Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

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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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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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On reading Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 30, 2018

I first encountered the depth of Emily Dickinson’s poetry in a article written by Hari Kunzru in The Hindu. I do not remember what the article was about but he quoted this mesmerizing poem of Dickinson:

THERE is a solitude of space,
A solitude of sea,
A solitude of death, but these 
Society shall be,
Compared with that profounder site,
That polar privacy,
A Soul admitted to Itself:
Finite Infinity.

It was love at first sight !!

A search on Google gave me a well printed and well organised version of her complete poems counting to about 1600+ in number. But Dickinson is not an easy poet. She makes you mull. For an untrained reader there is no instant rhapsody…one has to struggle to come to grips with the layered metaphors, brilliant juxtapositions, flora, fauna, Greek and Christian mythological references and the setting of her time. Initially it was difficult and I was on the verge of giving up..but as luck would have it I found Susan Kornfield’s dedicated website on her interpretations of Dickinson’s poems – which has become my Dickinson’s poetry crutch. The most telling aspect of her site is the lack of pedant-ism. On the contrary, she writes her interpretations as if she is a co-explorer struggling to find meaning like I was doing. It has been more than 3 months since I have been slow reading her poems, and boy, the joy is inexpressible…

I do not remember if it was Aristotle or Plato, who expounding on the nature of poetry tell us that poetry is something that reaches our hearts even before it reaches our minds. Every single poem of Dickinson stands testimony to that point of view. A thousand poems behind me, a fount of joy discovered, a lifetime of human paradoxes to mull over, the hypnotic beauty of her words – all available, all to myself in/at what Dickinson calls “the polar privacy” of my soul ( or its equivalent something)….Feeling blessed !!

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On reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 30, 2018

After two months of careful and a slightly exhausting reading, I completed Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina today morning. What a great read it has been !!

This work of Tolstoy can be analysed on multiple fictive dimensions where Tolstoy demonstrates supreme command on every single dimension. But what in my view really elevates the book is Tolstoy’s treatment of “human universals” that we are always trying to grapple with in our individual lives – especially – in those lonely moments when we are face to face with ourselves. Questions like – What defines a good life? How should one conduct oneself in a way that classifies as ideal existence? What should be the relevance of religion, God, scriptures in one’s life? Are such things really important for good conduct of life? How should one view death? – are some of the questions he addresses in the book against the backdrop of carefully tracking the trajectories of two lives viz. Anna Karenina and Konstantin Dimitrich Levin – the former leading her life to utter perdition while the latter finding – through his own thinking and partly with some luck – a fragile/precarious equilibrium which as a reader gave me a great sense of hope, joy and direction…There is a spiritual quality to the book which reminded me of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”….

The strong sense of history that permeates his writing combined with the treatment of a sweep of themes brings a transcendental quality to his writing which leaves me permanently in a state of awe of his writerly abilities and also gives me courage and curiosity to explore his other masterpiece “War and Peace”.

Were I to single out a great peculiarity of his abilities it would be his ability to dwell in the deep layers of the minds of his women characters…so utterly complete and amazing insight/s and attendant charecterization !!

Truly, truly a great book and I am happy that I persisted with it till the end !!

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Initial Encounters with Tolstoy

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 15, 2018

Been reading Anna Karenina for the past couple of days. I have read many good prose writers but Tolstoy is of a different order. Extraordinary ! Nothing escapes his gaze. Every minute detail is absorbed and presented as if it is a slow moving real picture. The writing bursts with attention to detail and yet nowhere did I feel bored or suffocated due to the abundance of detail (till now) nor has my attention sagged. Some books, if they have to be understood, enjoyed, internalized and respected ought to be read after a particular age.. Happy to have reached that age.

Terrific job by translators Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Two of the numerous examples that I have encountered and quite liked:

Vronsky followed the conductor to the carriage and at the door to the compartment stopped to allow a lady to leave. With the habitual flair of a worldly man, Vronsky determined from one glance at this lady’s appearance that she belonged to high society. He excused himself and was about to enter the carriage, but felt a need to glance at her once more – not because she was very beautiful, not because of the elegance and modest grace that could be seen in her whole figure, but because there was something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet–looking face as she stepped past him. As he looked back, she also turned her head. Her shining grey eyes, which seemed dark because of their thick lashes, rested amiably and attentively on his face, as if she recognized him, and at once wandered over the approaching crowd as though looking for someone. In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile

Internal, external, movement, flow everything is captured as if it is a slow moving picture

When Anna came in, Dolly was sitting in the small drawing room with a plump, tow– headed boy who already resembled his father, listening as he recited a French lesson. The boy was reading, his hand twisting and trying to tear off the barely attached button of his jacket. His mother took his hand away several times, but the plump little hand would take hold of the button again. His mother tore the button off and put it in her pocket

Hope to write a full piece after I am done with it…Anna Karenina

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Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 1, 2015

Ennui: A feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom

Heart of Darkness

Number9dream Thousand acresTraindreams

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A tribute to Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 8, 2012

In moments of anguish, I ask myself: what is the purpose of man’s need for permanence and what his duty to posterity is?

