Another Interesting Fun Idea for Book-Bloggers

An interesting concept, a Book-Blogger Appreciation Week, has been thought up by My Friend Amy. It should be interesting to participate. And not only that, since it is the first time it is being organised, it might be fun to suggest just how it should be organised. For more details, please visit this page.

UPDATES:

1. As a part of this, I have launched a blog post writing competion. Have shamelessly called it “Write for BookCrazy”.

2. A complete list of participating blogs is posted here.

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Killing With Indifference

 

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

 Elie Wiesel in Night

When I read these lines in Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, I got goose bumps. I read it a number of times again and again and somewhere deep inside vowed to find out about all injustice happening around, and speak out at least against the ones of the higher magnitude. Then, with a great feeling of satisfaction, I closed the book and felt good about having read such a good book.

It has been a couple of months, and like many other, that resolve remains postponed to the uncertain future. Like many other profound ideas that never get converted to action. Then, today, while browsing from link to link, from one blog to another, I received another jolt. First this post by Ramya and from there to this one at Mow Books, I was shaken up from the deep silence of indifference.

I remember having watched an episode in Boston Legal where one of the cases concerned Darfur or the genocide in Sudan. I loved the episode and in the last one year must have watched it, with admiration, over thrice. And yet, thanks to my deep rooted rut of indifference I never felt the urge to to know more. And that is when we can google anything. I have read at least 30 books, watched at least 40 movies since I first saw that episode and blogged quite a bit. Interestingly, I have read at least 5 books and 5 movies set around the theme of the genocide by Hitler. And have written posts earlier, seemingly sounding disturbed. It is so easy to be disturbed about history, and so difficult to even give a damn about anything in the present. We are so happily living in the past and the future that the present drifts, as if non-existent.

Before the question as to what we can do to remedy such situations arise, the question arises why do we not know. And from there stems the answer to our next question. And there is a lot more we can do. Maw Books talks about it in great detail, acheiving from her side the minimal action that is required.

This is not about Darfur but about us. About me. About my indifference and reasons behind. But trying to figure out those reasons is another criminal waste of time. Specially, when very close to where I live, in Kashmir people are dying and are denied basic necessities because some land was transferred to some trust which wants to provide facilities to some people who want to visit soem temple to pray. I am a Hindu and I would never like to visit the God if that requires killing people around me. And that is being justified because the other side is not of my religion? And no one in India, NO ONE is concerned. One blast in Bombay makes national news for months and a month of blast in Kashmir hardly finds a minutes mention in national news here. And we Indians say Kashmir is an integral part of India? And when Arundhati Roy talks of freedom for Kashmir, her nationality is threatened? What the hell is happening?

I am too angry right now to write anything coherently anymore. But you might be able to. So please do.  

Murakami’s Magical Madness

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

It happens rarely, but when it does, all the effort that reading takes is justified ten times over. Less than 20 pages down while reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I knew I was in company of a mastermind – in all senses of the word.

Murakami has been one of the many authors whom for some reason I just kept ignoring despite intending all the time to read him ‘a little later’. Finally, after Murdoch’s painfully real Under the Net, I needed some respite from reality. Of what I had read about Murakami, I ventured hoping he would give me some. And lo! he did not disappoint; on the contrary he surpassed all expectations.

Murakami is not a fantasy, fairy-tale, or sci-fi novelist, yet he hangs you at the edge of reality throughout the journey of his book. In terms of a sense of the real, it’s niether here nor there. As his protagonist himself wonders while Murakami takes him on a roller coster ride where the next turn is invisible – truth is not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.

The real genius of Murakami lies in the fact that not only does he weave a magical ‘on the edge of reality’ tale but does it in a way that even the skeptics are bound to love this magic. For the cynics who equate life to mathematical certainity, Murakami is the devil. For venturing into the ‘unreal’ with such precision and logical flow would shatter all the conceptions of our mathematical cynics.

Along the fun ride that Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, Murakami plays around with a quite a few difficult themes – marriage, relationships, loneliness, war, reality, existentialism, et all. He deals with such themes as if teasing the reader to go on to a new one. He challenges your intellect and when you respond, he defies your logic in progression of his plot. 

Many compare him to Kafka, but I do not think that is right. I find him to be original. It is true though that if Kafka’s literature had not been witnessed by the world before his, it would be difficult to the critics to understand him. He might have risked the chances of him being dismissed as nonsensical.

