Read The Wor(l)d

This is a long overdue post. On April 23rd 2015 that is last year I was asked to speak as a reader (yayyy!) on World Book Day at the British Council. I wanted to post my speech soon after but I did not feel ready to share it. Today while hunting for something else, I came across the printout of this speech and I read it again. It felt powerful. I am so happy I could write something that more than a year on has the same feel that I aimed for. That gives me hope.

Each speaker had to speak for 4 to 5 minutes before the discussion on books and reading. This is what I wrote in preparation but I forgot most of it while actually holding the mic! (Yes, that happens) I had the printout of my speech in my hand but since it was a speech so I did not want to break eye contact with the audience to look at the paper. In spite of that whatever I wanted to convey was conveyed. I know this because by the end of my speech the two or three genial young-at-heart British ladies sitting in the first row were nodding their head vigorously. 🙂

Here we go:

When I was eight, I fell sick with three different childhood illnesses in one year – mumps, measles, and chicken pox. My parents’ way of helping me heal –apart from the obvious medical attention – was to give me books. Invariably they were fairy tales. They had wonderful water colour illustrations which I can even now picture in my mind’s eye. I grew up in the 80s, so my reading rite of passage took me through Tintin, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. I did not have the wonderful books that Tulika, Tara and Duckbill nowadays publish. (Something that I try to remedy at every opportunity.) I don’t need to tell you that these were all books that I could hold in my hand. Ebooks hadn’t been born back then.

I love reading so much that I studied English literature in college. I continued to read books build up my own collection as I started working and earning and therefore spending on books that I would like to read.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime in the last five years, the way we read a book has changed. Thanks largely to the rise of ebooks and devices which can hold them.

Even say in 2005, if anyone had told me that I would read the poems of D.H Lawrence or War and Peace on my mobile phone, I’d have laughed. Mobile phones had a different function – talking to and keeping in touch with people. Books were heavy, solid, comforting objects meant for holding and reading. They still are and I still read them. It’s just the way we interact with them now – sometimes through another device – the tablet or the mobile phone.

To illustrate, let me recount an incident. Last month, I attended the relaunch of the British Council reading club. One of the ice-breaker questions I remember vividly was ‘Have you read War and Peace?’ I hadn’t. I did find one person who did. By the end of the meeting, I suddenly wanted to read War and Peace. So what do you think I did? Rush to a library? No. Rush to the classics section of the nearest bookshop? No. Order an edition of War and Peace from an online bookshop? No. I downloaded a free edition of War and Peace (the Maud translation, btw) on Kindle app on my mobile phone. I started but haven’t finished reading it but it’s comforting to know it’s there to be read anytime. Just like a leaving a bookmark in my physical book to continue later.

One of the changes as a reader that I had to confront has been the format. Earlier I had to worry about only two formats – the hardback and the paperback. But that was easy – it was always a paperback because of its affordability. Hardback only when there was no option. I remember the latter Harry Potter books were all hardbacks. Now I have to think about the device – a reading app or Kindle; the format – PDF, epub, mobi; and compatibility – will this app open that file?; and if compatibility is a problem, how to solve it?

I will not go into the many reading apps, softwares, formats, websites available which have their own library of books. Those are external details. The book or to be specific – what it’s made of – the story that makes us learn something about ourselves or the world around us – is still unchanged. The book is not dead. Those who love reading find it through libraries, sometimes through ebooks or digital books. We humans will always need a good story. As Philip Pullman said, ‘We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them’. And as long as we need a story, books will continue to exist. How they come to us – now that may be subject to change.

Tea and Carol Ann Duffy’s Poetry

I love the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy and having made a u-turn towards tea from coffee, I thought what can be better than a poem about tea. I have at least 5 types of tea bags in the kitchen as I write this. (Ginger, hibiscus, lemon, Darjeeling, green and regular.) So when I found this poem tucked away in the drafts section of my email while spring cleaning my inbox, I thought I’ll post it.

Drinking I think tea leads you to introspection; coffee leads you to action. Both are required but at different times and that depends on what you need. My introspective friend, J, pays so much attention to the temperature of water before making his tea. I am no fanatic but each of those teas mentioned above seems to like a different temperature. So I have to go by that.

In literature, I found only one collection of poems on drinking tea: Ten Poems about Tea. Then there’s Marcel Proust drinking tea in Swan’s Way and thinking about Madeleine cakes. This is what tea makes you do – think! And since I don’t have a cuppa next to me at the moment, I can’t think of any other instances of tea in literature. If any strike you, do leave a comment.

