Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Oh, the joy of the book hunt, the thrill of wishful contemplation

Deccan Chronicle.| Sridhar Balan

Published on: April 1, 2023 | Updated on: April 1, 2023
Cover photo of 'The Book Beautiful  A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books' by Pradeep Sebastian. (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'The Book Beautiful A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books' by Pradeep Sebastian. (Photo by arrangement)

A Gentle Madness is Nicholas Basbanes’ wonderful account of the bibliophile’s eternal passion for books and book collecting, and it could well have been the title for this review. Pradeep Sebastian’s The Book Beautiful also portrays a madness that is gentle but is also more than that. It’s an intimate account of the hunt for rare and fine books, of the art of bidding for them at online auctions, and the timing of the final bid just before the closing bell so that the prize is secured. For Pradeep, the rare books market is always enticing, beguiling, and seducing. Very often he picks up books at prices he can afford (and sometimes not) and ever so often some possessions simply slip away, to be put on a wish list in the hope they may turn up later.

The book title could also well be ‘The Print Beautiful’ for Pradeep’s book is an ode to fine print, in many cases, he is not able to collect whole books but loose sheets or sometimes a single leaf exquisitely printed. Pradeep collects books or sheets printed on a handpress from metal type immaculately pressed into dampened handmade paper, books that were hand-coloured or wood-engraved. Sometimes, these could be manuscripts calligraphically written and sometimes illuminated and ornamented with exquisite miniatures hand-painted in burnished gold and colours. In pursuit of his singular passion, Pradeep specialized in medieval manuscripts or modern reproductions of these manuscripts done by masters in the craft.

Just like the ornamentation, Pradeep’s book is peppered with gems of encounters with legendary collectors and antiquarian booksellers engaged in the subtle art of putting out tempting offers and Pradeep always conscious of his budget putting out hopeful bids. The Internet has completely changed the way we buy and sell books and Pradeep is no exception. He uses search engines like viaLibri and lists his wants on the website of AbeBooks. In the course of building up his collection, Pradeep gives us endearing accounts of master calligraphers, typesetters, illuminators and fine printers. Names like William Morris of the Kelmscott Press who made fine books in 1891 exactly the way they had been made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Calligraphers, illuminators and printers like John Fass, Valenti Angelo and the wood engraver John DePol whose illustration has been used for the cover of Pradeep’s book.

Pradeep’s correspondence with Bill Woodbridge of Woodbridge Rare Books is fascinating. His mission was to acquire some fine prints from the Stanbrook Abbey Press. The Abbey Press had been printing for the Benedictine community since 1876 but it was only after Sister Hildelith took charge of it in 1956 that the Abbey Press became a showcase for fine printing, typography, calligraphy and design. Pradeep’s account of the Press is so reminiscent of the work of the Dominican nuns of the Ripoli Press in Venice who printed 130 books in 1476-83. Among the illustrations reproduced in the book are exquisite calligraphy by the legendary Hermann Zapf and a hand-coloured and gold illuminated A Book of Hours.

Fine books were rare precisely because they were printed on hand press in very limited quantities. Pradeep is to be commended on building up his exquisite collection which he insists is still modest. Pradeep reiterates the book collector’s credo as enunciated by John Sparrow once Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, and one of England’s finest bibliophiles. "Never lend a book, never sell a book, never give anyone a book and lastly, never read a book." Why the last, you may well ask. These books and fine prints were collected for being taken down from the shelves and looked at lovingly for the beauty of their typography, illustration and design and for the sheer tactile pleasure of running your fingers along the print to feel the impressions and indentations. The Japanese have a word for it; ‘kanjiru’, to feel.

In keeping with this spirit, I have a request for Pradeep. Can we be treated to a display and exhibition of Pradeep’s collection? The exhibition should be accompanied by a catalogue detailing the history and provenance of the exhibits. This would be a feast indeed!

The Book Beautiful – A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books

By Pradeep Sebastian


pp. 306; Rs 699

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