Penguin Random House Posts

Extract from “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution”

The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury is an interesting tribute to a short lived but intense literary movement in West Bengal that has left an lasting impact around the world. Their well documented relationship with the Beats poet is also analysed in The Hungryalists. This book will become one of the go-to reads on The Hungryalists precisely for the very reason that little documentation of the movement exists in English as these poets mostly wrote in Bengali. So to transcend languages and cultures requires a bridging language which is English.

The Hungryalist or the hungry generation movement was a literary movement in Bengali that was launched in 1961, by a group of young Bengali poets. It was spearheaded by the famous Hungryalist quartet — Malay Roychoudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. They had coined Hungryalism from the word ‘Hungry’ used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poetic line “in the sowre hungry tyme”. The central theme of the movement was Oswald Spengler’s idea of History, that an ailing culture feeds on cultural elements brought from outside. These writers felt that Bengali culture had reached its zenith and was now living on alien food. . . . The movement was joined by other young poets like Utpal Kumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Falguni Roy, Tridib Mitra and many more. Their poetry spoke the displaced people and also contained huge resentment towards the government as well as profanity. … On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against 11 of the Hungry poets. The charges included obscenity in literature and subversive conspiracy against the state. The court case went on for years, which drew attention worldwide. Poets like Octavio Paz, Ernesto Cardenal and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Malay Roychoudhury. The Hungryalist movement also influenced Hindi, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu & Urdu literature. ( “The Hungryalist Movement: When People Took Their Fight Against The Government” Md Imtiaz, The Logical Indian, 29 June 2016)

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With the permission of the publisher here are two short extracts from the book:

Like everywhere else, the shadow of caste hung over the burning ghats as well. There were different burning sections for different castes. The Indian poets accompanying Ginsberg were usually Brahmins. Being there and smoking up was in itself an act of defiance, which normally nobody but the tantrics indulged in. Sunil, who had brought in his dead father here not too long ago, even joked about the place. Later, Ginsberg would go on to write:

I lay in my Calcutta bed, eye fixed

On the green shutters in the wall, crude

Wood that might have been windows

in your Cottage, with a rusty nail

and a ring iron at the hand

To open on heaven. A whitewashed

Wall, the murmur of sidewalk sleepers,

the burning ghat’s sick rose flaring

like matchsticks miles away, my cough

from flu and too many cigarettes,

prophet Ramakrishna banning

the bowels and desires—

War was on everyone’s mind. Ginsberg spoke extensively on what he called the ‘era of wars’. ‘There are as many different wars as the very nature of these wars,’ he had told his fellow poets. Following the death of Stalin and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an uneven calm seemed to have descended, only to be followed by skirmishes here and there. Issues of sovereignty dominated East and West Germany; the Kurds and Iraq were at loggerheads; closer home, the Tibetans were, of course, still struggling to ward off the Chinese invasion of their lands.

Without much ado, Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky and Fakir, arrived one Sunday at the Coffee House looking for Bengali poets. The cafe was abuzz with writers, editors and journalists. Each group had a different table—some had joined two or more tables and brought together different conversations on one plate. But somehow, everyone seemed to have an inchoate understanding of the business of war and what it spelled out for them in the end.

Ginsberg’s arrival was something of a coincidence, Samir mused. Contrary to what one would think was a far-fetched reality, especially in bourgeois Calcutta, a significant number of young Indian students had around that time begun applying for undergraduate courses in American colleges and universities. Times had fundamentally changed, of course. Where once an aspiring middle-class Bengali academic might have chosen to pursue his studies at either Oxford or Cambridge or some university in the Soviet Union, the new mindset now included American universities as the next lucrative biggie to venture forth into. Typically, one would hear snide remarks and private jokes about it in inner circles—about the disloyalty apparent in such choices and more. But those with aspirational values had learnt to live with it, was Malay’s understanding.

