Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Macbethian murmurs in Melville’s Moby Dick

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 9, 2019

Ruminations over meaning of life, death and the role of the iron fist of fate have produced some deep and moving literature. Given its exceptional energy and vigour, I did not expect Moby Dick to have space for such ruminations, especially from Captain Ahab till I reached the end of Chapter titled “Quadrant”. Here is Starbucks with his thoughts followed by the jolly Stubb quoting Ahab on the same topic…

Standing between the knight-heads, Starbuck watched the Pequod’s tumultuous way, and Ahab’s also, as he went lurching along the deck. “I have sat before the dense coal fire and watched it all aglow, full of its tormented flaming life; and I have seen it wane at last, down, down, to dumbest dust. Old man of oceans! of all this fiery life of thine, what will at length remain but one little heap of ashes!”

“Aye,” cried Stubb, “but sea-coal ashes—mind ye that, Mr. Starbuck— sea-coal, not your common charcoal. Well, well! I heard Ahab mutter, ‘Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.’And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!”

There is a questioning of sorts followed by and a resigned conclusion to it.. like that from Macbeth when he hears of his wife’s death from Seyton:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

“Heap of ashes”, “Story signifying nothing”, “Live in the game, and die in it!” …. I wonder if that is all that is there to our lives….?

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Captain Ahab and his “Phantom Limb” Syndrome

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 6, 2019

I have first come across the fascinating physiological phenomenon of “Phantom Limb” syndrome in Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s work “The Phantoms of the Mind”… Here is how wikipedia describes it:

“Phantom limb syndrome is a condition in which patients experience sensations, whether painful or otherwise, in a limb that does not exist. It has been reported to occur in 80-100% of amputees, and typically has a chronic course, often resistant to treatment.” 

Dr. Ramachandran and his team have not only found a simple cure for this with the help of mirrors (lateral inversion of reflections) but also used such strange phenomenon to study and understand the elusive functions of various parts of the brain…. Given the pioneering work he has done in understanding the functions of the brain he has earned the nick-name of “The Sherlock Holmes of the Brain”…

There is a chapter in Melville’s Moby Dick where Captain Ahab who loses his leg to the white whale Moby Dick is getting a wooden leg replacement done with the help of the ship carpenter and blacksmith…. Here is a snippet of that conversation:

“Look ye, carpenter, I dare say thou callest thyself a right good workmanlike workman, eh? Well, then, will it speak thoroughly well for thy work, if, when I come to mount this leg thou makest, I shall nevertheless feel another leg in the same identical place with it; that is, carpenter, my old lost leg; the flesh and blood one, I mean. Canst thou not drive that old Adam away?

Truly, sir, I begin to understand somewhat now. Yes, I have heard something curious on that score,sir;how that a dismasted man never entirely loses the feeling of his old spar, but it will be still pricking him at times. May I humbly ask if it be really so, sir?

It is, man. Look, put thy live leg here in the place where mine once was; so, now, here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. Where thou feelest tingling life; there, exactly there, there to a hair, do I. Is’t a riddle?

I should humbly call it a poser, sir.”

I could pretty well argue that Ahab and the carpenter are talking about a phenomenon which has a eerie proximity to the ” Phantom Limb” syndrome without knowing much about it…. It took about 200 years of development of science to solve this carpenter’s “poser”

Reason why we should invest in education, rationality and science….. Any takers?

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On reading Melville’s Moby Dick

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 21, 2019

” Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp, shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit”

—— From the chapter “Try-Works” in Melville’s Moby Dick

Melville’s prose builds stairways between the material and ethereal, between the weather hardened world of the existential and the hard to be apparent but numerously profuse possible meanings of our existence on earth with the help of a wide expanse of thoughts – philosophical or otherwise – in a way that is deeply appealing for their startling originality,  sheer beauty, force and flawless command of language.

Shakespeare is great but for many he is inaccessible, one needs a teacher, a guide to take us through the beauty of his labyrinthine and deeply thoughtful and entertaining writing. On the other hand, Melville is all that Shakespeare is but one has the luxury of being an autodidact with him.

What a joy to read him !!

There is not a single page in Moby-Dick which does not again and again remind us the greatness of his achievement as a writer.

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Books, Book markers and Life

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 6, 2019

The human back can become the seat of more aches and pains than are registered in books for the composite anatomy of the regiment. It is a limited area but it can become the theater of innumerable muscular conflicts, tangles, wrenches, knots and other comforts ! ”

—- From the story “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

Ask me ! Ask me ! Ask me ! Ask me ! I will tell you what I have gone through a couple of years back but could never express it like the above.

