NYRB Posts

Jordan B. Peterson “12 Rules for Life”

[bwwpp_book sku=’97803458160230000000′]

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos lays down rules for a better living in a noisy modern world. There is an authoritarian tone to the rules as listed in the table of contents.  The arguments laid out in the book stem from his online discussions on the popular platform Quora.

Every chapter is preceded by an alarmingly disturbing ink illustration involving children. “Alarming” because every single image rather than being hopeful and a cofidence building measure inevitably has a tone which hints that it is best where you are, do not try and have dreams. Take for instance Rule 3 which  states “Make friends wtih people who want the best for you” is accompanied by an illustration of the statue of David by Michelangelo with a very tiny figure of a child looking up at this enormous statue. It looks positively monstrous in the illustration. It is a matter of perspective possibly but to have such distressing illustrations will serve the sole purpose of terrifying people, forcing them to remain where they are and to accept institutional systems and their social conditions as is, instead of questioning or being ambitious and hopeful. These forms of intellectual arguments are detrimental to the growth of an individual and for society at large but most people will know no better for undoubtedly Jordan Peterson is fairly persuasive in his arguments.

Pankaj Mishra in a justifiably scathing attack of Jordan Peterson’s book in the NYRB ( Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, 19 March 2018) has this to say:

 

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts.
….
The “desperation of meaninglessness” widely felt in the late nineteenth century, seemed especially desperate in the years following two world wars and the Holocaust. Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, all credentialed by university education, met a general bewilderment by suggesting the existence of a secret, almost gnostic, knowledge of the world. Claiming to throw light into recessed places in the human unconscious, they acquired immense and fanatically loyal fan clubs. Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.
Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell.
Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailedVladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.
Meanwhile the book continues to sell and has climbed the bestseller charts worldwide although it never made it to the New York Times Bestseller list. So much so that Jordan Peterson was moved sufficiently to write a “Thank you note to booksellers” commending them for their good work. In the letter circulated he lists the 12 books which influenced his 12 rules. These are:
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL by Friedrich Nietzsche
MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl
MODERN MAN IN SEARCH OF A SOUL by Carl Jung
THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE by Mircea Eliade
THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER by George Orwell
BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST by Tom Wolfe
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Fyodor Dostoevsky
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
ORDINARY MEN by Christopher Browning
THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte
The fact is that Jordan Peterson like conservative intellectuals who through their tub thumping articles persuade individuals to focus on themselves increasingly and not necessarily look at the world in a broader context do far more damage to society. Writing such “self-help” books that explicitly encourage an individual to narrow their landscapes considerably to the microcosm create more havoc than be an “antidote to chaos”. An illustrative example is that he offers of a rape survivor to illustrate his Rule 9 “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t” is a a very messed up argument. There are pages and pages of his analysis and reporting his conversation with the victim but this particular passage stands out for its misogyny.
She talked a lot. When we were finished, she still didn’t know if she had been raped and neither did I. Life is very complicated.
Sometimes you have to change the way you understand everything to properly understand a single something. “Was I raped?” can be a very complicated question. The mere fact that the question would present itself in that form indicates the existence of infinite layers of complexity — to say nothing of “five times.” There are a myriad of questions hidden inside “Was I raped?: What is rape? What is consent? What constitutes appropriate sexual caution? How should a person defend herself? Where does the fault lie? “Was I raped?” is a hydra. If you cut off the head of a hydra, seven more grow. That’s life. Miss S would have had to talk for twenty years to figure out whether she had been raped.
As Pankaj Mishra points out:
Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.
Writer Matt Haig in a different context had this to say on Twitter about feminism and patriarchal mindsets. It is applicable in the context of this book:

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life is a book that will be discussed for years to come. Read it if you must while bearing in mind the larger picture of intellectual discourse.
Jordan Peterson 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, London, 2018. Pb. pp.410 Rs 699
21 March 2018 

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, translated by Deborah Smith

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Deborah Smith (left), translator of the winning book, The Vegetarian, with author Han Kang at the Man Booker International Prize in London. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images. ( Taken from the Internet)

She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her dishevelled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her,  the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shab-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us form the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags. …She kept on putting the parcels of meat into the rubbish bags, seemingly no more aware of my existence than she had been last night. Beef and pork, pieces of chicken, at least 200,000 –won of saltwater eel.

