Reading a Golden Notebook (TSS)

Inspired by Bob Stein’s email about the ‘integrated reading experiment‘ with The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I picked it up way back in early December 2008. Thanks to a lot of other things happening in my life, I have been getting very little time to read compared to what generally satisfies me. Ergo, I am yet to read the last chapter titled ‘The Golden Notebook’. However, this book is so rich with ideas that one may not need to finish to share one’s experience.

It is my personal opinion that though a little background on a work of literature helps our understanding of the intricacies of the work, it is generally advisable to read a book devoid of any preconceived or rather pre-propounded theories about the same. Anyone reading Lessing in our time will be struck by atleast two facts – that she won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2007 and that she is considered to be one of the leading ‘feminist’ authors of the 20th century. Neither of these are relevant to one’s being able to understand or appreciate her work.

The conciousness that Lessing is a ‘feminist’ author was something I made myself dispel within 20 pages of my reading. I realized that this fact was clouding my perception of every sentence I read. I feel, standing at the epilogue of this monumental work of literature, that Lessing has much more to convey than mere sexist themes. This is not to be misunderstood as an aversion of feminine rights in any way. Only that, I feel it is unjust to sweep away other powerful themes of such an epic merely because the feminist ones shock the male dominated society the most. Should shock and awe be a value to judge literature by?

Having said that, let me acknowledge Lessing’s masterful command over the female psyche. Probably, it is the dearth of such powerful and shameless expression by women that makes Golden Notebook relevant even after decades of its first publication. I consider Colin Wilson’s Outsider to be one of the most important books I have ever read and I remember him having observed that female ‘outsider’ artists were hard to come by. Lessing is definitely one of them.

One of the most interesting theme of this novel is the promise and disappointment of the communist revolution. She captures in all its essence, the temptation of communism to the generation of the 50s -70s, in various parts of the world. More than the feminist overtones, being able to capture with perfection the political debacle of communism and its effect on the intellectual youth of that era is the most important achievement of Lessing. Communism holds no temptation to my generation and therefore, to be able to understand its appeal in the past is a tricky task. I believe, Lessing provides an able road-map to all those who would care to.

It is too easy to pretend that communism is an evil; though it is actually insane if we do. Across borders, throughout the wide world, more than a 2/3rd majority of the intellectuals were attracted by it in the last century. Most of them today are professors in various universities teaching either the history of communism or the economics of capitalism. For anyone interested in an understanding of the 21st century world, this political history is the single most important theme to understand. For that alone, The Golden Notebook deserves a very serious read.

The feminist aspect of the book deserves to be read with passion and a will to understand, at least from the male perspective. And that is what I have attempted to do. To be able to read a matter of factly stream of conciousness passage about the various kinds of female orgasm is an education in itself. Not biological, but psychological, and more importantly social. However, I shall hold my guns for now and return to this theme in detail once I have finished the last chapter of the book.

To conclude, a warning. This is a long book and becomes long specially when the diary entries record the dry facts. There are pangs of ‘Let’s Chuck it’. If you survive them, this is a book worth all the time.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

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My Best 2008 Reads

Now that 2008 is lived through and packed safely in our memories, like most of us, I decided to visit my 2008 chamber of secrets to reveal my best registered reads of the year. These are not books published this year, only that my good fortune of reading them happened to be in 2008. The only criteria for the selection of these three titles was to judge which one of them had the greatest impact on my memory register and whether I would want to read them again if I had the time.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: The Book ThiefSometimes, all roads lead to Rome, no matter what. After watching The Pianist and Schindler’s List, and reading Liquidation by Kertesz and Cat & Mouse by Grass, the holocaust theme stuck with me. I had picked Book Thief randomly from the bookstore, just because the idea of Death being a narrator of what was publicized as a ‘teenage’ read sounded quite interesting. I was most pleasantly surprised by the power of this book and its depth, which was achieved in the company of most amazing simplicity. The Holocaust is a subject that will never exhaust the possibility of a fresh insight through fiction, and I believe, this is a befitting classic in that arena.
  2. Youth by J M Coetzee: Coetzee was an author I always heard of but never read. One fine Sunday in January 2008, I finally bought the first two Coetzee’s – The Master of Petersberg and Youth. Given my speed of reading, I never expected to finish them in a record time of 1.5 days each. Though I liked both titles and they go into my ‘all time favourites’ list, Youth had a special relevance for me. The protagonists journey from idealism to despair, I could identify with. Since then, I have often picked this little book and read a few random pages. Believe me, I have had something to think of every time.
  3. Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith: This was another random pick at the bookstore. The book was very beautifully designed and the description sounded too interesting to ignore. I had never even heard of Smith. Her style struck me as immensely powerful and refreshing. The ease with which Smith’s words wrap around various complexities of modern life in Girl Meets Boy is unparalleled. More than anything, this is a masterpiece in homosexual literature, in feminism, and in brevity. This amazing take on the myth of Iphis has got me hooked to the amazing Myth Series of the Canongate publishers, of which I now intend to read each title. I have since read Weight by Jeanette Winterson and Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith from the series. Though I found the latter disappointing, Winterson’s take on the myth of Atlas is one I am going to return to quite often.