How unwittingly prophetic the following sentence written on a book marker is turning out to be: ” I do not look for life in books; I find it there ! ”

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A pick of a book….

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 27, 2019

Elder one was at home for a brief two day break from college. While going back he expressed a wish to carry a few books to read. After extracting the usual assurances of keeping the books safe and returning them on his next trip, I allowed him to pick the books of his choice while refraining the urge to thrust my recommendations on him. In the evening he showed me his picks. It contained the following:

1. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy
2. E.F.Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful”
3. Nehru’s “Discovery of India”
4. Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”

The last choice surprised me a lot and am not sure if he will stay on course with the book. Knowing his temperament there is a outside chance that he may stick on. To read Dostoevsky at 18 is not a easy thing. The impact of his writing is qualitatively way too different and way too forceful when compared to the writings of any other writer. One needs to go through an experience of deep anguish, depressing situations and stark portrayals of human suffering to see the light at the end of the tunnel in his writings – and Dostoevsky is a master in making the tunnel a very long one. But may be that is what a kind of good writing/reading is all about or should be all about: Making readers travel through mandatory tunnels of darkness to see the light at the end of it.

And no reader is ever the same post Dostoevsky.

In his classic, “The Spectator Bird”, Wallace Stegner at one point and in a moment of exasperation exclaims to himself “… The chances we take, getting born so accidentally!” Reading in some aspects is no different from Life – all it needs is a bit of paraphrasing Stegner… “… The chances we take picking a book so accidentally!”

Happy reading boy !!

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On reading the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation” by A. K. Ramanujan

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 18, 2019

” Now, is there a common core to the Rama stories, except the most skeletal set of relations like that of Rama, his brother, his wife, and the antagonist Ravana who abducts her? Are the stories bound together only by certain family resemblances, as Wittgenstein might say ? Or is it like Aristotle’s jack knife? When the philosopher asked an old carpenter how long he had had his knife, the latter said, “Oh, I’ve had it for thirty years. I’ve changed the blade a few times and the handle a few times, but it’s the same knife.” Some shadow of a relational structure claims the name of Ramayana for all these tellings, but on closer look one is not necessarily all that like another. Like a collection of people with the same proper name, they make a class in name alone.”

I have read this twice over today… well written for its perspective and thought… Personally, I found nothing remotely objectionable in this essay and so am wondering what that hulla- gulla was that got created in Delhi University about this essay…. if anything it demonstrates the richness of Ramayana and outlines a few important concepts viz.

1. Puranas and Pratipuranas ( The Hindu interpretation of Ramayana vs. the Jaina interpretation of Ramayana was utterly new to me)
2. Ramayana as a story and Ramayana as a discourse
3. Differences in translations: Iconic vs. Symbolic

One vague thought that kept coming to my mind again and again as I read through the essay was that Hindutva will definitely bring ill-repute to Hinduism…..in the same way that Wahabbism has brought ill-repute to Islam….

Addendum: For all those who think that they are going to protect the culture and develop a single version of truth.. here are a couple of definitions

Hindutvavaadi: is some one who tries to protect Hindu Gods and Hinduism

Hindu: is some one who believes that the Hindu Gods and Hinduism will protect him…

Prof. Ashish Nandy

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A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails – An essay by David Hall

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 2, 2019

” He worked hard all his life at being himself, but there were no principles to examine when his life was over. It was as if there had been a moral skeleton which had lacked the flesh of the intellect and the blood of experience. The life which he could recall totally was not worth recalling.”
From David Hall’s essay “A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails”. The essay itself is an extract from Hall’s book ” String too Short to Save”…
In portraying an endearing life picture of a resourceful rural busybody viz. Washington Woodward, Hall builds a wonderful picture of the changing rural landscape of New Hampshire over three generations….
I checked on Amazon and find the book too expensive… It is in times like these, I wish there was a big library close by where I can go and browse through the book.. maybe read a couple of essays.. Sometimes it is not the access but the thought that there is freedom/possibility to such access itself which is so hope inducing… Libraries provide that….

