Thursday 31 March 2016

Books and the fascination of discovery.

Books and the fascination of discovery.

A fascinating fellow who went by the name of TF Carthick before reverting to the more prosaic Karthik Lakshminarayanan posed this question on Facebook yesterday.

“Pondering over a very basic question - why do people read new books? There are thousands of book already written and most of us are not going to read all of them in our life time. Still what makes a reader pick up a new book rather than one of the unread older ones? (Especially when new book is not a Litfic that is a commentary on present times)”

As with most things that literary Socrates does, it prompted a discussion. (Another way of looking at it is to say that his way of dealing with his own insecurities as a writer is to inflict them on the world at large, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one).

This is fast becoming a Carthick staple, though - the prompting of debate. His last such query led to the writing of this very fair and balanced analysis of the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon by Jean Burke-Spraker. At the risk being self-promotional, I would even suggest reading Jean’s essay in conjunction with mine, available here.

But coming back to the question, it triggered some soul-searching. Why indeed, do we pick up new books. Or old books. Or any sort of books at all? A part of the answer lies in that essay by Jean I referenced earlier. She quotes Bhagat as saying his books are in competition with ‘Candy Crush’, a fairly-inane but addictive mobile gaming app. Facile as that is, it brings out the fact that books are read for entertainment.

Even Taylor Swift used to read as a child, as this photo illustrates
Education too, some of you would point out, and I would have to agree. A lot of people grow up knowing academic textbooks as the only ‘books’ they encounter, both fiction and non-fiction are a stranger to them. They consume news through hearsay and rumour – now replaced by Times Now and WhatsApp.

What about both, though? The best educational reading is that which is also entertaining. You can learn much from reading books that are nonetheless much fun. Phineas Finn offers fascinating knowledge of parliamentary politics. Huckleberry Finn (not a relative of the aforementioned) is an amazing insight into the American south and race relations. All Quiet on the Western Front is a depressing look at the hopelessness and horror of war. In Shame, Salman Rushdie deconstructs Pakistani society of the Bhutto – Zia era more effectively than any books by political analysts. Hell, if I had a rupee for every time I heard ‘Read Wodehouse to improve your English,” I’d have enough to fill a sock and bash myself on the head with it. (Myself, I only ever read the master's work for the laughs, english be damned).

And if your English doesn't improve, at least learn to drive a vintage car. Can you at least do that, eh?
But why pick up an old book indeed? I wrote on this over at Readomania, in this article, where I tried to make a case for reading the works of authors who are long-dead; though I don't know whether I was particularly successful in this endeavour. Karthik’s question, in this context, was surprising. It is my firmly-held belief that we live in an era where readers read nothing but new books. In an age of short attention spans, an obsession with the present, and an unwillingness to challenge one’s own mind, it is difficult to convince anyone to read a book by an author writing of a different time or place.

Is this less true of fantasy and Sci-Fi? I suppose not. Even these speculative genres are a product of their times. For all their references to medieval heraldry and renaissance society, both GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Steven Erikson’s Malazan are rooted in modern sensibility and disenchantment, rather than the wide-eyed romance of earlier times. They are also, despite their rather difficult language, perhaps more accessible (other series like Harry Potter and so on definitely are) than a book by Jules Verne or maybe even JRR Tolkein.

That's assuming you can understand his handwriting first.

In the end it is a personal decision – what to buy and what not to. Every individual will approach it differently, based on what they have read before, what they have been brought up believing and how much money they have.

I’ve been fortunate, in a sense. My family had two generations of very literate, book-loving people and I was raised surrounded by a decent number of novels, mostly classics. My school’s library was well-equipped too, and my birthday gift demands were also regularly met – with more books.

So at the present date I have read everything Dickens wrote, except Edwin Drood, some of it thrice over, nearly everything by Hardy, Austen and the Brontë sisters…I’ve read the most celebrated of the works of the Russian masters, of Hugo and Dumas, of Twain and Melville. The point is not to speak about what I have read though. I’m trying to bring out that, despite the damage this sort of reading might have done to my mind and my writing ability, it was varied enough that I can generally read at a pretty high level. (It also does wonders for my performance in the vocabulary section of CAT and similar exams. Go figure.)

But you know what, there’s a ton of old books I haven’t read. They sit on my bookshelf or my Kindle, with that resentful look that old books know how to give you. Wuthering Heights, especially, is a major culprit, since despite having read the book a dozen times (give or take) still seems to give me melodramatic stares from time to time, as I wrote about here. And I hope to read them all too, some day, if I live long enough. But why should I not read new books as well? Mohammed Haneef is a fantastically talented writer whose two books that I have read make me await his next. Rushdie will probably be considered a classic by now, but hey, he’s still around and he’s still writing.

Why even go that far? I’m curious to know what C. Suresh is cooking up. I’d like to see where Neil D’Silva finds his next horrifying protagonist. I’d even like to see if Shiv Ramdas goes full lit-fic or takes his art in a different direction.

The bottom line is curiosity. A new book, like the new shawarma-seller or kebab-paratha corner who opened down the street, makes me curious. I want to know what it is about.

Yes, I know there’s a host of books I haven’t read, but every unread book has the same potential to be disappointing or wonderful. That’s where reputation, a blurb, a cover comes in. That’s where recommendations come in. Before I’ve read it, why should I assume The Return of the Native (1878) will be any better or worse than The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or Our Impossible Love (2016)?

So, don’t. Whether it’s a new Booker winner you’ve heard so much about, the latest bestseller that you’re sure is going to crap, or that classic you’ve been told is boring as hell, don’t assume anything until you’ve at least read the blurb or an excerpt. Give everything a shot. There’s a host of wonderful writing out there – sooner or later, the man TF Carthick (or whatever he will be calling himself by then) will write a book that I think I’ll like. But…until he writes it, and until I buy it…I will never know.