There are quite a few other titles that are worth mentioning, even though the three above beat them to my best reads of the year. Weight by Jeanette Winterson for the brave denial of Atlas’s burden. Imre Kertesz’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child for intellectualising a horror that is difficult for mortals like me to even comprehend to any understanding whatsoever. Moreover, Kaddish raises a question that has perplexed me for quite sometime – If you had a choice, would you choose to be born? This question must not be confused to ‘Whether life is worth living?’ and ‘Whether suicide is a valid choice?’. Another memorable book would be the White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Probably the only book I have ever read before it won the Booker. For me, the appeal of this book lies in its ability to make the haves contemplate the have nots. Also, this book finally broke the self-imposed prohibition on reading Indian fiction. Another book I must mention is Elie Wiesel’s Night, however, forgive me for I do not have the talent to comment on it. The only thing I can say is that every human being post 1945 must read it. One must know. That’s the minimum that can be done.

A Short Hiatus for a Long Journey

There are a few updates:

  1. Finally, I am a proud owner of a macbook. That should definitely change the frequency of posts on this blog. Why? See my stupid poem A Dead Laptop’s Poetry.
  2. I shall be on a complete blogging hiatus for the next month. Getting married on the 8th of December. Later, between 18th and 24th December, will be visiting Italy (Rome, Florence, and Venice).
  3. My house interior work has started and should be able to shift by the end of February.

I promise to post about my experiences in Italy once I am bac. With the new macbook and the Italy trip, I am looking forward to coming back to blogging as much as I am looking forward to the marriage and Italy! Didn’t someone say blogging is dead?

Integrating Literature and the New Media

An innovative experiment in literature via integrated media

An innovative experiment in literature via integrated media

I received a mail today from Bob Stein regarding this really innovative and interesting project of networked reading and discussion of great literature being organised by if:Book London and supported by the Arts Council, UK. They have started off with The Golden Notebook by Dorris Lessing I found it interesting and am on my way to buy my copy. It only helps that I have not read anything by Lessing before and this gives a good reason to catch up. I am copying the email here which describes the project. I guess integrated media is the only way to promote literature, alternates won’t work. And that’s why, I seem to love this idea. Hope I have not said too much too soon. Check out The Golden Notebook to experience it yourself.

THE EMAIL:

Dear Book Crazy,

On November 10th, The Institute for the Future of the Book kicks off an experiment in close reading. Seven women will read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and carry on a conversation in the margins. (We quite liked your last post on blogging and people who believe the Kindle means the death of the printed page; we thought you might be interested in a project like this one.) The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to “try it on” again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes I missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature. It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other’s reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Meade, my colleague and director of if:book London, the Arts Council England enthusiastically and generously agreed to fund the project. Chris was also the link to Doris Lessing who through her publisher HarperCollins signed on with the rights to putting the entire text of the novel online.

Fundamentally this is an experiment in how the web might be used as a space for collaborative close-reading. We don’t yet understand how to model a complex conversation in the web’s two-dimensional environment and we’re hoping this experiment will help us learn what’s necessary to make this sort of collaboration work as well as possible. In addition to making comments in the margin, we expect that the readers will also record their reactions to the process in a group blog. In the public forum, everyone who is reading along and following the conversation can post their comments on the book and the process itself.

I’m writing you now with the hope that you will help spread the word to everyone who might be interested in following along and participating in the forum discussions.

Thank you

Bob Stein

p.s. One last note. This is not essentially an experiment in online reading itself. Although the online version of the text is quite readable, for now, we believe books made of paper still have a substantial advantage over the screen for sustained reading of a linear narrative. So you may also want to suggest to your readers that they order copies of the book now. Whichever edition of the book someone reads (US, UK or online), there is a navigation bar at the top of the online page will help locate them within the conversation.

