I was in Delhi this weekend, and I visited my favorite bookstore there, the tiny Fact and Fiction in Basant Lok. I like the bookstore because the owner keeps it free of bad books. Though the selection is considerably smaller than a Landmark, say, you can browse through the entire collection without finding a book that would disgust you. If there is a Chetan Bhagat squirreled away in Fact and Fiction, I haven’t spotted it yet.
I bought 4 books:
1. Roald Dahl – Songs and Verse
2. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
3. Ted Hughes – The Iron Man
4. Spike Milligan – Silly Verse for Kids
Ted Hughes was a gift for someone else, though I managed to read it entirely on the way to the airport. It is about an iron giant and a bat-angel-dragon from another planet. Hughes is a combination of nature poet and children’s writer. In his poet avatar, he wrote those unforgettable lines about the Jaguar in the zoo:
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
Spike Milligan’s book I bought because of the man, not because of the book. Milligan’s tomb famously has his self-written epitaph: “I told you I was ill”. Some time back, when Douglas Adams died, someone famous wrote an obit of him, which said in essence that though Adams wasn’t a particularly gifted writer, he had a bizarre way of looking at things that no one else could have imitated. Milligan had that, and was also great with the pen. From his book, this doggerel, for instance:
There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in,
But they’re ever so small
That’s why the rain is thin.
Nabokov’s book I read in the airport, on the flight, and back at home; perhaps I will finish it today. It is a very interesting kind of novel; ostensibly written as a book of commentary to a poem by a dead poet called John Shade by an unreliable narrator. The poem is 999 lines long, and takes up the first few pages of the book. The rest of the book is extensive footnotes by a commentator called Charles Kinbote about the poem. Ostensibly about the poem, rather – because even from the first page of the commentary you know that Kinbote is wildly eccentric in his interpretation of the (fairly straightforward) poem, and is using the commentary to turn the poem into his own narrative. The book’s print quality itself is superb. A Penguin Modern Classic, it has the whitest paper, the clearest print and the best paperback binding of any book I have recently bought.
The best book of all is the Dahl book. It is a richly illustrated hardcover edition of songs and poems taken from his numerous children’s books. Dahl was one of my favorite children’s authors when I was very young. He has a bizarre imagination, the sort of imagination that appeals very much to a child and appalls very much the adult. In every one of his books that I read and loved as a kid – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Glass Elevator, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda – I found delightful verse, funny, irreverent and often completely deranged. Willy Wonka was my all-time hero when I was a kid, and sometimes I wonder whether the dream of running something like his chocolate factory, with its oompah-loompahs and glass elevator, isn’t, after all, at the creative root of my entrepreneur dreams.