Tea

by Carol Ann Duffy

I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid steams in your china cup.

Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.

I like the questions — sugar? milk? —
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.

Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say,
but it’s any tea, for you, please, any time of day,

as the women harvest the slopes,
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.

 

©Carol Ann Duffy

Conflicted

Some months back, during a work-related lunch, I was talking to S, an avid Facebook user and one who lives more in the digital realm than the real one. He has written a novel, which he is currently in the process of finding a publisher. He said something that has played on my mind since then.

So S promotes each of his blog posts on Facebook quite aggressively. He has a FB page that says ‘S, Writer’. He has been invited to give his valued opinion on TV on socially relevant topics and recently was called to speak at a book launch. They were all for the local media and functions. The organisers found him through Facebook. When I added that I have a blog but I don’t promote it on FB, he was surprised. He added that by not advertising my posts on FB, I was losing out on readers and opportunities. I know many people do this and are rewarded with legions of readers or at least visitors out of which some are like-minded souls. He went to the extent of asking me if I was not confident enough of my writing to advertise my posts on FB!

I was aghast and a tad bit angry that this accusation was made at all. Obviously, this guy doesn’t know me. I mean I have worked with him for years but he wouldn’t have known me since all he has seen is my work persona that I put on everyday along with ironed clothes to go to work.

My work persona is very very different from who I am. For starters: I need to dumb down everything I say at work. Or else no one will understand me and things won’t get done. Or worse think that I am showing off. Once I remember I had used one word ‘linger’ to describe how I’d want an animation to go. (‘Let X linger on the screen for Y seconds before…’ or something like this.) And a manager came over to ask why I used ‘linger’ since no one in his team would understand what that was which meant the animation would be interpreted in a different way. So I changed ‘linger’ but the memory of it lingered for years.

I wouldn’t have survived so long if I didn’t have a work persona to buffer me in the rough and tough world of work. I don’t know about others but I cannot be myself at work.

Since I am flawed and human, there are leakages. Sometimes my real persona comes through and then it causes a lot of confusion. For instance, in one of my previous workplaces, someone asked me to contribute an article for the office blog. Not keen on spending whatever little free time I had writing for the office blog, I sent over an old post from this blog. I was so sure no one would read it. I was wrong. People did read it and moreover were surprised that I had written it. A top boss suddenly came over to say hello. The article was mentioned during my annual performance review. Of course, it was unfavorably compared to my work performance. *face palm* Such leakages aside, most people at work would have seen only my work persona.

I have always had this division for as long as I can remember. I was one person in school and another at home. Years back when my classmate met my cousin, they couldn’t decide whether I was the silent type or the talkative one. Which understandably flummoxed both of them. Back then, I didn’t even know that I was so conflicted.

Coming back to the situation. Sipping on my mojito and without missing a beat, I told him it’s not a lack of confidence rather the opposite. I am so confident that I don’t need Facebook to draw readers to my blog. Which kind of put a stop to the discussion.

There are somethings I like to do with my blog and some, I don’t. I don’t like monetising the blog or promoting it on Facebook. I don’t mind collaborating as long as I retain my creative freedom.

I am not comfortable sharing my blog posts on FB because it has become full with more work people than friends. Though there are some friends who pull me back from time to time. Also, I feel that I am able to express myself better in a long-drawn out post like this one than in an FB post. Those who comment on FB might not understand and those who do understand, understandably stay away. It’s the same work/real persona conflict played out in social media. I don’t like conflict at all so most of the time I shut up on FB and open up on my blog.

When I look back at what I said in the heat of the moment, I realise that it is true. You might ask me what gives me this confidence to retort back the way I did. I have only a handful of (loyal) readers, no speaking assignments at functions, no TV shows or an FB page or even a written novel. But I still feel I am better off. I have the freedom to be myself. I don’t want to compromise that for some numbers on the stats counter and TV shows and speaking assignments. And if they do come, it will be because of my real persona and not something I am forced to be for a short while.