In literary fiction, I believe, it is more common to have a story founded on certain very strong characters, plot taking a second seat. However, Murakami’s characters are far from strong. Except the protagonist and a couple of other ladies in his life, the rest of them are just sketches. All focus is on the plot. Characters come and go, abruptly. But in that brief time, they have moved the plot to another level. You need to read him to understand how magically he makes his characters tell the story without, almost, being a part of it. He’s magical. He’s maddening. He’s Murakami

This was my first Murakami and I am already itching for another one. Any suggestions? Kafka on the shore or Norwegian Wood? Or should I jump to Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World?

Are book-bloggers killing journal reviewers?

Lisa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post has drawn the book-blogosphere into a debate as to whether they are replacing the book-reviewers from journals and magazines. The crux of her piece satirically titled “Will Blogs Save Books?”  is that unprofessional, shabby, opinionated book-blogs are killing the book editors’ jobs as various newspapers are downsizing their book-review sections and laying them off. The piece also implies that this is a blow to literature and the literary culture.

Lissa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post is an expression of professional frustration. The only way

Huffington Post itself is an alternate medium experiment

Huffington Post itself is an 'alternate medium' experiment

 the post is useful is by triggering a debate on an issue that might be of interest to all ‘lovers of literature’ who blog. However, the response to her piece on various blogs has been as disappointing as her piece itself. We bloggers have responded out of sheer anger than logic. There are, however, some exceptions – like this piece at edrants which gives another aspect to the debate, and logically so.

The simple fact is that the purpose served by professional reviews in journals or newspapers and that by book-blogs is different. I may love to read the New York Review of Books and yet want to pick up suggestions from a blog. Moreover, the whole experience of reading a blog and a professional article is different in so many ways that I can not describe them in this post. 

The journals are supposed to carry literary pieces. More than opinion on books, they are an academically researched and reliable overview of a subject, author, or book. On the other hand, blogs carry personalised pieces on what one has read and what thought process such reading might have triggered. An academic piece being opinionated is a hint of bias. On the other hand, a blog without opinion is a man without soul. Reading a blog post about a book or an author you might be interested in at that point in time is like a friend talking to you about something you want to know. How did one come to read a particular book and what his/her family thinks about it would be absurd in a journal but fits perfectly in a blog.

The target audience, purpose, and effect of the two are different and there is no competition here. No one is shifting because of one to the other. Both have there own exclusive readerships, which may overlap. And if there are blogs which have equally literary pieces and are serious about what they do as a professional, then it is just another free and fair competition. If you think its the medium that’s in demand, float a professional blog and post the same well crafted articles here and compete. No points complaining.

Not only does Lisa Warren’s article miss the point altogether but also it is factually and statistically incorrect. It is a blatant figment of her imagination that bloggers mostly link to professional reviews and provide cogent commentary to the same. In my experience of reading literary blogs in the last couple of years, I have rarely found this to be true. It is also understandable why a book publicist is more bothered about this phenomenon than the critics themselves. Because if you can write good pieces, you will find brilliant readership on blogs. However, for a book publicist, the important target audience is the not-so-iclined reader who stumbles upon a review. For that, we are sorry. Be creatvie, think of alternate ways.

And to the frustrated professional outburst of Ms. Warren, my last word – book editors are being laid off because reading habits are dwindling. Majority is no more interested in reading books let alone book-reviews. Book industry as a whole has been facing this problem. It’s not because we bloggers are fooling your readers into shifting their reading habits. Did it ever occur to you that 90% of your readers are these bloggers themselves? Because we are the ones who actually read.

Under the Net of Iris Murdoch

People used to the metro lifestyle would definitely recognise this phenomenon, where you know a stranger quite well and yet he remains a stranger nonetheless. As in, let’s say some guy you have never spoken to, who happens to take the same train or bus every morning for work. There is a similar phenomenon for readers who read about books and reading almost as much as they read the books themselves – an author sounds so familiar as if you have been reading him/her for ages. Whereas, in fact, you may not have read a single word penned by him. At least, this happens to me a lot. To remedy that situation, I have been picking up certain authors at random just because they have been floating in my head for quite sometime. Iris Murdoch happened to be one of them.  

