Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Nibbling at the edges – Readings for the fortnight – 2

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 15, 2012

I am becoming a big believer in an untested hypothesis that some of the ills of our society and societies elsewhere in the world will be resolved magically if reading is encouraged and ingrained in all citizens with a zeal that is fanatical and a purpose that is messianic. To make this happen we need not only create more infrastructure but also protect whatever we have today. World over libraries are coming under attack from negligence and systematic strangulation financially. Nowhere has this issue generated the kind of heat that it has generated in the UK. Writer after writer have come out in defense of sustaining and growing the library infrastructure. Philip Pullman, Ian McEwan, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchet in UK and the late Ray Bradbury in the US have written extensively on this topic. Adding to this growing list of writers and making a moving case for libraries is the talented young Zadie Smith. In an article titled “The North West London Blues” in NY Books Review and using a specific case of the closure of library at Willesden Green as a springboard, Ms. Smith, makes a powerful case for the role of libraries in society when digitization is increasingly being offered as an alternative. Some of her observations are deep, startling and a joy to read. Here are a couple of them:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces

 Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay………………In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

Many people responded to this article including the local elected official from the constituency offering support. However, the finest response came from a lady who in five lines made an equally eloquent case for libraries as Ms. Smith does

“Libraries are a community refuge — from the weather, from street noise, from information overload at home or at work — for children, for mothers, and increasingly for Elders as we Baby Boomers age… There are days when it’s all just too much — and we don’t need any more coffee — and beer just makes us wobbly — so a short walk to the neighborhood library is like a trip to the rainbow’s end, always something there that’s good”

I thought it was straight from the heart and brilliant!

The New Yorker carried an excerpt titled An Inspirational Letter to My Students from Professor Roger Rosenblatt’s latest book “Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing” – This small article is full of compassion and wisdom and a wonderful reading experience with some deep advice and insight to the spirit with which one ought to approach writing. Three specific thoughts I liked in this essay are:

I should have been teaching you that the one goal you must aim for is the stunned, silent gratitude of history

It is your soul I am talking about, I’ll say it again. And if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s. Commencement speakers are forever telling you to be yourself. I say, be someone else, if that other self is superior to yours. Borrow a soul. I am not in the least being facetious. In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov says that the soul “is but a manner of being,” not a constant entity. Dissatisfied with the makeup of your old soul? Trade it in. But always trade up, and make the new one a great soul, capacious, kind, and rational, for only a soul of such quality and magnitude will produce the work you aspire to. If there is one lesson I hope to have given you in our classes, it is that your life matters. Now make it matter to others.

 For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world. And for that to happen you must form an opinion of the world. And for that to happen you need to observe the world, closely and steadily, with a mind open to change. And for that to happen you have to live in the world, and not pretend that it is someone else’s world you are writing about. A tendency of modern literature is to claim, “We must love one another or die,” or “be true to one another,” or “only connect.” Sweet as such sentiments may be, they give up on the world and imply that the best way to live in it is to hide from it in one another’s embrace. Instead, you must love the world as it is, because the world, for all its murder and madness, is worth loving. Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart, said the poet A. D. Hope. And the heart that you must move is corrupt, depraved, and desperate for your love.

I am yet to come across any advice on writing which is this genuine, heartfelt and full of sympathy

On a different note, to read and read well with an open mind is to be like Alice in the wonderland. One thing leads to another and one ends up knowing things that one never thought existed. In this excerpt, I found respectful references to Lewis Thomas’s books “The Lives of Cell” and “The Medusa and the Snail”. I have now read the former of these books and it has been one of the finest books that I have come across

The Pulitzer board has decided not to award the prize for literature this year. The reason is not known. It is quite possible we may never get to know the reason/s. That prompted one of the jury members – writer and novelist – Michael Cunningham to write two articles in the New Yorker’s Page Turner section. While deploring the motives and the ensuing disservice done by the Board to American Fiction and writers, Cunningham provides an interesting glimpse into the efforts, challenges and dynamics of selecting the winner. In the articles Cunningham makes it evident that he and his co-jurors have worked really hard at the perilous task of judging literature. Perilous because a precise definition and measure of what makes a book great is elusive and Cunningham makes a convincing case for the impossibility of the task, errors in judgment and their consequences:

Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate………… one must confront the most nervous-making aspect of all the jurists’ and board’s duties: those who award prizes are wrong at least as often as they’re right. There is, for instance, the fact that Pearl S. Buck went to her grave with a Nobel Prize and Nabokov did not. That Dario Fo got one but Borges didn’t. The list of past Nobel winners is formidable—those Swedish prize-givers are sharp—but a list of non-winners would be surprising and not entirely reassuring.

The generational changes in literary tastes and the questioning by posterity a decision to award or not to award the prize to a book is a risk that jurors always have to live with and this is made clear when he writes:

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

Cunningham brings out the rich diversity and fecundity of the contemporary American fictional landscape and argues that notwithstanding the inherent errors in judging books and literature, it is useful to continue and sustain the practice of awarding the prize as it helps the large fraternity of writers and also the book-loving public

Which is why the committee’s decision to withhold the prize entirely is so unfortunate. An American writer has been ill served and underestimated. Readers have been deprived of what might have been a great literary discovery or might have offered them the bittersweet but genuine satisfaction of saying, “Really? That book? What were those people thinking of?”

Both articles make for interesting reading

Education and Healthcare are two public goods that the “state” is withdrawing from in every part of the world. There was a nice piece on this written by Dr.Pushpa M Bhargava yesterday in The Hindu. Co-incidentally a few days ago The Guardian also carried an article titled “We are the NHS and the NHS is us” by Ally Fogg. The article resonated quite well with me. I have experienced the NHS during my stint in the UK and my second son was born in London with the help of doctors of NHS in Ealing Hospital. Whatever may be the complaints against NHS, it is today still an inalienable part of the lives of English people. Fogg gives a glimpse of the history of NHS, the conditions under which it was set up, the man behind it and how it is now being allowed to die a death of thousand cuts. Fogg also makes a rousing case for NHS and calls it “UK’s single greatest achievement” – a claim which is very hard to disagree. A few excerpts that liked from this article are:

In this summer of flag-waving bombast, nestling between the jubilee and the Olympics, the anniversary of the NHS should be recalled as this country’s single greatest accomplishment. It was a victory from the ballot box, not the battlefield, saving lives, not taking them. It was born not of blue blood but of noble effort. It is a product not of individual sporting or creative genius, but collective will and democratic empowerment. In the wake of the horrors of the second world war it was the proudest gift to a land fit for heroes, delivered at a time when the national debt made our current crisis look like an embarrassing bar tab. Almost from day one it was partly dependent on the nurses, doctors and ancillary staff who came from across the world; new Britons giving their labour and love to a new Britain

The fundamental principle of free universal healthcare, paid directly through taxation, remains a very efficient model. Our greatest current problems originate in the meddling and perversion of the original vision, not a failure of the dream. Anyway, that is not entirely the point. The NHS is our baby, and we still love it – flaws, failings and all. Its formation was, as (Aneurin) Bevan told Sylvia, “the most civilized step any country has ever taken” and that is something of which we, as a nation, remain rightly proud………….Another great British cultural institution once asked “will you still need me, when I’m 64?” The answer is an unequivocal yes, NHS, we do. We need you to care for us when we are sick, we need you to protect our health when we are well. But above all, we need you to remind us that with collective will, determination and ambition, the achievements of the people of Britain really can be the envy of the world

Indian Govt. has recently announced giving away generics free to needy patients in Govt. hospitals. Hope this is the first baby step towards universalization of healthcare in India

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