Even amid the erratic crowd and the loud voices that drowned everything in coffee, Ginsberg commanded attention. Samir had recalled to Malay:

He approached our table, where Sunil, Shakti, Utpal and I sat, with no hesitation whatsoever. There was no awkwardness in talking to people he hadn’t ever met. None of us had seen such sahibs before, with torn clothes, cheap rubber chappals and a jhola. We were quite curious. At that time, we were not aware of how well known a poet he was back in the US. But I remember his eyes—they were kind and curious. He sat there with us, braving the most suspicious of an entire cadre of wary and sceptical Bengalis, shorn of all their niceties—they were the fiercest lot of Bengali poets—but, somehow, he had managed to disarm us all. He made us listen to him and tried to genuinely learn from us whatever it was that he’d wanted to learn, or thought we had to offer. Much later, we came to know that there had been suspicions about him being a CIA agent, an accusation he was able to disprove. In the end, we just warmed up to him, even liked him. He became one of us—a fagging, crazy, city poet with no direction or end in sight.

All around the Coffee House, there were discussions on war. Would the Chinese Army march up to Calcutta? Would the Indian soldiers hold out? During one of these discussions, Ginsberg spoke with conviction: ‘People who want peace must intervene now, before it’s too late. But, no one will, I’m afraid. Let’s have debates if you will, let’s get talking. Let the Nehrus, the Maos and the Kennedys of this world come together, sit across and talk. Who are we without a debate?’

******

Very early on, the Hungryalists had announced, rather brashly, their lack of faith and what they thought of god. To them religion was an utter waste of time, and they made no bones about this. In fact, in one of their bulletins, they had openly denounced god and called organized religion nonsense. Many of the Hungryalists, with their sharp knowledge of Hindu scriptures, had been challenging temple elders on the different rituals and modes of worship. This came as a shock to many, in a country where religion was very much a part of everyday life—a matter of pride and culture even. On the other hand, Ginsberg was evidently quite taken with religion in India and sought out sadhus and holy men wherever he went in the country. While this might have been because he was in search of a guru, he seemed to be fascinated, in equal measure, by the sheer variety that religion opened for him in India—from Kali worship to Buddhism. But like the Beats, the Hungryalists came together in denouncing the politics of war, which merged with their larger world view.

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A tribute to the Hungryalist movement was uploaded on YouTube. It is in Bengali. Here is the film. In the comments Malay RoyChoudhury has also replied.

Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution Penguin Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 190 Rs 599

Further Reading:

Ankan Kazi “Open Wounds: The contested legacy of the Hungry Generation” Caravan, 1 October 2018

Juliet Reynolds “Art, the Hungryalists, and the Beats” Cafe Dissensus, 16 June 2016

A new book chronicles the radically iconoclastic movement in Bengali poetry in the 1960s” Scroll, 8 Jan 2019

Interview with Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics in the UK, regarding “The Penguin Classics Book”

I interviewed Henry Eliot, Creative Editor of Penguin Classics in the UK after reading the marvellous The Penguin Classics Book he has authoredIt is a beautiful historical documentation of the Penguin Classics list. This book spans world literature from the 21st century BCE to the First World War. The list was launched by the legendary translator and scholar Prof. E. V. Rieu at the invitation of the founder of Penguin Books, Sir Allen Lane. The sales of 130 titles Prof E V Rieu launched sold more than a million copies a year. This impressive book sales record is more or less unsurpassed even now.  ( Scroll re-published the interview on their website on 9 Dec 2018. Here is the link. )

Henry Eliot has also written Follow This Thread and Curiocity: An Alternative A-Z of London(with Matt Lloyd-Rose).

The Penguin Classics Book comes across as a pure labour of love. It also fulfils a very essential task of being a rich historical documentation of a sterling list while being a repository of world literature translated in to English. Henry Eliot’s comments in the book about Dr Rieu’s vision and his intention of housing only the well-known texts as translations on this list is a good reference point for many of the ongoing discussions in the literary world about translations. In fact Dr Rieu’s classic translation of Homer’s The Odyssey  has been prescribed for decades by universities around the world. Dr. Rieu favoured prose but this was (thankfully!) reviewed by his successor, Betty Radice. While reading The Penguin Classics Book I came across a fabulous discussion between Dr E.V. Rieu and Rev. J. B. Phillips on translating the Gospels, recorded on 3 Dec 1953. Dr Rieu is very clear on what he deems to be a good translation — the principle of ‘equivalent effect’ and that it holds well when read aloud. A principle that Henry Eliot confirmed is still in place!
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Here are excerpts from the conversation:
1. How was this project conceptualised?  How long did it take to execute from start to finish?

