TED Talks Posts

My Best Reads of 2018

Lists are subjective. Reading lists are even more difficult to cobble. Today my list consists of the following books. A few days later it may change ever so slightly. But these are the books that have stayed with me over the months.

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness 

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived 

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa

Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine 

Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents 

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies 

Ranjit Hoskote Jonahwhale 

Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation

C G Salamander and Samidha Gunjal’s Puu

Khaled Hosseini Sea Prayer

Nazia Erum’s Mothering a Muslim 

Jarrett J Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo

Henry Eliot’s The Penguin Classics Book

Cordis Paldano The Dwarf, the Girl and the Goat

Mohammed Hanif Red Birds 

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell Art Matters

T M Krishna Reshaping Art 

Alan Lightman In Praise of Wasting Time

Oliver Sacks’s “The River of Consciousness”

Sometimes it is impossible to “review” a book except to say “Read it”. Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness is a fine example of this.  It is a collection of his essays on diverse topics but with one objective — how does the brain work? How does it process? How does it affect memories? What is true and what is false? What is a figment of our imagination? What does science reveal? This is precisely the fundamental argument Siddharth Mukherjee makes in his Laws of Medicine TED talk. Irrespective of all the advancements in technology, it is the brain which remains the most important for the speed at which it analyses and processes information, constantly pushing known boundaries to discover new frontiers of knowledge that are so far unimaginable.

The River of Consciousness is a posthumous publication but in it is much food for thought. Whether it is discussing creative energies to how the brain works while analysing information as in the case of Charles Darwin or even how do children learn and process information are fascinating points to ponder upon. For instance Prof. Sacks says “Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or ‘motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.”

The River of Consciousness is an excellent book to possess and to return to often too.

To buy The River of Consciousness ( On Kindle ; Paperback ; Hardcover)

14 August 2018 

 

Lidia Yuknavitch “The Misfit’s Manifesto”

No one is perfect. No one got where they are without occasionally falling to pieces. Maybe it’s time we admit that we need all of us for any of us to make it. 

Lidia Yuknavitch is a successful author now. Well-respected in literary circles. But there was a time in her past when she was a misfit.

I’d say I’m a misfit partly because of the things that happened to me, and partly from things that come from the inside out.

Hardwiring, if you will. 

She had had a tough life. Stormy childhood with an abusive father and bickering parents. Two bad marriages of her own. My her own admission her life took a nosedive when her daughter was a stillborn. She began substance abuse. Rehab. Was arrested. Incarcerated. Slowly and steadily she put her life back together again.

Her dream of becoming a writer slowly began to come true when she was in her early thirties. Lidia sent a short story “The Chronology of Water” about how her daughter’s death nearly killed her and saving her father from drowning even though he had abused her sister and her. She sent the story for admission to an MFA course at Columbia University, to the hiring committee at a tenure-track teaching position in writing at San Diego State University; to Literary Arts in Oregon as a writing sample for a grant; and to Poets & Writers as a writing sample for the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. Lidia struck gold. She won all four. She had to reject the MFA as a job is what she needed.

I swallowed the desire to name myself as a writer who would go to Columbia. Prestige was not my name. Get a job was my name. 

The Poets & Writers Award gave her the opportunity to go to NYC to meet editors and writers. Lidia chose to meet Carole Maso, Peggy Phelan, Lynne Tillman, and Eurydice.

These now over fifty-year-old women writers were so intelligent, so creative, so gorgeous and present in their own minds and bodies. …These women were so alive in their minds. Maybe it sounds weird but I’d never experienced that before. 

Since then she has gone on to win awards and publish many notable books of her own such as The Small Backs of Children and The Book of Joan. She returned to school and studied for her PhD. She began teaching once more. She also got married once more and has a son.

It was almost as if my life was moving to that foreign word, successful.

Lidia Yuknavitch gave a TED Talk in February 2016 on “The Beauty of Being a Misfit”. It was later converted into a book, published by Simon & Schuster — The Misfit’s Manifesto. It includes testimonies of other people whom society would consider as “misfits” but Lidia discovers live life on the edge but in their own wacky way are fulfilling and rewarding.

A conversation between Kit De Waal and Lidia Yuknavitch  would be promising. There are so many points of common interest apart from which they too come across as women who are “so alive in their minds”.

The Misfit’s Manifesto is an absorbing book, at times terrifying for the experiences Lidia Yuknavitch shares, while filled with hope and  optimism.

Lidia Yuknavitch The Misfit’s Manifesto  TEDBooks, Simon & Schuster UK, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 350 

29 April 2018 

 

 

 

Siddharth Mukherjee “The Gene: An Intimate History”

( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )

The real magic was imagination.  

( p.148)

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014

Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.

From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben  or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability.  In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries,  the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.

To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.

I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India.  At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account:  http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/

What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.

Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699 

14 June 2016 

 

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Laws of Medicine”

The-Laws-of-Medicine-216x300

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a thinking medical practitioner who is constantly researching, evaluating, placing within historical context and evolving his engagement with medicine. Every time you listen to him deliver a public lecture ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ ) or read his books  ( The Emperor of All Maladies: The biography of Cancer), he makes his discipline accessible.   It is not confined to some hallow portals of obscure terms. Siddhartha Mukherjee like Atul Gawande, Abraham Varghese and Preeti Rebecca John are a minority in their fraternity. They work every day in their hospitals but they are also able to look at their discipline in an objective manner and comment upon it.  More importantly they are bringing the discourse about health into the very middle of society.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest book The Laws of Medicine is part of the TED Talks imprint published by Simon & Schuster. The concept is very simple. TED Talk books take off from where the public lecture concluded. So The Laws of Medicine is a continuation of the TED Talk Siddhartha Mukherjee delivered in March 2015. “Soon we’ll cure diseases with a cell, not a pill” TED Talks, March 2015 and here is the link to the interactive transcript http://bit.ly/1O0AcPn

Listen to it. Also read the book if you can. As the author says, “This book is about information, imperfection, uncertainty, and the future of medicine.” But it is also much more. It is about the human being forever being on alert, looking for information and details everywhere and not becoming complacent, letting machines, technology and others do the thinking for you. The brain continues to be important. Apply it to any discipline.

Siddhartha Mukherjee The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from an Uncertain Science Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Hb. pp.80 Rs 299

25 Oct 2015 

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.

***

“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015