Today, my eleven-year-old daughter was introduced to George Orwell”s fabulous essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. The child cracked up with laughter upon reading Orwell’s comments about writing book reviews such as, “grossly overpraising”, “unappetising (books)”, “the complete truth is that this book would be worthless”, and “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to”. She hooted with delight when she read that the middle section of a review that constitutes about 600 words is usually avoidable. This is the kid who only reads a book cover-to-cover if it interests her, otherwise she tosses it away after reading the first few pages. And when she likes a book, she loves it. She will not stop reading it, till she is done with it. She only relies on her instinct to appreciate a book. Rarely goes upon recommendations or book reviews or by popular trends amongst her peers. So she absolutely gets what Orwell means. Fascinating watching her respond to the essay.
I was thoroughly entertained as she read out passages from it by doing voices, alternating between Inspector Closeau and Count Dracula/Hotel Transylvania.
The Longest Kiss: The Life and Times of Devika Rani by Kishwar Desai ( Context, Westland Books), is a biography of the famous Bollywood actress, Devika Rani. It is a biography that Kishwar Desai has put together after poring over thousands and thousands of the actress’s personal correspondence. It creates an image of woman who was a strong individual, had an identity of her own, knew her mind and was very sure what she wanted out of the film industry. She was then the only, and perhaps even now, actress/filmmaker/producer and owner of a film studio – Bombay Talkies. She was known internationally in the 1930s, a feat that is hard for many to achieve even today, nearly a century later!
The Longest Kiss is informative and an absorbing read even if one is unfamiliar with the Bollywood landscape of the 1930s to 1940s. Bombay Talkies produced some of the better-known films of its time. It helped launch careers of many actors such as Ashok Kumar and Dilip Kumar. Kishwar Desai captures the tumultousness of setting up a new business, in what was then uncharted waters, but the manner in which Devika Rani supported her first husband and business partner, Himansu Rai is astonishing. There are glimpses of the tough life she had and the balancing act she had to do often especially with Himansu’s failing mental health and irascible temper. Apparently in private he would take it out on Devika Rani, at times leaving her unconscious and yet she persisted in supporting him and working hard to preserve their business. Often she was also the leading lady in the films they produced together. Having said that she ensured that Bombay Talkies ran smoothly, the women actresses hired found it to be a safe haven and a respite from their domestic drudgery, the employees found it to be professionally run and the presence of the German cinematographers were more a blessing than an interference. So much so when the British arrived at the height of World War II to whisk the Germans away to detention camps, Bombay Talkies continued to work smoothly as the Indians had been trained well by the Germans and Devika Rani ensured that there was no break in the production schedules. Of course, Kishwar Desai details a great deal of the financial ups and downs the firm faced and how deftly Devika Rani steered it through. The actress even survived successfully a revolt within her firm and the board and continued to make films that were a critical and a commercial success. It was later that she was introduced by Bharati Sarabhai to the former Russian aristocrat and painter Svetsolav Roerich. They got along famously well and the rest as they say is history. This too is documented fairly well documented by Kishwar Desai except that it forms a very slim portion of the book. Devika Rani died a wealthy woman, a far cry from the days with Himansu when she had to starve herself or hide the fact that she did not have sufficient clothes to wear.
This is a fascinating book that was fifteen years in the making and will forever be referred to by cinema buffs, researchers and historians curious about India’s past, and of course feminists who would be keen to review how a young woman, newly returned from Britain, left her mark on the film industry in this astonishing manner. All this despite the trials and tribuulations she faced at home, Himansu was known to beat her but she hid it from public, he had reduced her to penury and she had pawned her jewels to help him maintain his illusion of a successful man. There are so many wrongs in this and yet so many women readers will recognise the eternal truth of being caught in this bind of being themselves while being “supportive” of their male partners. There is this particular sentiment that wafts through the book that is difficult to pin down. It is a feeling that develops within the reader curious as to why Devika Rani despite all odds chose to stay with an abusive partner like Himansu even if the rationale of sharing a business interest is offered. Of course, the love that Svetsolav and she had for each other was a blessing. Even so, this steadfast loyalty to Himansu is inexplicable.
Kishwar Desai writes ( p.430):
It was ironic that all these years, she had longed to be looked after. In all her relationships, she had wanted a mentor,a father figure to replace the one she had lost so early — but the men in her life would always lean on her, instead. Somewhere, then, did she always feel unfulfilled? Perhaps it was the loneliness. . . .