When I joined Penguin Classics nearly three years ago, one of the first things that struck me was the size of the list. Over the last 70 years it has grown so huge – it now has over 1,200 Penguin Classics and 1,000 Penguin Modern Classics – and it is difficult now for a reader to get a handle on this vast list. We began talking about ways to help readers to navigate the list, to assist them in making sense of it: we imagined a classics ‘museum’ with some big galleries and some hidden corners through which readers could wander and explore and make discoveries. In the end we didn’t build a physical museum but we created a book, which allows the reader to hold the entire list in their hands: now you can get the measure of the entire list and I hope this will give readers the confidence to explore the series and discover wonderful new titles and authors to read.

We began these discussions about two and a half years ago and decided to make the book a few months later. It took me about a year to write and then another year for the design to come together for printing.

2. In your opinion what are the key characteristics of Penguin Classics? How has it evolved over the years?

Penguin Classics has always aimed to present the best books from literatures across the world and to make them accessible to a general readership. It has always prided itself on high quality design and production values. These things have remained unchanged; some things have changed, however:

  • For the first forty years the list was a translation list only: there were no English-language Penguin Classics. These were published in a parallel sister series called Penguin English Classics, which was eventually absorbed into Penguin Classics in 1985.
  • The first series editor, E. V. Rieu, had a preference for prose translations of verse and he insisted on minimal critical ‘apparatus’ other than a short introduction; his successor, Betty Radice, however, preferred verse translations and she responded to an increased interest from US students by including more scholarly appendices.
  • The list’s horizons have also expanded over the years. Rieu had a prejudice against German literature, for example, and Radice made a concerted effort to introduce more Chinese literature. The job of the editors today is to identify the many gaps on the list and attempt to fill them.

3. Even though over the years the list was brought in-house rather than work with remote editors, do the team of editorial directors supervising this list have language specialists advising them on developing the literature in other languages and assessing the final translation?

Yes – the editors have expert contacts in the worlds of academia and publishing, whom they consult.

[ JBR: This is fascinating because this is the manner in which academic and journal publishing happens – to have external advisors, readers and experts guiding the publishing programme. It is a brilliant way in which to test the strength of a list and/or establish a new one.]

4. What is truly remarkable is that The Penguin Classics Book is as up-to-date as possible. For instance, the new Japanese stories (ed. Jay Rubin) edition with an introduction by Haruki Murakami is included. How did this inclusion happen?

Thank you! We have included every Penguin Classic that is in print now – the book is up-to-date to the end of 2018 (and even further in a couple of cases – the publication of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was delayed to 2019, but we still decided to keep it in the book). The book is roughly organised chronologically and covers literature written before the end of the First World War, but of course this poses a problem in the case of anthologies. We decided to include anthologies at the point in the book that coincides with their earliest work. The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories makes it in on these criteria – it was published in June 2018 and the first story was written in the late 19th-century.

5. Would it be correct to assume that the digital age with its stress on visual images created an opportunity to publish in print the rich history of such a magnificent archive?

I’m not sure — in a way the process was quite old-fashioned. There are over 3,000 images in the book and we got them by photographing all the covers individually. I spent two solid weeks in the Penguin archive working with two photographers in order to capture them all. Now that we have the images, however, I’m sure there will be lots of further uses for them, many of which will no doubt be digital.

[ JBR: Perhaps I did not make myself very well clear in the questioning. I meant if the visual world of the digital space has not impacted the decision to create a visually beautiful edition in print? The previous volumes of Penguin covers have always been paperbacks, in four colour, but nowhere near as beautiful as this edition is.

HE: Thank you — much appreciated! Maybe . . . I think we’re all frustrated by the rigid way in which Amazon displays its book covers – so maybe this was a subconscious reaction to that.]

6. Which titles that have become extinct in the backlist would you recommend resurrecting for a modern reader? Do you think titles showcased in “The Vaults” section may have a future life as digital editions rather than in print?

About ten years ago the editors tried resurrecting a few Penguin Classics titles which had gone out of print and the experiment wasn’t a huge success. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems that when something goes out of print, it goes out of print for a reason: there just isn’t the demand from readers.

It might be possible to offer digital editions of these titles, but there might also be an argument for ‘weeding out’ the titles that don’t sell so well, so that the quality and relevance of the whole list remains strong.

7. The book cover designs are always distinctive. For years the Penguin Classics were defined by the deep black, then a deep black with a photograph and a coloured border etc. Why and how did these cover designs change or does it depend entirely upon the whimsical fancies of the editor in charge?