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Under the Net impressed me from the beginnig, however, if I said I was dazzled by the book and it turned out to be one of the best I have ever read, that would be lying trough my teeth. The first reaction at finishing the book was “What was the point?”. However, if you let it sink in, Under the Net does cast a spell, though not as ‘magnificient’ as you may have expected from Murdoch’s only title in the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century List by the Board of the Modern Library (a division of Random House). 

There is nothing ‘fantastic’ about the plot or the characters. On the contrary, all is quite normal. However, probably to add that magical hmour, there definitely are events that you may not expect to experience every day. Having said that, let me add that the element of humour hangs at some little corner throughout the story, even at times when you are made to wonder at some profound implications of certain conversations.

Iris Murdoch’s existential inclinations are well-known. It is my belief that the novel is a marvellous achievement in that respect. It is in the character of youth to be dazzled by the ever prominent struggle between action and ideas in life. Whereas all within feels profound, everything tangible is uninspiring. This gap that has prevented so many potentiatialities from being realized is so vague that to be able to describe it in a story as simlple as this one speaks volumes about not only the literary skills of the author but her clarity of thought.

The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“. This simple sentence is the essence of all that Murdoch has woven the novel around. Throughout the book, there is a mention of ‘extraordinary, profound, and interesting’ conversations between the protagonist and his best friend which just eludes us till the end. This best friend happens to be one of the most interesting characters of the book, and in a frustatingly teasing manner, Murdoch keeps him silent most of the times.

A failure to find inspiration to act has been the nemesis of many great artists and thinkers and many others who never shall reach that stage of recognition so as to be categorised even as a ‘failure’. The life of the ‘ordinary’ in the wake of great potential is probably one of the most difficult. Somewhere on these lines, Murdoch kepps you under her net throughout the journey of this book and when you least expect it, lets you go. Disappointed we sulk and ask – What was the point. Murdoch answers, “The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“.

Dealing with Reality

Human race is addicted to illusions. I guess, at a very early stage of the evolution of human society, it became clear to man that what they termed as reality was too painful to accept as it was. Therefore, man created a pseudo ‘reality’ in the name of god, eternity, afterlife, heaven, hell and what not – this was man’s survival instincts at its creative best. When society needed order, man created god as an eternal punisher; when time became his existential limit, eternity of the soul was discovered. And probably boredom combined the two and created mythologies.

Despite all the attempts, none of this could prevent glimpses of reality in human society. Even the blind-by-choice could catch these glimpses, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually it became clear that belief in Krishna or Jesus could be desirable but disbelief in Hitler and the two world wars, however desirable, was difficult to attain. Illusions are impermanent shield and there remains no choice but to deal with reality.

The search for ‘truth’, a poetic synonym of reality, has apparently been on since the Greek ages. However, the most relevant of such inquiries have only taken place in the last couple of centuries[1]. It started when man finally decided to question his abilities and acknowledge his limitations. The first undeniable truth that came to be known by this process was that even if there is an absolute truth (or reality), man can never know it. Man is only capable of knowing what is within the limits of his five senses. Beyond that, all knowledge at best are calculated guesses. It took over three centuries and an Einstein to figure out that Newton was wrong. It was only after his theory of relativity that the idea that time need not always be a constant was brought from the realm of science fiction to a scientific theory. As absurd as it may sound, there is a very thin line of distinction between fact and fiction – the line of human capacity to see.

Therefore, in order to ensure that we live our lives true to our reality, it is necessary first to acknowledge that our reality itself is limited. Man must accept man as man – with all his failings, with all his limitations. Any attempt to surpass the limitations of the reality knowable to us is an attempt to deny the limitations of human existence. A warning for the romantics – do not misread deny as defy. Living in denial is shameful, living in defiance of reality is quixotically impossible.

It is this limited and undeniable reality of human life that Sartre[2] calls ‘human condition’. Like all existentialists, Sartre paints a dismal picture of human condition[3]. But then, is not most reality dismal? Which is more real – the happy picture of Jesus turning water to wine or Hitler turning Jews to ashes, methodically?