The Vegetarian or Chaesikjuuija by Han Kang was published in Korean in 2007. The Vegetarian is about Yeong-hye who decides to become a vegetarian. She is discovered by her husband quietly and methodically removing all the meat products from their refrigerator and putting them into garbage bags. A horrifying proposition as her father points out, “It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!” Yeong-hye is reserved and rarely speaks even to her husband. She prefers to remain confined to a room in their apartment reading and reflecting. After deciding to turn vegetarian despite being more than a competent cook she inexplicably imposes the dietary restriction on her husband too. He seeks assistance from his in-laws in the hope they will be able to get some sense in to their daughter but to no avail. Slowly the mental well-being of Yeong-hye deteriorates when she begins to believe that she is photosynthesising like a plant and has to be institutionalised.

The Vegetarian sub-heading declares it to be a novel. But the published version consists of three interlinked stories told from three different points-of-view: Yeon-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister. While they tell the story there are marginal overlaps of the narrative but slowly and steadily the plot does move ahead in time. It covers the time from the moment Yeon-hye decides to turn vegetarian to her institutionalisation, abandoned by her husband, returns to society to live alone albeit under the supervision of her sister and then back again in an institution. During the course of this time supposedly in the name of an art installation she agrees to her brother-in-law’s suggestion to have her body covered in paint and then filmed having sex with him only to be discovered by her sister. Despite the betrayal by her sister, In-hye, does not stop caring for Yeon-hye and regularly visits her, “despite the probing gazes, that mix of suspicion, caution, repugnance, and curiousity” that she encounters from her fellow passengers en route to Ch’ukseong Psychiatric Hospital, Maseok.

It was first published as three separate “novelettes” and then compiled into a “novel” as described on the copyright page of the English edition. This is how it was published in English too in 2015. An early version of the story that developed into The Vegetarian can be read on the Granta website:http://granta.com/the-fruit-of-my-woman/ .  This curiously mesmerising example of a contemporary magic realism novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize, the first after it had been combined with the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction.  Han Kang beat other powerful contenders such as Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Elena Ferrante and Kenzaburō Ōe. From this year the prize is now awarded to a single foreign novel translated into English, the money involved—£50,000 ($72,000)—being shared equally by author and translator. Till the win Han Kang and Deborah Smith were little known in international literary circles. Interestingly enough translating this book was one of Deborah Smith’s first professional attempts and she literally struck gold. She has said many times on social media since the win that she was translating the book while learning Korean. It was pure luck that this particular book went on to achieve international acclaim. In an interview, Smith explains how, having completed a degree in English literature, she decided to become a translator. Monolingual until then, she chose Korean “pragmatically,” because she had heard there was a lively literary scene in Korea and far fewer translators than for European languages. But she also very graciously acknowledged in an article how publishing is an industry and translation is a community – “nobody’s in it for the money, largely because there usually isn’t any”. (http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/deborah-smith-publishing-is-an-industry-but-translation-is-a-community-1.2688760) She herself proposed The Vegetarian to an English publisher who accepted it. It is the first novel she has translated. Yet there has been criticism regarding the quality of translation from critics such as Tim Parks who refers to them as “translation niggles”.  (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/06/20/raw-and-cooked-translation-why-the-vegetarian-wins/ )

For someone so passionate about the translated literature it is apt Smith has inaugurated her independent publishing press, Tilted Axis Press, with Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay’s Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha. To commemorate Women in Translation Month* ‪ (#‎WITMonth ) observed in August, Deborah Smith published the second title, a South Korean novel One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon.

*The Women in Translation month is an annual ritual started as recently as three years ago to address the gender imbalances in literature by blogger Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio.  (http://biblibio.blogspot.in/2016/08/witmonth-2016-day-1-ready-set-go.html )

Han Kang The Vegetarian: A Novel ( Translated by Deborah Smith) Portobello Books, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. 184 Rs 499

Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”

Alan Turing, The EnigmaNowadays it is perhaps taken rather for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialised China can use the same computer as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s. That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Alan Turing in 1936 implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine. 

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing’s ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: ‘every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form…’ ( p.409). Donald Davies, one of Turing called programs) for ‘packet switching’ and these grew into the Internet protocols. Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing’s universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Alan Turing in 1936. 

( Preface, p.xvi-xvii)

Alan Turing: The Enigma a biography of the eminent mathematician by another mathematician, Andrew Hodges was first published in 1983. As with good biographies, it balances the personal, plotting the professional landmarks, with a balanced socio-historical perspective, giving excellent insight in the period Alan Turing lived. Whether it is the history of physics branching off into this particular field of mathematics, Alan Turing’s significant contribution to it, becoming a part of the team at Bletchley Park as a code breaker, and of course his personal life — the bullying he experienced at school, his homosexuality, the friends he made and his relationship with his family, especially his mother.

This biography is so much in the style of biographies written in the 1960s to 1980s — packed with detail. This is the major difference from the twenty-first biographies which are more in the style of bio-fiction than biographies. Yet it is fascinating to see how Alan Turing in a sense has been “resurrected” by twenty-first century concerns such as importance of the Internet, computers available 24×7 and of course his homosexuality, his struggles and his suicide. Then there is Turing’s genius. His gift for fiddling with maths and science. Decoding the Nazi messages. A great deal of credit goes to Andrew Hodges for keeping Turing’s memory alive and updating the information regularly especially at a time when bio-fic is fashionable. This is an old-fashioned biography where details about the life of the person with dates, snippets of correspondence, plenty of research ( constantly updating it as official files were declassified), minutely recording events and visits to places that may have relevance to the book. The book is fascinating for its detailed history of the evolution of mathematics as an independent discipline, the differences between science and maths and explaining how Turing broke away from the shackles of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought where maths was considered to be an integral part of the sciences. Turing’s biggest achievement was the original applications in maths relying upon the principles he learned in physics, especially experiments in quantum mechanics. The book  has footnotes and a preface that has been updated for this special film tie-in edition, to coincide with the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This biography has been in print for more than 30 years. It was last revised in 1992, but this special paperback edition has been reprinted with a new preface by Andrew Hodges, updated in 2014. In fact Newsweek carried an excerpt from it: ( Andrew Hodges, “The Private Anguish of Alan Turing”, 13 Dec 2014 http://www.newsweek.com/private-anguish-alan-turing-291653 ). Graham Moore who adapted the book for the film won an Oscar for his efforts, but as this post from Melville House makes it clear, this script was always meant to win awards. ( http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-imitation-game-and-the-complicated-byproducts-of-adaptation/ ) L. V. Anderson of Slate points out that that the biopic is riddled with inaccuracies. “I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was. ( L. V. Anderson, “How  accurate is The Imitation Game?”. 3 dec 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html )

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”, ( 18 Dec 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/quest-real-coleridge/?pagination=false )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.” This is exactly what Andrew Hodges achieves in this stupendous biography of Alan Turing. Sure there are moments when the technical descriptions about mathematics become difficult to comprehend, yet it is a readable account. The author bio in the book says “Andrew Hodges is Tutor in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford University. His classic text of 1983 since translated into several languages, created a new kind of biography, with mathematics, science, computing, war history, philosophy and gay liberation woven into a single personal narrative. Since 1983 his main work has been in the mathematics of fundamental physics, as a colleague of Roger Penrose. But he has continued to involve himself with Alan Turing’s story, through dramatisation, television documentaries and scholarly articles. Since 1995 he has maintained a website at www.turing.org.uk to enhance and support his original work.”

It takes a while to read this nearly 700 page biography, but it is time well spent. Certainly at a time when issues such as net neutrality are extremely important. In fact, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) in USA “voted on Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes. …The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those prohibitions are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept.” This ruling will have repercussions worldwide.  (“F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility”, 26 Feb 2015.  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html?_r=0 )

Alan Turing and his contribution to modern day technology continues to be relevant even 60+ years after his death.

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma Vintage Books, London, 1983, rev 1992, with rev preface, 2014. Pb. pp.750. £ 8.99

27 February 2015

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 1 November 2014 and in print on 2 November 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-happy-readers/article6555142.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

A recent article, “The Percy Jackson problem”, argued that Rick Riordan’s rewriting of Greek myths for a contemporary audience is unacceptable since it lures young readers away from the “classics”. The journalist also did not subscribe to the view that kids should be allowed to read whatever they are reading as long as they are reading! Apparently the huge crowds of youngsters (outnumbering the adults) filling synagogues, theatres, and basketball stadiums to attend the interactions with Riordan, a former middle-school English and history teacher — who is currently on a tour to promote the last book in the Olympians series, The Blood of Olympus — was insufficient evidence that children were happy reading. A publishing colleague sent me a furious response to the article saying that it was mean spirited and unfair given that Riordan has touched thousands of kids’ lives in a positive way and reached many reluctant readers.

New generations of readers are crucial for the survival of publishing. While delivering his acceptance speech at the PEN/Pinter Prize 2014, Salman Rushdie said, “I always believed that the book is completed by the reader that out of the intimacy of strangers created by the act of reading emerges the book as it exists for that reader; and that out of that private act of union comes love, the love of literature, of reading, of that particular book …”

The powerful impact an author can have on a reader, even in a large group, was demonstrated at a literary evening that I curated at the Embassy of Ireland. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, three Indian authors were invited to a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by the ambassador H.E. Feilim McLaughlin. The authors spoke powerfully of their engagement with conflict and how it has influenced their writing. The audience sat in pin-drop silence. Some wept. Most had lumps in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences touched a raw nerve in many, especially those with direct links with Partition, the 1984 riots and communal conflicts.

Of late there has been a growing debate on how the Internet is cutting into the time of readers. It is estimated that, by 2018, 3.9 billion people will be online; many on smartphones. It is not surprising to discover that Adobe has been collecting data about its customers’ reading pattern. Last week, Nielsen announced that it was expanding its ratings to include all kinds of digital content. The writer-reader relationship is evolving rapidly with the growth of technology. People are operating these devices not just to communicate with each other but also to read articles and books online. Consequently word-of-mouth recommendations will only grow. The relatively new ReadMyStori.com “is a platform that helps authors get readers to read, appreciate and popularise their work”. Authors say that at least 40 per cent of downloads are converted into book sales.

As Tim Parks points out in an NYRB article (June 10, 2014), “The conditions in which we read today are not those of 50 or even 30 years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”

An excellent example of such a response to the changing reading environment is Samanvay: IHC Indian Languages’ Festival (November 6-11, 2014), comprising 90 speakers and performers in 20 languages and dialects. The theme is “Translations Transnations” with focus on Indian languages that have a transnational presence like Bangla, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, English, Hindi, Konkani, Malayalam, Punjabi and Sanskrit.

The effect of storytelling sessions and stress on reading books other than textbooks is also evident in the crowds of happy children that attend Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature (IGNCA, New Delhi, November 29-30, 2014). The youngsters can be seen mobbing authors and illustrators, seeking autographs, asking a zillion questions, offering authors manuscripts to read, listening in rapt attention to the writers, participating in workshops and buying piles of book at the temporary bookstore.

This year, 83 speakers such as Jamila Gavin, Natasha Sharma, The Storywallahs, Vivek Menon, Rui Sousa and Prayag Shukla will participate.

These children are accessing e-books and books in print, but it does not matter as long as they are reading!

2 November 2014

 

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

July 1914

When we studied about WWI as children, our school textbooks would dismiss in one sentence the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary as being responsible for the war. In comparison Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War is a big fat book of nearly 470+ pages documenting the assassination, the aftermath in the month of July 1914, and the complicated politics. His account is packed with detail. It does not matter if one is unfamiliar with the nitty-gritties of the Habsburg Empire, the rising power of Russia etc. He makes the claim that the Great War  was “The War of the Ottoman Succession”. It will require a historian, especially of this period to do a scholarly critique of the book, yet it does make an important contribution to the avalanche of books being published in 2014–the centenary of World War I. 

July 1914: Countdown to War is packed with information without getting tedious, is strong on storytelling, making it very accessible to a lay reader too. It is worth reading. I found a print book useful to scribble notes in the margins but a book like this would do well to have a digital interactive edition.

Here are some links related to July 1914: Countdown to War and WWI literature. ( Now for similar articles from different parts of the world.)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/06/greatest-catastrophe-world-has-seen/ A review article by R. J. W. Evans on NYRB on a bunch of WWI books, including two by Sean McMeekin. ( 6 Feb 2014 issue)

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/05/27/the_house_of_habsburg_revisited_empire_nostalgia_austria_hungary_central_europe An excellent article on Foreign Policy by Simon Winder, “The House of Habsburg Revisited”. ( 27 May 2014.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOwaYNiJ6G8 In a discussion of his book, July 1914: Countdown to War,  historian Sean McMeekin reveals how a small cabal of European statesmen used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to initiate a long-awaited showdown among the Continent’s powers, ultimately leading to the start of World War I. In this talk he also says that many of the contemporary conflict flashpoints/battlefields are the same as those during WWI. (29 January 2014, The Kansas City Public Library. )

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html#path/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html A round up on Publishers Weekly of books on WWI, but does not mention any of Sean McMeekin. ( 9 May 2014)

Sean McMeekin July 1914: Countdown to War Icon Books, London, 2013. Pb. pp. 470. Rs. 599

3 June 2014