Is it the End of Blogging?

I wonder how many out there in the blogosphere would agree with Paul Boutin when he says, “Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug“, which is how he starts his insanely illogical piece titled “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004“. I have found this phenomenon of skepticism tingled with speculation a little amusing. Amazon launches Kindle and half the world starts preparing for a funeral of the printed page. Bloggers start posting widely about books they read, some actually able to critique it as well as can be, and intellectuals start shedding tears for the good old days of journals and professional critics. Now, while social networking through innovative internet comes in, the Boutins of the world argue that [t]he time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter. I am yet to understand why we live in the age of exclusives. Can Kindle not co-exist with the printed page? Do journals have to wind-up because of literary blogs? Are blogs already things of the past due to something as flimsy as twitter or facebook?

On one hand, if you compare just the social networking aspect of it, I am sure no one would argue that innovations such as Twitter, Flick, Facebook, Friendfeed, Meebo, My bloglog etc. outdo blogs in most aspects. But the question that remains is whether blogging is primarily about social networking. Did you start blogging as a social networking tool? I am sure I did not. I may also agree that in the past, in a non-facebook era people must have used blogs for this purpose, and some may continue to do so. However, it seems only logical to conclude that blogs serve another purpose that these social networking sites cannot even begin to.

I have been blogging on ‘wordpress.com’, free of cost and without having any knowledge of HTML or CSS. I have had no troubles and it has been a more than satisfying experience to say the least. Boutin, however will want me to believe that blogs are ‘impersonal and tedious’. He argues that the onslaught of commercial blogs and online magazines has washed off all that was personal in blogs. However, if we go by that logic, no social networking site has been left alone either. Institutions and companies having Facebook and Twitter accounts is the ‘in-thing’. Because it is also a means by which many people make money, it does not essentially become irrelevant. As a blogger, I have been putting up my views here and there and also been reading genuine personal stuff all over.

The lamest argument possible against blogging has also been taken by Boutin – that your posts will invite numerous ‘insult commentor’. Am sure no one takes that seriously. The walls on facebook are generally more susceptible to being defaced than your blogs by ‘insult commenter’. Another one of his thoughts is that the text based medium fades before the new media on internet. Meaning YouTube makes blogging rediculous. Where he absolutely leaves me bowled is when he says that “Twitter — which limits each text-only post to 140 characters — is to 2008 what the blogosphere was to 2004“. How do you answer that? Smirk.

Finally he discourages you by putting you up to compete with Huffington Post and New York Times blogs, as if you ever ventured out onto the internet intending to do that. What he completely misses out is that the real attraction of blogging is to see some decent writing on relevant ideas and stuff by people not looking to gain anything out of it, which in turn guarantees a reader an honest opinion. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or any of those (great) new things around can never take that away from blogging.

I have been a blogger more for personal satisfaction than anything else and therefore, most of the times, very irregular. I am neither a student nor an expert on the ‘phenomenon of blogging’ or social networking. However, i have used blogs as well as each one of the networking sites Boutin thinks of and I see no merit in anything he says. But maybe some of you who have been out there longer and more often may shed more light on to it?

The White Tiger of Indian Fiction

The blogosphere is going to flood soon, if not already, with criticism of all kinds of the Booker 2008 winner. I am sure about it because, in the nature of things, critics are always more vocal than appreciators. I am not here to argue whether or not Aravind Adiga’s book was the best of 2008 but to tell you why, for entirely different reasons, I rejoice his success.

Despite being an Indian, I am mostly skeptic of all English language Indian literature – simply because, most often I fail to connect and even more often I can see through the false portrayal and pointless criticism. Why does everyone have to portray India as the land of poverty and misery alone? I have held this belief that Indian authors play to the galleries abroad by portraying that picture of India which they (foreigners) are most comfortable with. When I picked the White Tiger around a couple of months back, I was loaded with the intent to read and blast it off as an illogical portrayal of India. 30 pages down, I was seething to attack; but by the time I finished the novel, I was wondering about many things Indian that we had taken for granted. Small questions of life that have no answers but every minute spent pondering over them makes life even more worth the trouble. If a book achieves that, I thought, it’s a winner, Booker or no Booker.