Notes and documentation

I have noticed an increased traffic from students looking for spark notes or cliff notes on a particular book to my blog. While I am not surprised – I write ‘notes’ after all – I know documentation can be a pain. The MLA, APA and Chicago Manual are all constantly evolving so now we know how to cite blogs, a comment on a blog, a blog post or even an online poem on your dissertation/thesis/paper. A copy of the latest edition should be in your school/college/university library. I have a hard copy, which I rarely use. The MLA website has I notice become difficult to access, requiring a sign in and all. So here is the latest MLA style based on the 7th edition 2009 publication. (MLA is perhaps the most appropriate citation style for literature students.) There are websites that automatically arrange your entries according to the specific criteria and alphabetical order as well. That is your cheat sheet! I never had such ease when I was writing my dissertation. Students today are a lot luckier than I was.

A bouquet of revolutions

The recently silenced Umbrella Revolution made me think about the colourful names given to revolutions. It’s fascinating to notice the names of revolutions that organically emerge from the protests.

Have you noticed how flowers’ and colours’ names have been quite popular? And such consistently themed ‘revolutionary’ names. I will avoid chronology here jump to the 2000s in the area around the Soviet Union and the Balkans when the Colour Revolutions started. Inspired by the Yellow Revolution of the Philippines (1986), a whole rainbow of revolutions exploded: Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004), Iraq’s Purple Revolution (2005), Kuwait’s Blue Revolution (2005), Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution (2007) and Iran’s Green Revolution (2009). After colour, comes the flowers: Portugal’s Carnation Revolution (1974), Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution (2005), Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution (2010) and Egypt’s Lotus Revolution (2011). There are some oddities too – a few fruits and textures thrown in for variety I suppose – Moldova’s Grape Revolution (2009), the Czech Velvet Revolution (1989) and Belarus’s Jeans Revolution (2006). If I didn’t know better I’d suspect someone who loves flowers, fruits and colours was left in charge of the names of revolutions and they have used colouring books and crayons for inspiration.

The underline

The underline is quite underrated. I know for sure because I don’t use it as much. I am a rather late convert to underlining myself. The last two books or so – my own not borrowed, you can breathe again – I have taken to underlying passages that resonate with me. I always thought that books had to be looked after in a way such that there were no dog ears, no underlines, no creases, preferably covered with a cellophane sheet so that no dust or pen gets anyway near it. For many years, I did manage just that. So many of my books look as good as new except for the yellowing pages. But lately, I have taken the opposite stance. Books should be a house – it should look like it was loved and lived. That means scars. That means underlines, dog ears and creases. I started with a pencil and have now progressed to boldly underlining my books in pen. There is something very satisfactory in underlining passages in purple ink in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Besides, it must be so much fun to pick up book years later and see which lines meant so much to me and recall why.

I credit my ‘underline’ conversion to the Strand Books tumblr, which features underlined passages of their second-hand books. They are such fun to read. Sometimes, the underlined passage doesn’t even make sense. Which makes me wonder – are you pro-underline or anti? If you are pro-underline, what goes through your mind when you underline them? Does underlining a line or passage reveal a state of mind? Will that state of mind be still relevant years later? Answer to these will take time to appear. In the meantime, let’s look at some sample passages I have underlined:

In an existence like mine forecasts could not be made; I never know what could happen to me in the next half hour, I can’t imagine a life all made up of minimal alternatives, carefully circumscribed, on which bets can be made: either this or that. (If on a winter’s night a traveller, Italo Calvino, page 19, underlined in pencil)

Perhaps everything lies in knowing what words to speak, what actions to perform, and in what order and rhythm; …But everything must happen as if by chance, without attaching too much importance to it, without insisting that you are performing a decisive operation. (Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino, page 140, underlined in purple ink)

…there are something that happen for which we can formulate no whys, for which whys simply do not exist and, perhaps, are not necessary. (Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, page 303, underlined in purple ink)

Announcing Thursday Texts

I have been thinking for a long time about doing something that would help me delve deeper into the ideas I love, bring some structure to the blog, and discipline me into blogging regularly. Ergo, Thursday Texts is born. Borrowing the Structuralist premise that anything can be “read”, the “texts” that I will concentrate on includes but is not limited to books, films, actions, ads, articles, documents, poetry, plays, songs, even park benches. The idea is to look beyond mere appearances to the structure of things, the ideas that hold up the structures of things. While this may bring us face to face with quite a bit of ugliness and agenda that is inherent in this world, it will also give us hope by providing us clarity of perception. Needless to say, it will hit you Thursday-ish.

Here’s a hint for the first Thursday Text: I am going to start off with something quite topical. It’s a recent book and a movie and it’s been wildly successful as both. Can you guess what it is?