I had to take a break from this increasingly bewildering feeling about Devika Rani as to why she stuck it out with Himansu and I was not convinced by the argument that it was loneliness. While on a break, I picked up Arshia Sattar’s lucidly written collection of essays about Maryada, or ‘boundary’ and ‘propriety of conduct’. It is a complicated concept especially since the one version that has held supreme is the idea of ‘maryada purshottama’ or the ‘ideal man’ as the defining virtue of Rama in the Ramayana. But in her essays, Arshia Sattar sets out to explore how the Hindu epics are driven by four ‘operators’ — dharma, karma, vidhi ( fate) and daiva (intervention by the gods). How these especially the various kinds of dharma are fulfilled by individuals by the choices they make. In Maryada ( HarperCollins India) Arshia Sattar tries to delineate the various ways in which these can be achieved or even recognise how others apart from Rama practise this concept. In her concluding remarks in the essay on “Ayodhya’s Wives” where she tries to understand Rama’s arguments about love, she writes:
Rama indicates that Dashratha, too, has acted out of love for Kaikeyi, as Rama is about do now for his wife Sita. Acts of love have to be the most subjective, individual choices that anyone can make, for surely no two people love alike. And yet, Rama feels compelled to transform these acts of will, acts located deep within the sweetest and most expansive spaces of the human heart, into choices that lie within the framework of dharma such as the one that controls him and his father, both as kings and as husbands.
Acting within the constraints of dharma, taking on the roles and walking the paths that have been circumscribed for an individual who is a man, a king, a husband, a son, a brother, minimizes the potential these personal choices have for subversion. …Free will has been eliminated from the discourse of right and wrong, and once again, dharma has been instrumental as the basis not only of action, but also of choice.
It may be a bit far-fetched to think that Devika Rani was at some level following the ideals of the faith she had been brought up in and was whether self-consciously or otherwise fulfilling her dharma. Who knows? And we shall certainly never know. But it is this very fundamental concept of choices that a woman makes that is at the core of the third wave of feminism. Perhaps this angle could have been explored further if Kishwar Desai had chosen to exploit her strength as a novelist to create a thinly veiled fictionalised biography based on facts as David Lodge had done in his novel Author, Author that is about American novelist Henry James. For now I have reservations about The Longest Kiss kind of a biography that oscillates between sharing documentary evidence, especially of the financial aspects of running Bombay Talkies, and ever so often delving into the fiction when imagining the romance between Devika Rani and her husbands, does not quite come together seamlessly. The non-fiction narrative is absorbing to read even if it is based on facts that are never footnoted in the text. So why disrupt the flow of reading with romantic episodes that do not sit well in the text? It does not make any sense even if Devika Rani was a romantic at heart.
Having said that Kishwar Desai’s biography of the actress will be considered as a seminal piece of work even if my Eureka moment of attempting to understand who Devika Rani was by reading some of Arshia Sattar’s brilliant essays. But isn’t that what reading is all about? It raises questions reading a book and that may or may not get answered by reading another one?
It has taken the pandemic for many of us to confront our mortality. Living with the fear of contracting the virus is like living in the shadow of death 24×7. It is a gloomy existence. Fortunately those able-bodied souls who have the chance and exercise their choice, know how to plan for their future, assuming they live. Yet “death” has been explored in literature ad nauseam. It is a complicated part of life since death brings with it a flood of emotions. Grief being predominate but much else happens too. Every individual affected by grief react in their own way.
“Ways of Dying” is a fine collection of literary writings around death and its rites that are observed by the living. All the pieces assembled in this book are extremely well known. But to have them arranged in this manner, shifting gears constantly between the public and personal spaces, unleashes a roller coaster of emotions in the reader. For instance, descriptions of the communal riots in the heart of the Indian capital in Oct 1984 (Amitav Ghosh), Khushwant Singh recalling the last hours of his grandmother, Amitava Kumar’s moving account of his mother’s death, or the fascinating extracts from David Davidar’s book “House of Blue Mangoes” and Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” leave one’s head spinning. The quality of writing is excellent. Controlled and measured . It engulfs the reader in the writer’s hurt at witnessing death. It is an indescribable moment. But at least we are spared that finality of the moment. Because when it comes, it is devastating. It is numbing. These stories can only bring you close to the experience. No more. But it is sufficiently chilling to read especially during the pandemic.