What Adiga acheives in the book is a difficult combination of thought provoking literary fiction without being preachy. The style of the narrative as well as the idea behind the novel are as original as could be. The plot is definitely not its strong point, niether are the characters such that you might remember them for life, but the novel will haunt you for long, if you happen to get the central idea.

What, you may ask, is the blasted central idea I have been harping on? Let me warn you, whatever I say are my words alone and it may very well be that even the author might disagree with me. The central idea of the novel is what Adiga describes as the ‘Rooster Coop’ and its essence. The never ending psychological tussle between the have and have-nots. Mind you, its no book about revolutions, though the narrator Balram Halwaimay proclaim his story to be one. It is the psychological nuances of the inevitable ‘haves & have- nots’ relationships we all have, most of the times filling different roles in different ones; that is the highlight of Adiga’s book.

Balram Halwai is funny no doubt, but more often than not he leaves a bitter after-taste to your smiles. And if anyone has any doubts about the actuality or potentiality of whatevet Balram Halwai tells you, please – you need to live in India (and not just the Metros) for a few years to realize that the have and have not equation presented in the book is accurate, to say the least. Only difference, if I am asked to point one, would be that there is no after-taste after the smiles here, it’s just a way of life.

What pleases me most about Adiga’s White Tiger winning the Man Booker Prize 2008 is that it is refreshing to see an easily accesible, smooth, and an easy-read to win one of the most prestigious literary awards. My problem with Booker and a lot of the ‘famed literary circles’ has been that anything that is drab or difficult to comprehend is often considered good and anything potentially popular or smooth is dismissed as non-literary. This pseudo intellectualism must end. Let a book stand for itself, not for pre-conceived notions of what is literary. Read it becaue of or despite the award, whichever school you may belong to.

Let me end this piece with the hope that maybe Adiga’s Booker will interest more people to read sensible fiction, literary and not pointless. Maybe such books can convey the message that the good books ‘others’ keep talking about are not always boring. Maybe people understand that books that deserve to be read are not always drab but most often a lot of fun. Maybe… or may be not; inertia wins more often. For now, let me just cheer Adiga for producing the white tiger of Indian fiction!

UPDATE: Read an interesting piece by Adiga on the genesis of the idea behind the book here

Not So Curious in a Long Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

I know I came to this late, but I had my reasons. I have generally been weary of books that become too famous too soon, even with the people who have never read a book. This was one of those books. It was everywhere – streets, newspapers, magazines, and small talk between friends. Therefore, I dismissed without ever bothering to even find out what the book was all about.

However, I kept stumbling upon this curious one every now and then in the blogosphere. Sometimes the revies were quite good. Some even called it a sensitive book. Then I came to know it about a 15 year old guy suffering with Aspergers Syndrome. So, I said, let’s give it a try.

I first heard about the Aspergers Syndrome through the famous Boston Legal series. However, it was beyond my comprehension what it actually means to be suffering from it. As far as that is concerned, Mark Haddon, I believe has captured the essence in two ways – the pain of both the patient and his family. Imagine if one of your family members lived life by pure logic. It sounds OK, but you need to read this book to understand the what it actually means.

Having said that, I must state that the book reads too easy, sometimes frustatingly so. After about 1/4th of the book, I was about to drop it for it seemed there was too much pointles gibberish. The book is replete with nonesensical passages. If that was meant for the reader to understand exactly how frustrating and difficult it can be to live with a person suffering with this disease, I guess Haddon achieves it successfully. However, if it was meant to sound cute, he fails miserably.

The one interesting thing that this story makes you wonder about is the question that Dostoevsky puts forth in his Idiot. Was Prince Myshkin the idiot or the rest of the world? A person suffering from Aspergers Syndrome has no problems with logic. He is more logical than any of us can ever be. He has problems absorbing or appreciating emotions, people, and social relations. Why? Because, somewhere down the evolutionay cycle, logic was left behind. Being human no longer is synomous to being logical – far from it. We are the most ‘conditioned’ of all species. Probably, those suffering from AS have somehow escaped that conditioning. So, who is the patient?

This is not a book you need-to-read-before-you-die, however, next time you take a long flight, it could be a easy and relaxing read.

P.S: Neither do I, nor has Mark Haddon in the book made any claims to having known much or understood at all, people suffering with Aspergers. Mark Haddon actually doesn not name the disease at all. I have never met anyone with the syndrome and can not even begin to understand what a person having it would be like. This is in response to a reply to this post.