Franz Kafka wrote that man lives like man but dies like a dog. Sartre said that man is a useless passion. Camus said that man is condemned to a Sisyphean pointless labour. Are you shouting, “Stop it! Do you have a point?” Well, this precisely is my point. Time and again the reality of man’s futility hits him in the face. All the illusions that he has comfortably wrapped himself in, can not protect but only suffocate him in the face of reality. His situation is like someone who has sewn himself in a permanent warm overcoat in winter completely negating the fact that summer inevitably shall follow. And once summer arrives – then what? Two choices – suffocate in the coat until death or tear it open.

One may ask why paint such a dismal picture of human limitations and tragedies? Isn’t it life negating? If calling apple an apple is negating apple, then it is. Otherwise, it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality that is. And why is it necessary? Because a man living in denial of his disease always fails to take medication. A gory picture of human condition is precisely what the doctor prescribed for the human race – a race wrapped in illusions. How does this prescription help? By eliminating unfounded fears, liberating man to uninhibited and innumerable choices that had been kept away from him in the fake promise of the possibility of attaining heroic ends.

If we acknowledge human condition as it is, with all the disturbing details, what then? It is only on the acknowledgement and consciousness of the true human condition that we can truly venture into attainment of any value. When Camus talks of being aware of the absurd[4], in simple terms, he asks man to accept all the givens and not struggle into despair trying to change it. It is only when we identify the given can we concentrate our efforts on constructing the rest of our ‘conditions’ by choice. Unfortunately, most of our efforts are wasted in defying the given. A very crude example could be the time, energy, and money spent in the name of religion and prediction of the future (astrology, numerology, etc.) when every man knows within, the futility of it.

It has been said repeatedly and with an irritating conviction that desire is the root of all human miseries. I beg to differ. Desire is a given human condition and any theory that labels it as evil labels our very being as evil. And because it is not possible to change this given, it leads to false frustrations and miseries. Result – in the attempt of killing all desires, we now have added frustrations and miseries of failure alongwith the desires which, obviously, cannot be eliminated.

To see one’s life beyond the futility of daily chores – beyond aspirations, beyond achievements, beyond ‘success’ – that should be the purpose of any human inquiry. For, what are success, achievement, and aspiration beyond life? We trouble ourselves to no end in an attempt to define us, to find a purpose. We fail to see the obvious – that our existence comes predefined; the definition being ‘life’. However, our purpose on the other hand is not pre-destined. We need to realize that our purpose exists not in a pre-defined fate but only retrospectively authored by us by our choices, our actions. For, as Camus says, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Consciousness and rejection of the comfort of illusions are the only tools one needs to acquire the ability to scorn fate. The choice is simple and clear – either we deal with our reality or die within the life of illusions. As Albert Camus says:

If it (human mind) must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid – polar light, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.


[1] This article is based on my personal understanding of what is commonly known as existentialism. I owe the development of these thoughts to the ideas I have read amongst the works of Albert Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and others. Without justification to the theory, I can best explain existentialism as a philosophy which asserts that man exists first, without any meaning. He dies without any purpose. The realm of man is only that small part between his being and nothingness. Man is free to fill that void entirely at his discretion with complete freedom; whether he recognizes that freedom or not. Existentialism rejects all moral foundations and philosophies built on presumptions of tradition or after-life.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, most notably known as the chief exponent of the philosophy of existentialism. His epic work, where he expounds his philosophy in great detail is Being and Nothingness. One of his most popular work of fiction is Nausea

[3] However, it may be noted that Sartre’s philosophy itself is not gloomy. Like Camus and many other ‘existentialists’, Sartre believes that man is the author of himself. In his work Nausea he shoes that glimpse of possible human victory at the conclusion, despite the entire book being set in a tone of despair and anguish.

[4] ‘Absurd’ is central to Camus’s philosophy. What Camus calls absurd is the existence of two irreconcilable eternal truths – the randomness and unreasonable world on one hand and the insatiable desire for order, logic, and happiness in man on the other hand. Camus discusses this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus and shows how it is essential for man to maintain the absurd and not defy it.

An Apology in Retrospect

Throughout the last two weeks, I have been traveling. All through, I kept promising myself that the moment I could lay hands on a keyboard, I shall get back to blogging. However, it seems to be in the nature of promises to be broken.

Well, I have been traveling for business and in the meantime got engaged. I hope that is justifiable excuse for the blogging hiatus. However, the reading (in bits) continued and the posts should start flowing soon. Till then, let this sad retrospective apology suffice.