Buying books makes me happy and reading them makes me happier. There was a time when each visit to the bazaar and later to some mall meant we came back with a few new books every time. I completely agree with Mary Ann Shaffer from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, when she writes that she has ‘gone to [this bookshop] for years, always finding the one book I wanted – and then three more I hadn’t known I wanted.’ Wish I had read this earlier when I sometimes wondered why books in our home were always more than the shelves and racks available. By the way, even buying books online is fine because one tends to get better bargains sometimes. Even ebooks work… but not so much for me as it never gives me that pleasure of just swishing to some page and magically discovering the sentence that I was looking for.
We (and when I say we, I mean Specky my wife, and I) were taking about books and why some sold and why some remained on the shelves in bookshops and sometimes unread even if bought? There were three interesting conclusions that emerged:
Preconceived negative notions about writers matter. There are readers who have either read or heard about a writer from newspaper columns, feature articles, or even social media updates. For instance, if I have read someone say that he found a certain writer horrid, this opinion would remain in some fold of my brain and pop up the moment I enter a book shop and come face-to-face with a book written by him or her. To begin with, I would naturally hesitate to even read the blurb… but then I would go ahead and pick it up to decide for myself. This happens because of the negative opinion that has stuck in my mind. Most of us do this even without knowing what is happening. This is why I always tell writers not to be afraid of negative reviews… they probably seduce readers more powerfully.
Then there are panegyrics about writers and books on the social media that remain embedded in psyches right up to the point of decision making… even though the writer may be a first timer. These praises also make me hesitate initially and then predictably I decide to make my own decision. This makes me believe that super reviews also don’t sell books because they make readers suspicious. Positive reviews also intrigue me because I know that a reviewer may have his or her personal views.
Finally, there are books that I have never heard of. This doesn’t mean that I stay away from them. I don’t. They too stand an equal chance of being bought.
So what do we really do when we pick up a book at some store? Well, I generally allow the cover design to make its selling pitch, the paper quality to murmur sweet things in my ear, the blurb to say something at least, and of course, the recommendations by someone or the other. They don’t have to be Presidents of Book Societies or other writers who have won awards because if all they are going to say is ‘very readable’ or ‘astonishingly intriguing’ or something as inane as these I am going not going to listen. I want them to say something more than just three isolated words that sound dead and completely beaten-up. So when I find that a publisher and the writer have chosen to display a lengthy series of inane and dumb comments, I am terribly upset. I simply keep the book back on the rack and move on. Let me add here that even though a long list of praises from others may end up building a demand for a book for some, it is only what it has that will ensure that it is read. My perception is that if there are too many people saying all good things about a book even before it is published, the writer may have a great PR network but not necessarily great writing abilities. This race certainly must end.
To prove my point, let me give an illustration from the communication that I have with me from HarperCollins (through Writersmelon) about Shweta Bachchan-Nanda’s book Paradise Towers. This communication also shares what she herself thinks about her book, which is rather brave, the opinion of the editor that is inevitable, and the way Karan Johar, the film-maker perceives it.
Shweta Bachchan-Nanda writes: ‘I grew up with my grandfather who was a poet and a writer. Writing and reading was always a very important part of our lives. I’ve been writing a diary ever since I was a little girl, and wrote stories that I never shared with anyone. Then, one day I just said, I am going to take this plunge. I started writing a column for a newspaper in Mumbai and it gave me a lot of confidence to go ahead and do this full time, and that’s where Paradise Towers comes from.’
Karan Johar, the filmmaker, adds: ‘Observant, moving, hilarious and exceptionally astute… Paradise Towers is no slice of life… it’s an entire loaf. Shweta “builds” her debut novel with the ease of a literary veteran. Go find your Paradise between these pages!’
Shreya Punj, Assistant Editor, HarperCollins India, who acquired the book, writes: ‘I fell in love with the story when I first read it. Now, Paradise Towers is ready to meet its readers, and I cannot wait for people to fall in love with this quirky, intimate world Shweta has created. We’re proud to be publishing her debut – it’s fresh, insightful and a story that will resonate with everyone.’
There is no reason why I wouldn’t want to read a story that has insights worth sharing and one that might make me smile. I have loved watching the films in which the writer’s father, mother, brother, and sister in law acted. I am definitely willing to read her book if only to see if her talent in writing is anywhere near the acting prowess of her kin.
The point that I am trying to make is that buying a book may appear like a matter of spending money that is probably a fraction of the money spent for a meal at a restaurant, but it isn’t money that makes a difference. It is whether a writer or a publisher has fooled you into buying a book that disappoints you as a reader. This is what bothers me. After all, every word read from a book does add up and transform a part of you – for good or for bad – and so we need to be careful about what we read. No book ever simply rests on a shelf but attempts to enter your being and starts making irreversible changes… even if only a few pages are read. So choose carefully. And one of these days, I am going to start reading Paradise Towers by Shweta and see if I get beyond the first chapter or not… and will share the reasons soon.
12 September 2018