Hanif Kureishi’s What Happened? is a collection of essays and stories that were published in various literary magazines and newspapers in recent years. The publications may be recent but it is an interesting mix spanning a few decades of his life. The essays are mostly autobiographical revolving primarily around his desire to be a writer, his determination to achieve his goal and once a published writer, inhabiting a literary world which was predominantly white and seemed to constantly sideline writers like him who were of a different colour.
The British creativity I grew up with – in pop, fashion, poetry, the visual arts and the novel – has almost always come from outside the mainstream, from clubs, gay subcultures, the working class and from the street. Many of the instigators might have been white, but they were not from the middle class, a group that lacks, in my experience, the imagination, fearlessness and talent to be truly subversive.
The truth is, the conservative fear of other voices is not due to the anxiety that artists from outside the mainstream will be untalented, filling up galleries and bookshops with sludge, but that they will be outstanding and brilliant. The conservatives willhave to swallow the fact that despite the success of British artists, real talent has been neglected and discouraged by those who dominate the culture, deliberately keeping schools, the media, universities and the cultural world closed to interesting people.
The essays that stand out are those that describe Kureishi’s awakening as an author, his descriptions of inhabiting the literary world and his firm opinions about racism. These have been consistent themes in his essays over the years but in this collection they are stand out as being extremely relevant. What really hits home hard is that Kureishi was writing about these subjects much before it became fashionable to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the creative industry. He was writing what he saw, experienced, and analysed. He made it his trademark to write about various subjects particularly the racial discrimination he saw daily. It is a perspective that was quite literally being whitewashed in mainstream media and literary platforms though chinks had begun to be visible. Hanif Kureishi is of Asian origin but he was born and brought up in UK. So he was like any other British child except he was made acutely aware of the difference because of his skin colour whereas he did not see himself as any different. But in his very moving essay remembering his friend David Bowie it becomes apparent that to some degree even colour does not matter, but the socio-economic station that you inhabit does. Bowie and Kureishi were a decade apart, they went to the same school in Bromley, but become firm friends later, probably when they joined showbiz.
From the time Kureishi began writing in the early 1970s till now, he has always been comfortable with who he is and his voice has never changed. His style of writing is predictable but never boring, if anything it has become sharper with age. What comes through extraordinarily beautifully in What Happened? is that Hanif Kureishi has not changed but the world has to a certain degree — the horrors of sectarian violence and racism that he was alerting us to over the years have only intensified. So commentators like Kureishi who speak confidently, sharing an opinion, continue to be relevant.
United we are unstoppable: 60 inspiring young people saving our world — in their own words is a collection of essays, compiled and edited by Akshat Rathi. Rathi is a London-based journalist for Bloomberg News. These testimonies are brief and clearly spell out the young activist’s mission. Some start with the particular incident that transformed them to start a personal campaign to do their bit towards saving the planet, others on what worries and propels them to start a movement and how it dovetails together beautifully with similar campaigns run by equally enthusiastic and committed individuals scattered around the globe. The essays are arranged according to the continents the young activists reside in. Illustrated b/w maps acting as separators accompanied by key points of climate crisis in that geograohical area are a fantastic snapshot introduction to the problems being faced by the locals. Organising the essays within each section on the youth’s local contribution interspersed with ways in which the readers can also assist is a good way to understand, navigate and understand on how to make relevant changes in our lives The book slips into that space of a cross between a primer and narrative nonfiction but it makes easier to appreciate environmental activism and perhaps even be motivated to be agents of change ourselves It is only collective will that can help save Earth.
As Rathi says in his introduction, “These young people don’t just bring new energy to the climate fight; they bring new perspectives, fresh tactics and unwavering resolution. They don’t just understand that everything in the world is connected; they also know how to bridge the divides that have been forming. They know that tackling climate change requires cutting emissions, but that getting there will require facing up to and rooting out deeper injustices perpetuated in society. The youth climate movement has sprung from the grass roots, brought millions into the fold and changed the global conversation.”
Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.
The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.
Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.
Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)
Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.
This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.
Tim Park’s essays are always a pleasure to read. Short and always packed with information. Some of it familliar, some of it unexpected. Pen in Hand is a collection of essays that mostly appeared in the New York Review of Books Daily between 2014 to 2017. There are many to choose from but one particular one entitled “Too Many Books?” has a fascinating section on patronage for the independent writer, the history of mass printing and accessing mass audiences and with it the evoluion of the concept of copyright.
