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For the love of books and reading

A delightful roller-coaster ride through the chequered history of publishing

Off The Shelf—On Books, Book People And Places: By Sridhar Balan, Speaking Tiger, 248 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Off The Shelf—On Books, Book People And Places: By Sridhar Balan, Speaking Tiger, 248 pages, 399.

The book is among the most ubiquitous objects in contemporary life. Yet most of us are unaware of the drama that usually goes into producing a book. The business of publishing, with its flashy launch parties, festivals and galas, may look like a glamorous affair—until you see it up close.

As a professional who has worked in a variety of roles in publishing for over 35 years, Sridhar Balan has been a ringside witness to the highs and lows of the industry in India—from the days when authors sent in handwritten manuscripts to the age of e-readers, he has seen it all. In Off The Shelf, he offers a delightful slice of his life working among books, in the company of some of the titans who wrote them and the glittering array of editors and employees responsible for taking the books to their readers.

Off The Shelf isn’t a straightforward memoir; it is, rather, a paean to reading. Balan not only celebrates the enduring appeal of the book—as a source of knowledge, entertainment, perhaps the most trusted “friend to man", to quote poet John Keats—but also the excitement that goes into the making of a masterpiece. From the giddy joy of discovering a fresh talent (the chapter on Jim Corbett is a case in point) to the inventive thinking that goes into marketing (again, Corbett offers the best illustration, when the launch of his first book in the US was graced by two heavily sedated tigers), Balan takes us through the spectrum of emotions that makes publishing one of the most psychologically demanding professions.

Interspersed with anecdotes and industry lore, there are portraits of editors like E.V. Rieu (who set up the operations of Oxford University Press in India), Roy Hawkins (known as the Hawk, who published Corbett and Salim Ali, among others) and Ravi Dayal (a legend in Indian publishing, with whom Balan worked for several years). He doesn’t forget the invisible army of booksellers either—such as Ram Advani, proprietor of an iconic establishment in Hazratganj in Lucknow—who, before online retail and chain stores, played key roles in sustaining the book business.

Arranged as a collection of essays, Off The Shelf is easy to dip in and out of. There are quirky interludes, such as chapters on Shakespeare’s First Folio and bookish travels into Egypt and Japan. While bibliophiles would certainly enjoy this roller-coaster ride, others too are also likely to be seduced by Balan’s gift for a good story.

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