Penguin Classics has had four different designs over the years. The first, designed by John Overton in 1946 and refined by Jan Tschichold in 1949, had a border that was colour-coded by language and an illustrative woodcut in the centre. The second, introduced in 1963 by Germano Facetti, had a black spine for the first time and a very simple cover filled with a photographic artwork, overlaid with the author’s name and book’s title. The third design by Steve Kent appeared in 1985: it combined elements of the previous two by keeping the black spine and the photographic artwork, but reinstating a border on the cover and a small colour-coded system at the top of the spine. The final iteration took place in 2003: now Penguin Classics all have a black panel at the bottom with the author’s name in orange and the book’s title in white, a slim white band with the series name, and a full-bleed image in the space above.

As the list has expanded and become increasingly international, it has become more and more difficult to make a change to the cover design. Logistically it involves rejacketing a huge number of titles and coordinating new templates across all the different offices around the world, so it is certainly not a whimsical decision. If the design were to change again it would need a coordinated strategy behind it.

8. Penguin Classics is the trademark list of the publishing firm. It has existed for so many decades. Are there any titles that are perennial bestsellers or do some titles on the list exist because of their seminal value to a literary canon?

The graph of Penguin Classics sales is L-shaped: there are many titles that sell a few copies a year and a few titles that sell many copies. Some of the perennial bestsellers include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

9. Dr Rieu’s impressive track record of selling at least a million copies a year of the 130 titles on his list would be the envy of many publishers even today. What are the combined digital and print sales figures of the Penguin Classics now?  Titles on this sell better in digital or print or are the sales in equal measure?

I’m afraid I don’t have the data, but I believe print sales are still higher than digital. The early sales figures are very impressive, even for mid-20th century book sales, but these were all very impressive – much higher than figures today.

10. Has your passion for Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the many iterations it has undergone over the centuries in any way influenced your fascination for the evolution of the Penguin Classic list & book covers?

I do love Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the Arthurian legends. (In fact I am currently reading A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys, as I travel around India, which is intimately wrapped up with the legends of King Arthur.) Perhaps there is something quixotic about the quest to gather all the Penguin Classics into a single place. If so, I’d better be careful: we know from the legend that those who achieve the Holy Grail do not return: they’re spirited away to a different plain . . .

11. What are the decision-making elements to include a title on this list that you feel a commissioning editor working today in a firm would benefit from knowing? Would these principles of identifying a good book work across genres?

I am one of many editors of Penguin Classics around the world – and a relatively new addition to the team – so I do not have an authoritative answer, but for me, I do have a few criteria that I use for identifying a classic: it must have literary quality (i.e. it must be written well), it should be historically significant (i.e. it was a bestseller at the time, or it influenced other writers, or it changed the world in some way, or it invented a new literary form etc) and it should have an enduring reputation (i.e. it should still be read, studied or discussed somewhere in the world). Above all it must still be ‘alive’ — it needs to be able to speak to us across time and space and expand our experience of what it means to be human.

12. Do you have any back stories to share about putting this book together that made you pause and think about the resilience of this list or the vision of the founding team — Allen Lane and Dr Rieu?

Allen Lane liked the Penguin logo because he thought it had ‘a certain dignified flippancy’ and I think that combination of serious good humour pervades the Classics list to this day. It is very moving to read E. V. Rieu’s retirement speech, when he stepped down from running the list in 1964. At one point he admits that he had initially been uncertain whether Goncharov had written Oblomov or vice versa. ‘Now, of course, I know that Oblomov was the author,’ he quipped. ‘Or am I wrong?’ And he finishes his speech with some inspiring words: ‘The Penguin Classics, though I designed them to give pleasure even more than instruction, have been hailed as the greatest educative force of the twentieth century. And far be it for me to quarrel with that encomium, for there is no one whom they have educated more than myself.’

26 November 2018 

Beck Dorey-Stein’s “From the corner of the Oval office”

“The Vagiants,” she says with a half smile. Hope goes on to explain that after President Obama took office in 2009, there was widespread criticism about the lack of female senior staffers in an administration that had championed diversity on the campaign trail. By the time I arrived in 2012, the male-female ratio had dramatically improved– there were two female deputy chiefs of staff, a female photographer, a female National Security Council representative and a female ambassador to the United Nations. “Some of the most powerful women in the Obama administration,” Hope tells me, “Call themselves Vagiants.”

