Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Well-Read

A love for reading and a love for books do not always mean the same thing. I came to this conclusion, standing in front of my bookshelf, sometime ago. For, piled one on top of the other, in a suffocating manner, at a height intended to escape my direct vision, were all the books I had bought in a frenzy of possession year after year after year.

When sanity had made a brief visit a few months ago, I had rearranged my shelves by usage and interest (I think both words mean the same thing), which is why the books that had been picked off based on colour, hearsay, thickness, author name, and had subsequently lain unread, all found themselves in suffocating piles in a couple of top shelves (funny that top shelves are actually not the top choice shelves isn't it?). How on earth did I buy those? I wondered. A pj answer to that question would be with money of course. So let me reword that question: what possessed me to buy those books? A desire to possess books surely. I can imagine myself, with hungry eyes, looking for printed matter that would look good on shelves. I am certain that a more patient browsing would have convinced me that such books are better left than bought. But, there they were, damning evidence on the top shelf, pointing an accusing finger at my frivolity.

After concluding that when people say, I love books, they probably mean the hungry-eye-disease, I asked myself which of the loves I had. Was I someone who loved reading? A small voice said yes. But I wasn't satisfied with that. Somewhere in all the training to be responsible adult selves, our system inculcates a reliance on proof. If it can be proved, it is true. So I set about gathering necessary materials, which involved asking myself more questions. For instance, will making a list of 500 books I've read (500? read? who am I kidding?) prove that I love reading? Or will comparing my top 100 books against various book lists that abound in the web be a better barometer?

On thinking through the question, I felt that I must make a list or write a note mentioning all the books that have contributed to the person I have become now. In doing so, not only would I know which books mean the most to me, but the process in itself would be proof of a love for reading. I believe that books that become valued over time are the ones that have been written in the spirit of sharing some truth that the writer deeply believed in. The writer may or may not have been aware of this truth coiled inside him. The process of writing would have culled out the half-thoughts and finally extracted that truth in its purest form. Such writers would have found both joy and agony in the process of writing and the very act would have stretched them into a shape that they did not know existed before. As readers, when we partake of that purity, we soak in secret what was written in secret too. One awareness speaks to another in silence. And we get stretched into new shapes too. All irreversible, all magical.

Reading, like friendship, depends so much on chance. You never know what the book in hand holds for you. So how do you decide which book to hold? Or is decide the wrong word? Do you let yourself be led by intuition or do you make a list of 50 books to read this year or do you just tick off readymade lists that other people have been kind enough to share? I am quite undecided on the answer. Last year, I allowed myself to be led by reviews and read a number of recent books. This year, I've made a list of authors to read and am confining myself to their works except for the odd dip into Woolf or Wilde. I find that both methods work for me. One thing that I haven't done, and I am grateful for it, is to decide how many books to read this year. Reading by numbers might offer a disciplined approach to some, but when there is a natural urge to read, I don't think numbers are necessary.

Years ago, Oscar Wilde wildly said, We live in an age that reads too much to be wise. I wonder what he would have thought of the present day deluge of publications. He would have had something wicked to say about the mindlessly accumulated top shelf, perhaps a twisted sentence about how all reading is quite useless. But for me to be having this thought, this communication with a man from ages past, is the gift of that thing called reading. Not a score, not information processing, but joy and pleasure and oneness. You are smiling aren't you?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Quote from Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1
(via BS Weekend)
I wonder what intention means. One wants to get something off one's chest. One doesn't quite know what it is that one wants to get off the chest until one's got it off. But I couldn't apply the word intention positively to any of my poems. Or to any poem.
-T S Eliot

...struck a chord, a deep, resounding one.
The Heavenly Life, a lesser known work of James Allen, is now available on Librivox. Here is a list of his other works, the most popular being As a Man Thinketh.

Friday, February 23, 2007

And now, there are book recommendations on the Nobel prize website. Take your pick of literature.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Renoir, an exhibition, a coincidence

Coincidences are...

Here is a snippet from the Telegraph article on a Renoir exhibition at the National Gallery:

This working method changed during the summer of 1869 when, together with Monet, he painted a series of plein-air studies of the bathing pond known as La Grenouillère working directly from nature, and painting quickly to capture an impression of the scene before the lighting and weather changed. In this show we see Monet's view of La Grenouillère taken from the National Gallery's collection next to Renoir's from the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

With their shimmering patches of pure colour, choppy brushwork and light-dappled surface, each is a freely painted sketch, a full-scale study that captures the restless movement and constantly shifting light of actual visual experience.

