy on the antiquarian market was beyond me. At that point the most expensive book I had bought couldn’t have been more than twenty dollars. I now have a copy of that B&B book, but the purchase would come only after nearly two years of dreaming about it.
HM: How did being in the U.S. change your collecting? Did your condition worsen? I know that the start of my collecting overlapped with a period of frequent travel to the U.S., and exposure to all the shops there (vs what we had in Canada) was too much to resist.
PS: It was the example and environment of collecting and dealing that exists in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. that fueled my collecting and bibliomania. It was here that I first encountered the world of the book arts: antiquarian bookshops and fairs, private press printers, rare book dealers and librarians, typographers, book artists, calligraphers, wood engravers, rare book schools and seminars, and several other practitioners of the arts of the book. I was really quite beside myself trying to take it all in. In India we don’t have such a lively, vibrant and ingrained tradition of the Book Arts. As a columnist in India for The Hindu’s Literary Review I had mainly focused on books about books. Time spent in the U.K. and U.S. exploring the rare book world has changed that focus to a column now on the book arts called ‘A Typophiles Notes.’
HM: One of the potential risks of writing anything that delves into a specific field of expertise, particularly one involving collecting, is getting some passing detail wrong. Your book deals with the antiquarian book trade, book collecting, one particular & long-established seam in book collecting, and fine & private-press printing. Presumably many of the potential readers of Book Hunters will consider themselves knowledgeable, and ready to pounce at the first perceived mis-step. Did you find yourself having to consciously balance how much detail to include as the story progresses, i.e. did you find yourself having to pull back sometimes.
PS: I’m afraid I didn’t pull back at all. I wanted to introduce the Indian bibliophile to this world of antiquarian book culture that I had become so intoxicated with, and since it has myriad aspects or levels to it – wealthy collectors, scholar-book dealers, fine press printers, auction houses, and bibliophile societies – I tried to get them all in. So, it’s quite possible mis-steps and some details could be wrong because of this rather overwrought scheme I stuck with.
HM: One of the book’s protagonists is an Indian antiquarian bookseller who wants to promote and develop a culture and tradition of book collecting in her country. I suspect that might be a mission you share with her. What is the current state of book collecting and the antiquarian trade in India?
PS: Yes, yes, I do share that mission with her! Presently, there is a growing interest in rare books among Indian readers and booksellers. There are even a couple of book auction houses. While we do have serious collectors, there is frustratingly no established antiquarian trade or market in the country. Our collectors largely depend on online dealers to fulfill their wants or areas of specialization and focus.
HM: I liked that your book included a few illustrations. It struck me as appropriately anachronistic for the type of story it is. Did you have any input to that, or was it down to the publisher?
PS: My publisher felt illustrations in a book that revolved around the art of the printed book would be a nice addition. The publisher and I offered the illustrator a few references for the kind of bookish images we wanted; however, the credit for the illustrations goes fully to the illustrator [Sonali Zohra].
HM: Would you like to write more adventures for Neela and Kayal? Is there any possibility of your book being published in the U.S.?
PS: It would be nice to imagine up another bibliophilic adventure for Kayal and Neela, though there are no plans for a sequel. I haven’t yet looked into the possibility of a U.S. edition, though bibliophiles in the U.S. and U.K. who’ve read the book are encouraging me to think of one. It would depend on a publisher there being interested enough in the book to acquire it.
HM: Have you heard from any of the English or American booksellers – including Bromers, the Veatchs, Claude Cox, and Vamp & Tramp – you mention in the book? It’s pretty cool being woven into a work of fiction – it probably will be HM’s best hope for posterity, for which I thank you.
PS: No, I haven’t – though that’s probably because none of them know they are in the book! Not only that, I’m sure they don’t even know of my book, there being only an Indian edition. As for HM’s hope for posterity resting with my book – ha-ha.
HM: You clearly are a bibliophile, and possibly a bibliomaniac. I know you’re interested in fine press books, but just how widely beyond that do your acquisitive tendencies range? And is that something you, as a collector, wrestle with – the question of how focused or cohesive your collection should be?
PS: Yes, I do have it bad for press books, and you are spot on in sensing this. I’m still in the throes of discovery, so I tend to gush and sound breathless in talking about them, having encountered fine press books only some three years ago (you’ve recalled how it was for you in the early years). The discernment that helped me not buy anything and everything that was or is finely printed is deciding on my focus early: collecting fine press books on the books arts, and my collection has largely stuck to this, though in the first year I bought some fiction and poetry.