Here is an excerpt:
…in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased. All the same, the only way to have more than one copy of what you’d written was to write it out again on another piece of paper, or pay someone else to do that for you. These limitations naturally encouraged people to keep things short and to invest the act of writing with a certain solemnity.
For centuries, if what you had written was going to be shown to others, it would have to be placed in a library, usually a church library. And since the one of the only ways anyone would know that a new piece of literature had been written was if the writer personally put the word around, there would usually be some kind of social connection between writer and readers. At best, then, you could appeal to a literary elite, sharing the same written language — Latin — that was inaccessible to the masses. Perhaps the offspring of these elite would also read you. In fact it was easier to imagine a reputation in centuries to come than widespread diffusion in one’s own time. The perception was that the essential quality of writing was its separation of mental material from mortal grey matter. Word and idea were disembodied and stabilized in order to travel through time, not to be infinitely multiplied in the present.
In general, then, the conditions for supporting the independent professional writer who makes a living from his work just weren’t there. At most, one could hope to come under the patronage of a king, or a city state, or the Church. You could be commissioned to write a treatise or a history. These were not the circumstances where it would be easy to write things your patrons didn’t agree with. Or you might attach yourself to a theater company, where actors would repeat things you had written, though not necessarily word for word. Now your writing might travel a little if the theater company traveled. But most likely it wouldn’t. Traveling companies would not be performing elaborately scripted plays until the sixteenth century.
With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops—often more than one if a book was popular—rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania—never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned—but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today.
Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.
In 1710, Britain’s Queen Anne introduced the first of a series of laws recognizing an author’s right to control the copying of his work. Suddenly, it made economic sense to address yourself to everybody who could afford to pay for a book, rather than to your peer group; much better to write one book that sold in huge quantities than many books that were of interest only to a chosen few. And if the work could be sold in another country it was now worth paying a translator to translate, even if he or she, but usually at this point he, was not especially interested in the work, or perhaps actively disliked it. Writing, translating, and publishing were all becoming jobs.
It is a tough choice to select the books I wish to mention in this newsletter. There is so much good literature being published — a delight to read. Many times the ideas and motives for a book are also tremendous. But sometimes the execution of the idea or perhaps even the production in the book fails. Sadly such moments leave the reader in a pall of gloom.
But let us begin with the first book, a gorgeous, gorgeous collection of essays by the late Oliver Sacks. British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author who passed away in 2015. Fortunately he was a prolific writer and left a magnificent literary estate. His posthumous publications have included two collections of essays. Everything in its Place is the second of these books. It consists of his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” Read on more in this blog post.
The second book which I read ages ago but was unable to write about since there was so much to dwell upon was debut writer Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City. It is impossible to put in a nutshell the feeling that this book leaves you with. It is a mix between disturbing and thought-provoking narrative. Perhaps it is best to reproduce the book blurb:
For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.
While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.
Unsurprisingly this book has won or been shortlisted for many awards including the prestigious International Dylan Thomas Prize and Jhalak Prize. It has been a remarkable run for the filmmaker-turned-writer Guy Gunaratne. In Our Mad and Furious City is a tremendous book but it will be Guy Gunaratne’s third book ( if he ever does publish it) that will be the one to watch out for.
