Book, line and sinker
A couple of years ago, having lost my way in Florence (as one is wont to do), I stubbed my toe on a bookstore that stocked used books in English. The Via delle Oche, in the shadow of the Duomo, had a couple of surprises, but none more startling than this. Among the titles at the Paperback Exchange, as it was called, was Coming Back to Me by Marcus Trescothick, probably the only cricket book available in the city. I hadn't been surprised to find a John Arlott at Strand Book Store in New York ("18 miles of books") years earlier, but this was an unexpected juxtaposition.
Used-books stores promise the unexpected. They (and their customers) thrive on serendipity.
Bengaluru Church Street is host to the best in the country. Blossom Book House began as a 100-square-foot space where you had to step out to think. That was in 2001. Today it deals in books from two buildings on the same street - one a three-storey tightly packed space and the other an area of around 9000 square feet. That's a huge increase in real estate, never mind number of books, in just over a decade and a half. Mayi Gowda, who trained to be an electrical engineer before he got into the books business, is already one of the most respected in the field.
Next to the new Blossom is the new Bookworm, of roughly similar area, where Krishna (who established the original Bookworm in 2002) is ever ready with a suggestion. Two remarkable Bengaluru men (although both are from around Mysore), and two remarkable bookstores. Krishna and Mayi Gowda - smiling, helpful, bursting with ideas - have ensured that the average Bengaluru resident or visitor can go book-hunting in one concentrated area.
To limit our selection to cricket books is still a rich and rewarding exercise (I once found a book signed by John Updike at Bookworm, but the novelist didn't write on cricket). Although there are retail stores in the area that deal in some recent cricket books, for a real feast it has to be either of these two, with their knowledgeable, friendly bookmen and welcoming stores. Rumours of the death of the brick-and-mortar bookstore are clearly exaggerated.
I look at my shelves, and see the books that came from either Blossom or Bookworm. A good place to begin is Jeff Stollmeyer's diary of the 1948-49 tour of India, a fascinating and historically important account of the first series between the two countries. Written 15 years before Beyond a Boundary and 16 after Learie Constantine's Cricket and I, it is a significant contribution to both the Caribbean literary canon and the cricketing history of the region. There are cameos on the players (George Headley was on that tour), on Indian officialdom, portraits of the people and cities visited in the newly independent India.
According to Stollmeyer, there were huge crowds at the Test matches, yet the West Indies board received a cheque for only £10 at the end of the tour! Not surprisingly, the early thoughts of a players' association were articulated here, after officials from both sides kept changing the rules as the tour progressed.
Cricket, Lovely, Cricket, Ian Wooldridge's story of the 1963 West Indies tour of England; The Ashes Crown the Year, Jack Fingleton's account of the 1953 series; and the delightful account of England's 1986 tour of the West Indies, Another Bloody Tour, written by Frances Edmonds, surely the funniest book written by a player's wife, have all emerged from Church Street. This last is a copy signed by the author. I have no idea how it landed up at Blossom, but I paid Rs 90 for it, and it doesn't matter.
Among biographies and autobiographies, I've picked up Alan Ross' Ranji, Jack McHarg's Stan McCabe: The Man and His Cricket, Peter May's A Game Enjoyed, and a book that I bought years ago but which came back into my life through an interesting route recently. This was CT Studd: Cricketer and Pioneer by his son-in-law Norman Grubb. Studd played in the Oval Test of 1882, which gave birth to the Ashes legend. He was left unbeaten without facing a ball as the last man swung out and was bowled.
It is not a book about the cricketer alone, but about Studd's work as a missionary in India and China as well.
In order to confirm the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's interest in cricket, I had invited his biographer Ray Monk to write an essay for this year's edition of Wisden India Almanack. Monk, a philosopher himself, and biographer of Bertrand Russell too, discovered a fascinating link Wittgenstein had with cricket - not so much by watching the game at Cambridge, but thanks to a connection with Studd, and this book in particular. It is a delightful story, and you must read Monk's essay to appreciate the connection fully.
I have no fascination for buying new books at the used-books stores, although both mentioned here offer hefty discounts on these, even to the casual visitor. Books out of print often pop up at these bookstores. If the stars are in proper alignment and the fates decide you are in need of a reward, you could find yourself in the right place at the right time. I haven't yet seen, for example, Ranji's The Jubilee Book of Cricket or George Beldam's The Great Batsmen, but I already have the former and hope to run into the latter any day soon.
Cricket books form a small percentage of the stock at Blossom and Bookworm, and old classics a small percentage of that subset. The Carduses, Robertson-Glasgows, Fingletons, Arlotts and Robinsons apart (not all at the same time, and not all their works, obviously), there is enough to satisfy even the generation that believes that cricket was invented roughly in the 1990s.
The modern masters - Gideon Haigh, Ramachandra Guha, Scyld Berry, David Frith - are available too. You might even find signed copies of their books. Serendipity is at the root of the most satisfying discoveries in used-books stores.
Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack