Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

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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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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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