The last book isThe Churches of Indiaby Australian Joanne Taylor. It is a heavily illustrated book with an interesting collection of churches in India. This book is an attempt to put together a history of some of the better known churches of India. Unfortunately the definite article in the title raises expectations of it being a comprehensive overview of the churches in India, which it certainly is not. It is a book that is focused very much on the churches found on the well-established tourist circuit of Goa, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry and Chandannagar. The influences of the Portugese, British and French colonial rulers is evident in the architecture. So the churches showcased are definitely magnificent and some of the buildings are many centuries old. Yet, the glaring gaps in the representation of churches even within the National Capital Region of Delhi such as of St. Johns Church, Meerut is unforgivable. It is a church that was consecrated by Bishop Heber when he visited India in the early nineteenth century. It is also the church associated with the events of 1857. It is about an hour and a half drive from the capital city of Delhi so its exclusion is surprising. Similarly by focusing predominantly on magnificent colonial structures with a scrumptious display of images gives the impression that Christianity came to the subcontinent with colonialism and that is far from the truth. Christianity came to the subcontinent with the arrival of one of Christ’s disciples, St. Thomas, nearly two millennia ago — mentioned briefly in the book’s introduction. Subsequently congregations are known to gather in different parts of the country with churches as simple and bare as mud floors and thatched roofs to the more elaborate colonial buildings as documented in this book. The vast silences of churches that exist in central India, north east India with its wide variety of churches belonging to different denominations or the northern states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, to name a few, is inexplicable. Finally, glaring errors such as referring to The Cathedral Church of the Redemption as “Roman Catholic” (p.230) is preposterous. As stated accurately in the book it was built for the Viceroy in 1931 by Henry Medd. Given that the British designed and built it for their Viceroy, a representative of the British Crown, it has to be an Anglican or Protestant church — a fact misrepresented in the entry. While the hardwork of the author is evident in putting together histories of the churches profiled, the reader’s trust in the facts presented is weakened considerably by these errors. Books like this while fulfilling a wonderful requirement of documenting these beautiful buildings mar their very own credibility by being slipshod in factchecking. Perhaps this is something the editorial team could have assisted the author with rather than the entire onus resting upon the author alone?
British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author Oliver Sacks died in 2015. A huge loss to the world particularly to the world of writing and reading. He read voraciously, wrote beautifully and with a precision that is a sheer delight to behold. Fortunately after his passing, some of his unpublished writings were published in a collection called River of Consciousness and now Everything in its Place puts together his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” In Everything in its Place there are two particular instances when this happens. One when he wistfully records the demise of print collections in libraries in favour of digital books thereby losing the opportunity of serendipitous gems such as the 1873 book Megrim. This is what he writes in his essay “Libraries”:
When I was a child, my favourite place at home was the library, a large oak-paneled room with all four walls covered by bookcases — and a solid table for writing and studying in the middle. …The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favourite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.
When I went to university, I had access to Oxford’s two great university libraries, the Radcliffe Science Library and the Bodleian, a wonderful general library that could trace itself back to 1602. …But the library I loved the most at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, weere the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me … .
I first came to New York City in 1965, and at that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of a refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.
But a shift was occurring by the 1990s. I would continue to visit the library frequently, sitting at a table with a mountain of books in front of me, but students increasingly ignored the bookshelves, accessing what they needed with their computers. Few of them went to their shelves anymore. The books, so far as they were concerned, were unnecessary. And since the majority of users were no longer using the books themselves, the college decided, ultimately, to dispose of them.
I had no idea that this was happening — not only in the Einstein library but in college and public libraries all over the country. I was horrified when I visited the library recently and found the shelves, once overflowing, now sparsely occupied. Over the last few years, most of the books, it seems, have been thrown out, with remarkably little objection from anyone. I felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge. Seeing my distress, a librarian reassured me that everything “of worth” had been digitized. But I do not use a computer, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: its look, its smell, its heft. I thought of how this library once cherished “old” books, had a special room for old and rare books; and how in 1967, rummaging through the stacks, I had found an 1873 book, Edward Liveing’s Megrim which inspired me to write my own first book.
The second instance is when Sacks rues his failing eyesight is robbing him of the pleasures of reading print books. For him it was the print book that held the greatest appeal and no amount of technological innovation such as audio books could persuade him to think otherwise. He has a point when he writes in “Reading the Fine Print”:
In January of 2006, when my vision began to decline, I wondered what I would do. There were audiobooks — I had recorded some of them myself — but I was quintessentially a reader, not a listener. I have been an inveterate reader as far back as I can remember — I often hold page numbers or the look of paragraphs and pages in my almost automatically, and I can instantly find my way to a particular passage in most of my books. I want books that belong to me, books whose intimate pagination will become dear and familiar. My brain is geared towards reading — …
We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.
…there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one read’s in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.
Writing should be accessible in as many formats as possible — George Bernard Shaw called books the memory of the race. No one sort of book should be allowed to disappear, for we are all individuals, with highly indivualized needs and preferences — preferences embedded in our brains at every level, our individual neural patterns and networks creating a deeply personal engagement between author and reader.
This is so true! Any true-blooded reader would identify wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed. For me it rings true at another level too. My nine-year-old daughter prefers print to audio books for she claims “audio interferes with her imagination!” Till I read this essay I attributed it to a child’s quirk. Now I know better.
Read Everything in its Place! There is so much to discover.