Beck Dorey-Stein’s memoir From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman’s True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House is an account of a little more than four years spent as a stenographer in the Obama White House. From being unemployed, struggling to hold three jobs including that of a tutor at the posh Quaker school Sidwell Friends School, Beck Dorey-Stein unexpectedly finds herself working at the White House. She was so desperate to seek a “proper” job that she answered a newspaper advertisement. She wanted a job that allowed her to pay bills without having to carry three sets of clothes and different pairs of shoes in her knapsack to meet the requirements of every part time job she did, every single day. Apparently it was not just the written test and interview that she had cleared but also the security clearance as the woman hiring Beck said [to paraphrase], “if you can get security clearance to be on the same  school campus as President Obama’s daughter, Malia, then you are a good candidate for the stenographer’s job at the White House.”

Once ensconced in the White House, Beck is on an adrenaline-pumping job, where she has a ringside view of the press conferences, summits, meetings, etc. She travels on the president’s airplane and helicopter. She travels to more than sixty countries clocking hundreds and thousands of miles. She flirts with the secret service men. She gets the gossip about various presidents and their lives straight from those who witnessed it; these could be the journalists covering the White House and travelling regularly with the president or from the White House staff.

From the corner of the Oval Office is a delightful account by a young woman who seems to be in a perpetual state of amazement about her job. She is ever thankful for it but also starry-eyed about the world she inhabits. If it had not been based on true events, at times it would have read like a “Chick lit” novel for its emotional roller coasters, its preoccupation with affairs of the heart etc. There is little divulged in terms of political commentary or even insights about having worked in such an unusual place. It skims the surface of a very public office, revealing little that is not already known in the public domain. Be that as it may From the corner of the Oval Office is a good precursor to Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming to be released later in the year by the same publishers, Penguin Random House.

Beck Dorey-Stein writes in November 2015 about the presidential canditates:

It’s November 2015. Fuck Trump — this time next year, he will have lost the election and ridden back up his stupid gold escalator, gripping the sides with his tiny white-knuckled hands because he’s terrified of stairs. He will never be heard from again except when he tweets about Kristen Stewart’s love life. He will disappear, and the world will be better for it. 

From the corner of the Oval Office is frothy and light. Pick it up for a good lark.

Beck Dorey-Stein From the corner of the Oval Office: One Woman’s True Story of Her Accidental Career in the Obama White House Transworld Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2018. Pb. pp. 336

26 June 2018 

 

Elizabeth Strout “Anything is Possible”

It seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old—the more he understood that he would not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.

… 

She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is an exquisitely written novel about rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois. It is about the people of the town Lucy Barton had left behind when she moved to New York to become a successful writer. Lucy is the heroine of Strout’s equally well-told novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In Amgash as like any other settlement, irrespective of whether it is a small town or a big city, there is great diversity across the socio-economic spectrum. There are people like Lucy’s siblings all of whom grew up in abject poverty and somehow managed a decent life as grownups. Since rarely do these people move out of Amgash, the past just as the present of the townspeople is an open book. It is claustrophobic and debilitating as it does not allow individuals to grow. The shadow of the past always looms large. This is precisely the reason why Lucy Barton fled. Despite this people continue to live in Amgash making adjustments to their lifestyles with growing old age and some are even successful in their social mobility.

This was a matter of different cultures, Dottie knew that, although she felt it had taken her many years to learn this. She thought that this matter of different cultures was a fact that got lost in the country these days. And culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite, but Dottie also thought people didn’t talk about class because they didn’t really understand what it was.

In Anything is Possible Lucy Barton is on a book tour in Chicago and decides to return to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her siblings. Unfortunately the flood of unpleasant childhood memories hits her as soon as she enters her parents cottage. She has a panic attack and decides to return immediately to Chicago. In the interim she has had smattering of conversations with her siblings who have updated her on the lives of people they knew as kids. None of the people have had a predictable lifestyle and it is certainly stranger than the fiction Lucy Barton possibly writes. For instance her distant cousin Abel who along with his sister Dottie would sometimes be found scavenging for scraps of food in a dumpster went on to become one of the richest men in Chicago. This story was the least sad of all that are shared. On the surface of it Amgash inhabitants were living the typical homely small-town-American lives you would expect them to have except there was a murkier underbelly to this. But as Abel Blaine realises it is possible to live the American Dream and improve on one’s status just as Lucy and he did—-“Anything was possible for anyone”.