Until then, check out his writing though.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Percy - Ana Chronicles - XIV: The Politics of Hogwarts and Middle Earth

“Hullo. There you are.”

“Mi Hermosa! You need a shave!”

“I…yes, I’m going to. It’s mighty early in the day you know.”

“It’s very late here.”

“I know. Thanks for staying up. I know you take your sleep time very seriously and all that…”

“Ah no, never can sleep right after sex. You remember that, right?”

“That makes two of us.”

“Yes. Good memories.”

“Fantastic memories.”

“But you’re happy now, aren’t you? She’s a very sweet girl.”

“She is, yes. And you and Big T seem to very happy too.”

“I wish you’d come to Colombia…we could be so happy together.”

“Can’t be done, sweetheart. Do you have the TV on there?”

“Yup yup, T goes out like a light after he’s finished, so I sit up and watch political news.”

“Trump winning again?”

“Trump ruling the world, it seems.”

“How do Colombians feel about Trump?”

“How do you think Colombians feel about Trump?”

“Like you feel about fatty foods. Hate mixed with a morbid fascination.”

“Haha, yes."

"You’ve stayed at his hotel in Vegas?”

“No, I’ve been to the pool though, sponsor event.”

“Will it be harder for you to find work in the States after he comes to power?”

“He’s about shallow enough to make an exemption for someone who looks like me, I think.”

“I dare say any man would make an exception for you.”

“Aww, you say the most wonderful things, los querido. But no, Trump isn’t President yet. What do Indians think about him?”

“I think Indians who support our Prime Minister tend to support Trump. They have some similarities. But there’s probably a spectrum of opinion on both the right and left. Probably not as uniformly anti-Trump as Colombia would be.”

“So Rubio dropped out…”

“That’s the young chap?”

“Yes, Senator from Florida, couldn’t win his own state. I love Florida.”

“Your love for Florida is well-documented in bikini pictures taken there. Miami is the capital of the Fitness industry isn’t it?”

Si. And Kasich won Ohio.”

“That’s the older guy from the Reagan administration?”

“Let me explain what’s happening in terms you will understand.”

“Go ahead.”

“So basically, Harry Potter just withdrew from the race as he could not even win the Gryffindor vote.”

“That’s Rubio, right?”

“Correct. Remus Lupin did win his constituency – the Werewolves, but that’s all he’s won. However he will go on.”

“That’s Kasich.”

“Right. Meanwhile, Draco Malfoy has a theoretical chance to win and is pleading to supporters of Harry and Remus to rally around him. He’s won several strongly religious states but isn’t very popular within the Wizard Party due to very questionable things he has done in the past.”

“Sounds like Ted Cruz all right. What about Trump?”

“I was getting to that. Lord Voldemort continues to march towards the Party nomination.”

“Ah yes, Trump as Lord Voldemort. Fascinating. What about the Democrats? I see Hillary is winning across the board tonight.”

“Yes, after years as a significant force in Middle-Earth politics, Arwen Undomiel finally looks ready to become a leader. She was a highly polarising figure during the Aragorn Presidency, but stood by him when he was caught having an affair with a dark-haired intern from Rohan. Later she fought a spirited campaign against the Samwise Gamgee candidacy but eventually settled into a role as his chief diplomat. And now she’s running again, combating voter fatigue both with her and with the Elven establishment.”

“But she has stiff competition.”

“Yes, old Bilbo Baggins is very popular with young pipe-weed fans, as a Hobbit of his stature ought to be. But his base is often too stoned to actually show up to vote, so it looks like Arwen will carry the day.”

“Thank you, that was quite a political lesson. November will be very interesting. Arwen versus Lord Voldemort. I’m hearing Voldemort will win.”

“We have to remember Arwen has a weapon she hasn’t revealed yet.”

“She has the one ring?”

“What? No, no. I meant Aragorn is still around, she’s kept him on a leash thus far, but once they are in a one-on-one I think Voldemort – I mean Trump – will realise that Aragorn is still a man with a very sharp sword. And don’t forget that Samwise and his wife Rosie will also be able to focus on Voldy as November gets closer. No, it won’t be a walkover for him.”

“Thank you, that was very educational.”

“I’m always glad to be of help. Now what’s with you? I see you’ve been avoiding exercise. You look puffy.”

“Look at the time! I should get along now.”

“Have you been eating right? You seem to have put on quite a bit.”

“I’d love to stay and chat but it’s really too late. See ya! Bye! Adios!”


Saturday 5 March 2016

Still Alice

I wasn't sure what to expect from 'Still Alice'. Apart from the fact that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her acting in it, I knew little about the subject.

Then she, as the titular Alice, a linguistics professor, missed the word 'lexicon' while giving a lecture and I realised what this was about. I know people with the disease that Alice suffers. I've seen what happens when it begins to take away the memories, the thoughts, the connections that we define ourselves by.

What an absolutely brilliant performance by Moore! To play a character with such natural empathy (not, let it be noted, sentimentality), to excite not our pity but a deep sorrow, to portray a person so defined by intellect and achievement that when that starts to fade away she struggles to identify herself...that is when you know you're seeing not a star, but an Actor.

Alec Baldwin is excellent, Kate Bosworth is restrained and Kirsten Stewart is...err...wooden, but that's all right, she's playing a struggling actress and she does struggle to act, so that's actually quite clever casting.

It's has been a week since I saw the movie, but the images of Alice still haunt my thoughts. We define ourselves so much by the things we achieve; our performance, our awards, our professional reputations, that we forget that it is relationships that keep us going, the bonds that we have built that sustain us when we no longer remember who we are, that it was love - the last word in the film - that kept her, Still Alice.