Decided to visit the famous Higginbothams, on the MG road, before it shuts shop, for the lack of readers. Although it has an illustrious history and has been in the book business since 1844, it is unlikely to live long. The first store at Chennai, reportedly, set up by a British Sea Cadet, gained popularity for its quality of books and diversity of subjects, for its proprietor had the skill to track down rare and in-demand books. Interestingly, A J Higginbotham, who was an illegal migrant, in India, was offered a loss-making bookstore in Chennai. He grabbed the opportunity and renamed it ‘Higginbothams’.
While leafing through the books, I realized, the authors are a brave breed, because, they have a streak of madness in them. In Hindi, it is called, “pagalpan” and in Kannada, my mother tongue, it is called, “hutchtana”. What else explains their enthusiasm to write even when they are absolutely uncertain of their ROTI (Literal expansion is- Return on Time Invested and metaphorically, their bread and butter). They are unsure if anyone would read their book, review their book, or buy their book. They are absolutely unsure of how their labour of love would be received by the readers whose number is anyway crumbling by the day.
As I strolled between the racks, the question that came to my mind was, who is an author? Is anyone who publishes a book, an author? My own understanding is, there are three kinds of books: Authored, written and compiled. ‘Author’ is someone who is an authority, an originator or a creator. It is years long effort of an individual that culminates into publication of his research and observation work: That title is earned through decades of arduous work. He is an authority over that material and stands liable to be quoted. The second category is the kind of books ‘written’ by individuals: These kinds of books are not those requiring laborious research. A person proficient in a language and blessed with a creative mind, can ‘write’ a book: He becomes a writer. Lastly, there are, what I call, ‘compilers’: They reproduce the available content in a different format. Hence, the “compilers” would put together anecdotes, jokes, sayings, quotations, stories etc.
While the literary world divides the books into various genres/subjects, it should also make an attempt to distinguish an author from a writer and from a compiler. Putting all of them together, under one title, would be a tad unfair.
Coming back to India’s historical bookstore, the reason why few of the greatest literary giants, mathematicians and noble laureates came from Tamilnadu is because it houses this oldest bookworm haven called Higginbothams!!
I shall leave you with an interesting anecdote:
In March 1859, in a letter to Lord Macaulay, Lord Trevelyan, the Governor of Madras wrote:
”Among the many elusive and indescribable charms of life in Madras City, is the existence of my favorite book shop ‘Higginbotham’s, on Mount Road. In this bookshop, I can see beautiful editions of the works of Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aristophanes, Pindar, Horace, Petrarch, Tasso, Camoyens, Calderon and Racine. I can get the latest editions of Victor Hugo, the great French novelist. Amongst the German writers, I can have Schiller and Goethe. Altogether, a delightful place for the casual browser and also a serious book lover”.
I agree with the Lord, in toto!!