Elizabeth Strout is known for deftly creating these fictional landscapes that are as finely detailed as a miniature painting. The characters, their personality traits, their lives and the umpteen cultural references are so well packed in the sparingly told narratives that they continue to be with one for a long time after the book is closed. She conjures up the scenes so minutely and exactly that it is crystal clear in mind’s eye. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible was on President Obama’s list of favourite books of 2017. Anything is Possible is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist 2018.

Two legendary women writers have endorsed these books and truer words were never said:

Hilary Mantel on My Name is Lucy Barton: “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.’

Ann Patchett on Anything is Possible: “Strout proves to us again and again that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.”

Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 260 Rs 599

Elizabeth Strout My Name is Lucy Barton Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 699

28 March 2018 

 

 

 

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 

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

Good Night series

Penguin Random House India recently released four titles in the Good Night series — Good Night IndiaGood Night DelhiGood Night Mumbai and Good Night Rajasthan.  These have been released as board books meant for pre-schoolers. They are fascinating little books which primarily highlight the main sights of the particular location. Apparently the Good Night Books are a series launched in USA. According to the website: 

The Good Night Books Series of board books has been designed and developed since 2005 to celebrate special places and themes in a way that young children, ages 0-5, can easily relate to and enjoy with their families. All the books are written and illustrated with a simplicity that captures the “essence” of each subject and place.

Every book is printed in bright colors on high-quality board to endure the attention of young children. All have six-inch by six-inch pages, making for large 12 x 6 open page spreads.

Each title takes its readers through the passage of a day (“good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening,” and “good night”). And most titles, if set in a place with seasonality, also include the seasons of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). Children are further introduced to the practice of using polite salutations and greetings, all while being lulled to a good night’s sleep.

The series is, in part, inspired by Walt Whitman’s poems, such as the classic book Leaves of Grass and the famous poem “Song of Myself,” in which the poet catalogs item after item, in a process whereby the mere naming of each item draws attention to it and thus imbues it with a sense of import. The Good Night Our World Series tries to recognize and celebrate the world in a Whitmanesque spirit.

It is a good idea of PRH India to launch the books in India. There is a lack of board books meant for young Indian readers. Also the four titles selected for the local market would work extremely well with tourists as well.

Good Night Series, PRH India, Board books, Rs 299 each

5 February 2018 

Guest Post: Juggi Bhasin “Different roads, one destination”

 

Juggi Bhasin is a successful writer who ” living out fulfilling a lifelong ambition: to become a writer”.  Earlier this month he began serialising a graphic novel in the popular national daily, Times of India. Recognising this as a new and innovative experiement in creative storytelling I requested Juggi Bhasin to contribute a blog post on what it means to experiment in form, is there any difference to his storytelling etc. Here is his lovely note. Read on. 

Late at night when I climb into bed, I set the alarm to wake me up, sharp at seven, next morning. It is that time of the day when I get up to sip some green tea, chew a couple of almonds and review in The Times of India, my graphic novel and daily feature, ‘Agent Rana’.

It’s a good time for me to review not just the novel but my entire journey through various art forms to reach that one common goal. And that goal is undoubtedly the production and dissemination of creative content that gives pleasure to my readers and me.

Every writer in a sense has had a long journey whether in years or in the mind. My journey began as a TV journalist and in my mind’s eye I can still see myself as the only Indian TV journalist that went to North Korea to meet old man Kim, the father of the present infamous dictator running that unfortunate country. Or that morning of Dec 6th, 1992, when I stood at the Babri Masjid with my TV crew and watched and recorded the structure being razed to the ground. I wanted to write a book about those earth shaking experiences but I did not have the words or the syntax or even the drive then to express my thoughts and emotions. The only weapon I had then at my command was what is popularly called in journalese —a ‘good copy’ ability. Many journalists write good copy but it does not make them into great writers. I had a good eye though, an active imagination and a great visual sense.

In the years after the events of Babri Masjid, I worked on stage, in serials and a couple of films and developed my visual imagination and sharpened my emotional outreach. The words to match my visuals also came to me and became a part of my development. By 2012, I felt I was ready to strike out as a writer. The passion in me to write something was overbearing and I felt I had developed a syntax which in a sense was a very different life form from ‘good copy.’