But the differences are telling, too. Monet articulates tonal contrasts in his boats and figures, and also allows our eye to follow the meandering stretch of water that leads into the far distance.

Renoir, by contrast, is more interested in capturing the all-over effect of the scene. No one form is more clearly articulated than any other. He blocks recession into space with a screen of delicately painted trees, minimising depth in order to weave a flat tapestry of light blue, green, white and grey brushstrokes close to the picture's surface.

Now, take a look at the La Grenoulliere post I did last week.

Plucked from here:
...novelist Jon McGregor admitted that he was often less interested in his characters' direct speech than what they left unsaid. His second novel, So Many Ways To Begin, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize, is full of unspoken truths and fractured interactions. "I'm more interested in two people sitting at a table not quite able to explain to each other how they feel than the author telling the reader what these two people are feeling," he said.

"There's something very interesting about listening to people, realising they're not saying what they mean, that they expect you to read between the lines."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Tarla Dalal

has a blog (via). Looking forward to see how often it gets updated.

Men, Women, Gossip

We knew it! It seemed too good to believe that men always carried on intelligent sounding conversations. Go on and read this (via).

Also, wanted to share a few pages from Woolf's A Room of One's Own, though it is related to this thread only on account of the Men, Women title. Nothing to do with the Gossip part.

Every page in my notebook was scribbled over with notes. To show the state of mind I was in, I will read you a few of them, explaining that the page was headed quite simply, WOMEN AND POVERTY, in block letters; but what followed was something like this:

Condition in Middle Ages of,
Habits in the Fiji Islands of,
Worshipped as goddesses by,
Weaker in moral sense than, Idealism of,
Greater conscientiousness of,
South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among,
Attractiveness of,
Offered as sacrifice to,
Small size of brain of,
Profounder sub–consciousness of,
Less hair on the body of,
Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,
Love of children of,
Greater length of life of,
Weaker muscles of,
Strength of affections of,
Vanity of,
Higher education of,
Shakespeare’s opinion of,
Lord Birkenhead’s opinion of,
Dean Inge’s opinion of,
La Bruyere’s opinion of,
Dr Johnson’s opinion of,
Mr Oscar Browning’s opinion of, . . .

Here I drew breath and added, indeed, in the margin, Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? ‘Wise men never say anything else apparently. But, I continued, leaning back in my chair and looking at the vast dome in which I was a single but by now somewhat harassed thought, what is so unfortunate is that wise men never think the same thing about women. Here is Pope:

Most women have no character at all.

And here is La Bruyère:

Les femmes sont extrêmes, elles sont meilleures ou pires que les

a direct contradiction by keen observers who were contemporary. Are they capable of education or incapable? Napoleon thought them incapable. Dr Johnson thought the opposite.[3] Have they souls or have they not souls? Some savages say they have none. Others, on the contrary, maintain that women are half divine and worship them on that account.[4] Some sages hold that they are shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the consciousness. Goethe honoured them; Mussolini despises them. Wherever one looked men thought about women and thought differently. It was impossible to make head or tail of it all, I decided, glancing with envy at the reader next door who was making the neatest abstracts, headed often with an A or a B or a C, while my own notebook rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings. It was distressing, it was bewildering, it was humiliating. Truth had run through my fingers. Every drop had escaped.

[3] ‘“Men know that women are an overmatch for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or the most ignorant. If they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as much as themselves.” . . . In justice to the sex, I think it but candid to acknowledge that, in a subsequent conversation, he told me that he was serious in what he said.’—BOSWELL, THE JOURNAL OF A TOUR TO THE HEBRIDES.

[4] The ancient Germans believed that there was something holy in women, and accordingly consulted them as oracles.’—FRAZER, GOLDEN BOUGH.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Liquid Jade, browsing in a bookstore

At Landmark, Nungambakkam, Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West is displayed prominently in the new arrivals section. I remembered reading about it somewhere, either in the Sunday book reviews or in one of the litblogs. I picked it up for a quick skim and what caught my eye was an entire chapter on 'Milk in First?'. Long ago, I'd posted on what your tea says about you, and recently, a friend I met mentioned this post when talking about our blogs. Amazing how such little things strike a chord and become part of the pattern of memory of a person. Anyway, talking about Milk in First, people are so divided on the topic that there are even acronyms for the groups - TIF for Tea in First and MIF for Milk in First!

I prefer MIF ever since I tried it out a couple of years ago and found that the tea tasted much better than when TIF. A couple of weeks ago, at the Brio Cafe in Crosswords, I met some new people. I ordered Assam Tea and a pot of the liquid arrived along with a small beaker of milk. I set my cup in front of me and poured the milk in first and in that split second, the eyes of the distinguished man sitting across me flickered in surprise. Along with the many labels that his first impression of me must contain, I am sure MIF is neatly tucked in somewhere.

