I grew up with books around me. My grandfather was one of the most well-read people I’ve met – and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some real readers. I love old books, the feeling of them, the wonder of them; I especially love when stories have stood the test of time. I also love old and rare bookstores, just going there and perusing the shelves. It’s hushed and quiet and has such a wonderful atmosphere. I’ve always felt reassured or cosy in the presence of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. 

Over the years, depending on what I’ve been interested in at the time, I’ve just gone out and acquired books. When I was writing my own memoir, I bought the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S Grant. This was the first major memoir of a president and is a first edition: it’s in two volumes and it was published in 1885. I hadn’t read it and I didn’t go in search of it, but on one of my regular trips to antique booksellers, somebody in the store brought it to my attention. I don’t take it down off the shelf to read at home any more because I’m scared to damage it. It sits undercover in its place of safety and pride.

Rare books tell us so much about the history of our culture, and if you choose them correctly they give lasting and immense pleasure to the recipient. I once gave a lover of mine a copy of the Clementine Bible. He was Catholic and went to church every Sunday, and I went with him sometimes. He was a hard person to buy a gift for but I knew he loved books – it was one of the things that drew us together – so when I was hunting for a present I stumbled upon this and I thought it would be perfect. That Bible is particularly lovely because it was published shortly after Pope Clement VIII came to power in 1592; it came from the library of the esteemed art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, which I felt was really cool. I’ve also gifted a magazine edition of Finnegans Wake – it first came out in instalments – to my ex-husband Salman Rushdie. And I remember I gave a first edition of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude to my daughter’s father because it was published in English the year he and I were born.

I’ve also given the complete works of Machiavelli (leather-bound; the first time they were printed in English was in the 17th century), and received a beautiful copy of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, which is not a major work but it’s a specially bound limited edition of only 100 copies signed by the author (mine is Copy 73). I was also given a Byron’s Complete Works. The paper, just the feel, running your fingertips through the book and down the page… It’s such a sensorial experience. It makes you feel like you’re part of some continuum of readers and it reminds you that the power of the word does last beyond the flesh, if it’s good. This was published in 1855 and includes Byron’s suppressed poems, with a sketch of him embracing them. There’s a very thin inscription on it in pencil. It says, “A very splendid, lurid clown.”

One book that I have thumbed through many times is a first edition of MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, published in 1943. It’s a wonderful artefact of its time: on one of the first pages there’s a note saying that it’s a wartime book, produced in full compliance with government regulations for conservation of paper and other essential materials, which is a beautiful testament to the war effort during that decade. I had read The Gastronomical Me in more user-friendly versions, but I’d never seen a first edition of it. I was given it as a gift by a wonderful young food writer who assisted me on the television show I present, Taste the Nation. It’s one of the best presents I’ve received.

I would like to own some more MFK Fisher and some small little cookbooks called Cook & See that were designed to help Indian housewives. My grandmother used to talk about them and I do have English translations but I don’t have the original first editions in Tamil. What’s wonderful is that they have all these strange measurements, such as a fistful of salt or a thumbnail of this, and so you have to figure out what that actually means in modern measurements.

I’m past the point now of wanting to spend my money on a new handbag or any of those other things that, when you’re young, you think you’ll treat yourself to when you finally have enough disposable income. The only things that I really covet are books and art and friendship and relationships. 

Taste The Nation: Holiday Edition is now streaming on Hulu. Padma Lakshmi is also editor of The Best American Travel Writing 2021 (Mariner Books, $16.99)

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