Well, Ray Bradbury gave me the answer with his writing: Dipped in immense amount of love, fun, affection and generosity he made our world a more joyous, pleasant, rich and optimistic place to live in

Like many other writers whom I have discovered late in life, I came to know of Ray Bradbury and his books through the book section of The Guardian. The first book of his I read was Fahrenheit 451. Instinctively, I knew that here was a great and important writer whose book I was reading. Then followed his collection of short stories “The Illustrated Man” and the fabulous collection of essays on the craft of writing in his “Zen in the art of writing” and an odd story here and there from his abundant output of short stories. From the word go, I was completely captivated by the imaginative quality, zest and the extraordinary richness that he brought to the art of storytelling. Somebody once said that the world is at least 51% in favour of us and that is why we are able to live. And into those 51% favours, I unhesitatingly count the joys of reading Ray Bradbury’s books, stories and essays.

I believe that one should read with calm but mad abandon till about 55, then choose about 200 books from what one has already read and begin re-reading them till one dies. At least that is what I am planning to do.  Into that precious list of mine, I will have the fattest volume of Ray Bradbury’s short stories included

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray set down a tough yardstick for measuring a writer when he wrote

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies”

Ray not only did touch life but he very often enlivened it. Thank you Ray. May your soul rest in peace

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A One Way Ticket To Wilderness – Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 25, 2012

A thing of beauty is a joy forever – this observation is equally relevant in the context of beautiful prose as it is relevant anywhere else. Good writing lives and grips a generation or two and once the context of the setting wanes, the prose starts to lose its sheen. It will start to acquire the hue of a “has-been” similar to the well preserved ruins of a once great civilization. On the contrary, great writing effortlessly transcends multiple generations and yet continues to retain its grip and haunting charm on its readers. Readers, despite passage of time, find new meanings that continue to remain relevant to them. There is an element of permanence associated with it. One feels involuntarily impelled to introduce such writings to subsequent generations as something valuable and sacred with a fervent hope that they too will get to see the same signs of greatness that one has witnessed in it. Into this category of great writing, I would unhesitatingly include Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild”. This is a book that I have read at different stages in my life and every time I found it to have an undiminished freshness, vitality, vigour, energy and relevance

At its core, “The Call of the Wild”, is the story of a transformative journey of Buck, a domesticated dog from Santa Clara valley in California ending up in the northern wildernesses of Klondike region in Canada, with the cleverness, killing instinct and cunningness of an untamed wild beast. The transformation is educative in the ways of the wild not just for Buck but also for the reader. London endows Buck with convincing intellect of a human being and yet retains the true nature of its being in an atmosphere which is primal, harsh and punishing. There is an unfettered freedom and abandon with which this landscape is described by London.

 London’s narration of Buck’s change from a neophyte follower into a confident leader of his dog pack and gradually extending his leadership over the wild wolf packs is a joy to read. It is in describing this change that London’s prose bristles with energy and insight that is memorable and memorability is an essential mark of greatness. Here is a passage which demonstrates this:

 There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move

London is said to have lived the life of his stories, traveling in harsh climes far and wide and mingling with men whose life was full of danger and adventure. He is an extraordinary observer of the landscape around him and to the brilliant descriptions of external beauty; he also effortlessly melds his own highly refined thoughts which make his prose remarkable. In writing fiction that is vigorous and virile, London can be counted among the greatest of the greats – a true master. But that to my mind is not where the greatness of London’s writing lies. The aspect that heightens the appeal of London’s writing is the underlying and unstated thought revolving around the enticing allure of the wilderness and the primal nature of the wild. He makes the atmospherics of the cold north come alive seeing beyond what is visible

 Given the burden of our day to day living in this increasingly complex world of technology, urbanization and strife, there are times – not infrequently – when one feels like escaping into something which is far more natural, original and pristine. It is in the escape of Buck from the constraints and mores of a human civilization into a state of unrestrained existence of wilderness lies a vicarious escape for all men and women which is viscerally liberating  and that to me is the greatness of this wonderful book

 An all-time classic !


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The Book That Changed My Life

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 8, 2011

    I am a book lover. Yet, I do not believe that books change people’s lives in a major way. Life is too powerful, too strong, too unpredictable and too fickle to be changed by books. Life experiences are far more potent change agents than books. However, what books can certainly do and do reasonably well is temper certain fundamental negative instincts in us and that too in lucky circumstances. Even where there is tempering, it happens at a glacial pace. Human beings need time and more importantly take time to change. Dramatic makeover is a facile possibility in the realms of fiction and not real life. Most of the times a human being is already on the path of reformation or mellowing down and through co-incidence he or she may come across a book or a set of books which reinforce, refine and articulate his reformative thought processes and shore up the courage to persist on that path

I cringe when I read articles especially in business magazines under the title “The Book That Changed My Life” and the writer typically a CEO or a senior business leader glibly pointing to a Jim Collins title like “Good To Great” or “Built To Last” or Lou Gerstner’s “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” or worse still Tom Peter’s “In Search Of Excellence”. My immediate reaction is to write a brief but polite letter to the person and the editor who allowed the publishing of the article with a one line terse message which says – “It is time you grew up buddies”. Business books may make you a better professional but it feels sad to see people to think that better professionals are better human beings. This applies to all professional books

And that brings to the important point: What sort of books changes one’s life? Well… that to me is a million dollar question and the answer to which I will always be interested to know

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