Lastly, in that same MIF chapter in Liquid Jade, the author mentions an English writer who was a TIF and who wrote about it in an essay in 1846. I can't recall who that is now. If you've read the book, let me know. My head is in a whirl trying to remember the man.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Salinger, Buddy Glass, Writers as Entertainers

For some reason, I had assumed that J.D.Salinger was dead. Of course he is not, if one believes all the sites about him, which are consistent in displaying his lifespan as (1919 - ). The fact that people around me have been talking about The Catcher in the Rye as a classic, for as long as I remember, must have contributed to my assumption of Salinger being dead. The word classic triggers an association with the Jane Austen times for me, dating every such work around the Austen era. Chaucer and Shakespeare are as ancient as Christ himself and they don't feature under my classics tag. They are more fundamental than that, like learning the alphabet, and essential to understanding that English as a label has also pointed to different versions of itself through the centuries.

Buddy Glass, the narrator of Seymour, An Introduction, remarks at one point about Ozymandias and Shelley, saying that his young women students were more likely to remember the lurid details of Shelley's personal life than to recall the frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command captured in the poem. Maybe that is why biographies always sell. And that is why it is important to know whether Salinger is dead or alive; who cares whether Holden Caulfield rings a bell? As if we didn't have enough of the gossip in us already, we have tips like these to encourage us to not finish any of the chilly prose that we pick up. Therefore articles about, say John Banville, will be lapped up with glee while pages of The Sea might be skipped in the run up to the end, when on earth is something going to happen in the book?, might say the greedy mind.

Writers, their personalities, the business of books, the showbiz called writing - topics of such frequent page space these days. Does anyone ever read and quote and allude to writing anymore? Thankfully, some do.
Twenty two ways to reduce computer eyestrain just when I needed it. What, nothing at all about reducing winking and all? Oh, computer eyestrain, forgot that part.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

La Grenouillere

On reading Angry young man, an article on Renoir and his works, I immediately thought of La Grenouillere, the day trip haunt for Parisians. As the story goes, in the late 1860s, Monet lived near La Grenouillere and along with good friend Renoir, was in the habit of setting up the easel on a floating platform that commanded a good view of the cafe and the tiny island where people liked to sit. They painted many impressions of the place.

What I wanted to share here are two paintings, both titled La Grenouillere, one by Renoir and the other by Monet, both painted from a similar viewpoint. The paintings leave me speechless. Somehow, they are both beautiful, alike, yet so very different. Renoir's people are centrestage while in Monet, the water gets all the attention.




Monday, February 12, 2007

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and painter, sometimes wrote sonnets to accompany his paintings. The Rossetti archive has a collection of all such double works. Makes interesting reading.

Having discovered the Rossetti archive by chance, I proceeded to search for one on William Blake. And found it too, the William Blake Archive. There are plenty of illustrations here by Blake, for both Blake and non-Blake writing.

Let us see...who else was a painter cum poet?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Top Ten buzz

Ever since I read this post and passed on the link to a couple of my friends who have fallen in love with John Banville, I have been repeatedly encountering mentions of the book The Top Ten at various blogs. As a friend of mine put it, it is amazing how you and your favourite author have similar, if not matching, tastes in books. Having nodded to that remark, I must also confess that my list is nowhere like Banville's.

The MetaxuCafe post on the topic has generated few comments with lists of reader top tens. I look forward to picking up a gem or two from there.
Apparently, new books feature 13-digit ISBN numbers. Change in place from January this year. Reading Matters has the details.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Suppose that during one of your reading times, you are possessed by an urge to see the work in the author's own hand. If you were reading a classic, chances are you might get lucky.


Henry James Sr was a friend of the Concord duo of Emerson and Thoreau. On one occasion, when discussing their mutual friend, Thoreau remarked to Emerson that James Sr is "the most childlike, unconscious and unblushing egotist it has ever been my fortune to encounter in the ranks of manhood."

HENRY JAMES - The Imagination of Genius
A Biography by Fred Kaplan

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Every time one man says to another, "Tell us plainly what you mean?" he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that there is a perfect scheme of verbal expression for all the internal moods and meanings of men. Whenever a man says to another, "Prove your case; defend your faith," he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell. He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest; he knows that there are abroad in the world and doing strange and terrible service in it crimes that have never been condemned and virtues that have never been christened. Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

-G. K. Chesterton
quoted from his study of Painter Watts