Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Miscellaneous murmurs: Random thoughts on writers and libraries

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 29, 2012

Franz Kafka once said that a book is an axe for the frozen sea within us. In today’s India there is no dearth of frozen seas. All around us we see these congealed and frozen seas – a billion plus of them. Some are frozen seas within frozen seas. We are desperately short of good axes. But more worrying than this shortage of axes is the shortage of axe makers: the swarthy blacksmiths with their capacious bellows of humane concerns, ignited and blazing forges of personal conscience, heavy hammers, tongs, anvils and chisels of writerly skills using which the axes are moulded, beaten and shaped to be used to prise open the frozen seas within us. If we run short of axes we can borrow from our neighbours (which we are already doing), but we run short of axe makers where can we borrow them from? We need to have our own blacksmiths

Do a sampling of what defines a well-read person and invariably one finds that the proffered list of read books contains a disproportionately large number from other countries. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact it is heartening for it indicates a level of familiarity with world literature and also of an evolved taste. However, that does not take away the truth that the books of other countries were written primarily with their immediate concerns in mind. It so happens that they were so well written, that the act of writing elevated the books from a local to a more universal human appeal. We too need our writers to be able to do that for us and for the citizens of the world as an act of reciprocation. Sadly, we are far away from stepping on to that podium of world literature where our writers too can stand shoulder to shoulder with writers of other countries. It would be nice to see some of our giants rubbing shoulders with some of their giants. Barring one or two, where are our giants? We appear to be producing more dwarves and at best ordinary humans than giants. The regional literatures are producing some tall men but for lack of translation they are being shoved into oblivion of limited readership. This needs to change and if it does not we will lose something relevant and precious forever

That brings us to the next question:  So are writers made or are they born? David Mitchell in his brilliant novel Ghostwritten says: Birth deals us out a hand of cards, but as important as their value is the place we are dealt them in. Note the importance of the place in deciding the strength of the hand. Here lies a clue to the question posed earlier. One may be born with strengths of expression, urge to write and tell a story brilliantly but all that gets dented and stunted if one is not in the right place. And that place should be created in our surroundings, with our resources and by our powers. The British Library in London is called “the memory of the nation”. There is not an iota of exaggeration in this. There are similar memory banks in the US and almost all countries in the developed world. Besides the dazzling array of resources bestowed on these memory banks what distinguishes them is the user friendliness that is embedded in them. They readily lend a helping hand to lay readers, amateur and professional writers alike to base their research for their books. Many great and outstanding books are indebted to these institutions. Surrounding these memory banks is a network of top notch institutions that feed into and feed out of these memory banks. For a country of 60 million, Britain still produces the highest per capita of quality writers. US, Germany and France have very similar numbers. So given the right conditions, the writers will be allowed to make themselves. As much as they are born they are made too

Sadly, in India, while we have enough money to buy humongous quantities of armaments and enough money to give away to crony capitalists (if you don’t believe me please ask Mr.Raghuram Rajan – former chief economist of IMF) we do not have enough to invest in world class libraries and educational institutions. Our libraries are already in a state of crisis and if we continue like this we will have no libraries worth talking about. While a well written book is a great achievement, a well-read book is a great personal satisfaction. We need to have numerous great achievements and manifold more personal satisfactions. It is time the powers that be did something about this

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