Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Archive for December, 2018

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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Ray Bradbury’s “The Wilderness”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 5, 2018

It was 2003 and Iraq war was just picking up momentum. We all were trying to understand the motives for the war and ensuing destruction. As reasons, the usual suspects bandied around included: WMD, removal of a dictator, restoration of democracy, oil grab, clash of civilizations etc etc. But a visiting client of mine from UK added an interesting psychological motive: “frontiersmenship”. He went on to explain how it is a ingrained trait in American psyche to push towards unknown frontiers and colonize/conquer them.. he put forth a very cogent argument as to how Americans have pushed within their own country from east to west resulting in domesticating a wilderness, giving birth to Californian and Alaskan gold rush oblivious to the trail of destruction they left along their way. He narrated it quite well and I had no reason either to believe or disbelieve it. It was a psycho history of sorts made an impression on me. Through the length of the conversation which was actually a monologue, I remember, the only statement I offered was that all the earthly frontiers are finite and that space was the final frontier – actually it is a deep sentence which I borrowed from Star Trek and offered without a second thought. The conversation ended with the way world is and how things go continuously from bad to worse…

Much later I encountered this concept of frontiersmenship at a very unusual place : In a essay titled “Two Young Men Who Went West” by Tom Wolfe. The essay is all about how California was settled as the tech mecca of the world and the rise of the semi conductor industry in California and the men behind it… a fascinating piece of modern history brilliantly outlined by Wolfe. The reference to frontiersmenship is very casual but the innuendos are unmissable and concrete.

After a long time I have encountered frontiersmenship again in a brilliant story by Ray Bradbury called “The Wilderness”. It is about the last night of two women who are leaving earth for good to meet their respective men on Mars who have gone there a few years ahead to homestead the red planet. Bradbury contrasts two kinds of “frontiersmenship” – the one that was experienced in America on earth and the other that is taking place in the solar system. The sense of history, nostalgia, apprehension, excitement and longing that Ray evokes is one the finest pieces of haunting prose I read till date. Since yesterday I have not been able to shake the story off my head… some days it is like that…

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