My bibliomania is unleashed only where fine press book and original leaves or fragments of early printed books and medieval illuminated manuscripts are concerned. I have no interest in modern first editions. If I were to accidentally stumble on some very high spot in that line of collecting, I would in a second trade the damm thing for a bunch of fine press books. Thirty to fifty thousand for one edition makes me only shake my head and think of how many lovely press books one could buy instead for that money. I am by sensibility not a completist collector, so that spares me from having to get the entire output of an author or a press. My focus from the start has been limited to fine press books on the book arts. Fine books on fine bookmaking. And I’ve tried within my collecting budget to acquire the best press books in this field, from modest productions to sumptuous ones. The illuminated and incunabula leaves are a recent interest and more a passing fancy than a focus. Once you get to chasing quires of illuminated manuscript leaves you are in the full grip of bibliomania. These days I’ve learnt to say, ‘Enough’. There is something enticing and promising about contemplating and toying with buying some highly desirable press book and then holding back - the idea of some unseen typographic beauty sitting there waiting to be plucked is more fun than actually getting hold of it.
HM: Early in the book you describe Biblio, the book shop where much of the story unfolds. The description starts with something another bookseller had once said to Neela, Biblio’s owner: “ 'The moment I shelve everything, customers stop coming. Now I leave everything lying around and they’re happy.’ As charming and welcoming as that might seem to casual browsers, Neela knew that an antiquarian bookshop that served the serious book collector couldn’t afford to have books lying around in joyful chaos.” That resonated for me because Vancouver’s last remaining downtown used bookshop (image above) is infamous for often being impenetrable due to towers of books and boxes clogging the aisles. Of those two extremes, which do you find more fun to explore?
PS: I still like the sight of bookshops (and rooms in houses) with overflowing shelves, packed aisles and shelving up to the rafters, but purely for aesthetic reasons and the browsing pleasures they seem to offer – but as a collector I know exactly what I am looking for and would like to be shown straightaway to the shelf where the kind of books I am hunting for are kept. Thus, now I prefer the ordered and finely appointed antiquarian bookshop where I am more likely to find what I have come in search of, rather than having to rummage through piles of books to unearth something desirable. The first time I looked at photographs of British antiquarian stores in the two-volumed pictorial record of The London Bookshop, I remember saying to myself, ‘Good God, they more resemble a tidy office! Featuring a couple of desks, some furniture, glass cabinets, and a large but empty (except perhaps for a table) floorspace, and not at all the storybook or Dickensian version of a cosy, dusty, overcrowded bookshop we’ve assumed they must be.’
HM: Who in India is currently making or publishing books that you find interesting in what we’d call a book-arts way? I understand there hasn’t been a fine/private press tradition in the country – your book touches on that – but is that changing? If not fine press, then maybe more in the artists’ book realm?
PS: No one I know, at least in the way I like my book arts printed. There are perhaps one or two small presses or publishing collectives that make handmade books, but their work has not interested me. It’s possible that in the artists book realm there could be more potential because of a long interest and tradition in handcrafted things. But letterpress book arts, no.
HM: Have you ever been tempted to buy a press and some type…?
PS: More than a temptation it is a fantasy, and will probably remain one because I’m sure I’ll have no talent or eye for it, even though there would be the passion. And then there is the wild goose chase aspect of going round and round in search of a suitable working hand-press, not to mention cases of fine hot metal type in India…..
HM: Your book also touches on the history of type and typography in Indian publishing. Could you recommend one or two titles for people interested in knowing more about that history?
PS: Three essays by Fiona Ross on Indian type in various Matrix issues and her book The Printed Bengali Character and its Evolution would be a good place to start, and for related aspects of Indian book history, a handful of notable books would be: Moveable Type, The Province of the Book, The History of the Book In South Asia, An Empire of Books, and Founts of Knowledge. There could be other more recent titles, but I am forgetting.
HM: What is your greatest find from India? (I mean a book found in India, not necessarily an Indian book.)
PS: My answer will best illustrate the vacuum we have in rare book dealing and collecting here in India – alas, not one interesting find, let alone a great find. Of course, one could turn up rare or interesting antiquarian editions printed in India or about India in India, but they are bound to be mostly in poor condition. All the best Indian manuscripts and books are with dealers abroad or rare book institutions there. What I’ve never found – and likely to never find – is a fine press book here. In the novel, Kayal’s evangelical zeal in trying to stock the bookshop with press books is Biblio’s desperate attempt to help fellow Indian bibliophiles discover the world of fine printing. ¶
Copies of The Book Hunters of Katpadi can be purchased from booksellers in India through Abebooks. But maybe one of the American booksellers mentioned in the novel should bring over a few dozen, and have Pradeep sign them the next time he’s over. If you enjoyed John Dunnings' books, Book Hunters is much much much much much much much better, in the details & plot. Just thinking about all Dunning got wrong in Bookman’s Wake still pisses me off…
AND ANOTHER THING!
Some binding production details & photos for Labour Vertue Glorie will going up over the next 6–8 weeks. Claudia's about to attack the Series 1 and 2 copies. I just have to attach all the spinners (below) to the volvelles first...