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Beaumont’s “Black Country”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 23, 2019

We are eternal outsiders to a few things. We can see them, feel them, experience them, learn about them but they can never be ours however desirable, admirable and wholesome they are. Race, race relations and some products of culture appear to fit this situation. But men and women being what they are, make attempts to transcend these barriers with varied degrees of success. Beaumont’s short story “Black Country” is an engaging tale of this attempt at transcendence. The transcendence is at two levels: one at a white man’s attempt to get into the heart of Jazz music as part of a Jazz ensemble and the other through a marriage across races…

Spoof Collins (Ol Massuh) is the lead of an accomplished black Jazz group and into that comes Sonny Holmes – a white talented kid. It is the journey, confrontations, challenges of Sonny in moving from the periphery of the group to the center stage along with his attempt to declare and win his love of a black woman member of the group – Rose Ann – the core of the story.

What makes “Black Country” a great read is its atmospherics. Beaumont takes the readers – through a dazzling elliptical narrative – into the heart of Jazz without depending on any technical terms..Here is an example of that…

” Now like a scream, now like a laugh–now we’re swinging in the trees, now the white men are coming, now we’re in the boat and chains are hanging from our ankles and we’re rowing, rowing–_Spoof, what is it?_–now we’re sawing wood and picking cotton and serving up those cool cool drinks to the Colonel in his chair–Well, _blow_, man!–now we’re free, and we’re struttin’ down Lenox Avenue and State & Madison and Pirate’s Alley, laughing, crying–_Who said free?_–and we want to go back and we don’t want to go back–_Play it, Spoof! God, God, tell us all about it! Talk to us!_–and we’re sitting in a cellar with a comb wrapped up in paper, with a skin-barrel and a tinklebox–_Don’t stop, Spoof! Oh Lord, please don’t stop!_–and we’re making something, something, what is it? Is it jazz? Why, yes, Lord, it’s jazz. Thank you, sir, and thank you, sir, we finally got it, something that is _ours_,something great that belongs to us and to us alone, that we made and _that’s_ why it’s important, and _that’s_ what it’s all about… “

The second appealing aspect of the story is the narrative style. Beaumont brings a verbal energy and a pace that is deeply appealing and extremely satisfying. And lastly the story has a twist to it which is a trademark of Beaumont.

Black Country is one of the finest short stories written by a truly talented outsider and succeeds in transcending the barriers.

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The Sentinel – Arthur C Clarke

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 20, 2018

One of the “spiritual” benefits of reading science fiction is that it shows how insignificant we humans are in the grand scheme of things of the Universe. This is not just humbling but also frightening… and in a way this kind of “cutting us down to size” is a wholesome thing to happen to us.

Yesterday, I had read Arthur C Clarke’s “The Sentinel” and realized the mindless tomfoolery we human beings get into. For any ink that blackened paper till date, this would be one of the finest pieces of prose I have encountered… the thought, the fluidity of narration and the overall buildup is very well done.

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Detail in Fiction – Gogol’s Overcoat

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 12, 2018

“Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it”                                                   

——- James Wood in “How Fiction Works”

I do not know about others but in my case this exactly how it has worked on my reading and is working even to this day with respect to noticing detail in the fiction I read… I used to be a fairly fast reader but this attention to detail has slowed me down considerably.  In return it has enhanced my reading pleasure. These days, I stop many a time while reading to marvel at instances of brilliant focus on detail and also to pause and wonder about a writer’s ability to spot and outline detail.

The other day and on a friend’s recommendation, I read Gogol’s famous story “The Overcoat” (- no doubt it is a great story but I have read better ones). Here is a fine example of detail which Gogol hurls at his readers:

The first thing that struck Akaky was his familiar big toe, with its deformed nail, thick and hard as a tortoiseshell”

It is a “big toe” – but how big is it? – we do not know… “deformed nail” – but what sort of deformation is it or how ugly it is – we do not know… thick and hard as a tortoiseshell” – ah! now everything starts to fall in place.. imagination starts to concretize the toe and the deformed nail in my own way… ten years back, I would have just rushed past this sentence looking to find what transpired in the end and where Akaky ends up with his overcoat… but now it is different… I know I will reach the end in due course, but I slow down to think and marvel at this kind of rich detailing.

Here is another one:

” To this he was blind as well; and only when he happened to bump into a policeman who had propped his halbred up and was sprinkling some snuff he has taken from a small horn onto his ” wart covered” fist did he come to senses at all….”

… the warts on the fist act as speed breakers and I begin to wonder what was the need for Gogol to highlight the policeman’s fist with such a simple but striking detail and slow me down considerably in what otherwise would have been a smooth flow of page turning…………………………….. Looks like and as Mr.Wood says, I have read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it…or am I assuming things?

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