It resulted in my first book The Terrorist which was a national bestseller. The unusual element in The Terrorist was not only its theme but its usage of highly, evocative, visual imagery almost as if the reader was looking at breathtaking visuals from an Akira Kurosawa war film. The combination of intense passion and a visualised style of writing became the key notes of my writing. Many found it unusual, far removed from the traditional ‘bookish’ qualities, whatever they might be, that they felt a book should have. But it were my real life dramatic experiences of news reporting in Kashmir, insurgency hit areas and forbidden lands helped me to sculpt an intense, visually enriching writing style. My visualised writing style compels me to open a window in the reader’s mind. It is the gateway to explore the imagination; which is a desired goal for any author. My successive three novels after the The Terrorist incorporate this style which now has become an article of faith for me.

TOI, 18 Sept 2017

So when I was asked to write a graphic novel for the Times of India, a commission no one has ever done before in this country, it struck me that it would flow all so naturally for me. I had to produce text that was economic in its choice of words and length. It would have to write a text which supported powerful visuals but was also evocative and stirring. This is what Agent Rana accomplishes day after day in the Times of India.

This brings me to my thesis that all art forms are interconnected to create a single, living organism that pulsates with life and passion. The end goal is to explore the human condition. I, believe, that there is no such thing as a purist style of writing. All creative output is the result of myriad experiences, both stylistic and cerebral. In December, this year, my fifth book, Fear is the Key which has a female protagonist, will be released by Penguin Random House. It is perhaps my most challenging work to date. It is a psychological thriller and tells the story of a man conflicted in his mind.

So, that then is the challenge for me. How do you show the conflicts of the mind as evocative imagery? Writing for different genres is like a seven course meal; each course releasing different flavours at the tip of your tongue. But it all leads to that simple but profound thought at the end of it. ‘I really enjoyed myself. It was a great meal.’

Different roads, one destination. There is really no contradiction in that!

© Juggi Bhasin

18 September 2017 

Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”

“Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”

Angela Duckworth‘s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is an analysis of how those who are successful in life are primarily due to their grit, their passion and perseverance rather than talent or being naturally gifted at it. This is the conclusion she came to after studying students and professionals across the spectrum. She wortked with the cadets at West Point to sales people, to school children and interviewed many achievers to understand what made them tick. Surprisingly it was not the IQ scores that determined whether a child/person would succeed at their task. It was dedicated hardwork, perseverance and a passion to excel. Sometimes the hardwork involved in the attempt to excel can be exhausting but it is at this precise moment that the grit of the person decides whether s/he will finish their task. Angela Duckworth interviewed Bill Gates too who said that when he used to screen applicants for Microsoft he inevitably selected the candidate who had completed the tough programming task he had given. He appreciated the candidate’s stamina to stick on till the end rather than give up in frustration. There are many, many examples strewn through the book that confirm her hypothesis that grit determines success, not necessarily talent and IQ. This is a strength of character she states is a good quality to inculcate in children too. The satisfaction of doing something important and doing it well even though it’s so very hard. Children “recognize complacency has its charms, but none worth trading for the fulfillment of realizing their potential.”

Grit is one of those exceptional thought-provoking books that will be influential for a very, very long time. More so since it takes one idea and explore it satisfactorily providing sufficient empirical evidence to make it plausible.  Here is a short TED talk Angela Duckworth made based on her research. It does share the gist of her wonderful book although it is advisable to read the book for the concept to really seep in.

Angela Duckworth Grit Vermilion, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Pb. pp 340

Steinbeck Reissued!

Penguin Random House India has published a selection of Steinbeck novels that have been beautifully rejacketed. Steinbeck is a perennial favourite. To publish new editions in a nifty size which can easily fit in a bag, light in weight and can be read while commuting is a great idea. To have such pure bright colours on the cover is not only a joy to hold an attractive book in one’s hand but it is also easy to locate if misplaced while travelling or one’s bookshelves. The best part are that these editions are also very reasonably priced. Worth buying!

The six titles PRH India has reissued are:

The Grapes of Wrath

East of Eden 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Mice and Men

 

 

The Red Pony  

 

 

 

 

 

 

  The Pearl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Cannery Row 

 

 

10 August 2017