The Jaipur Literary Carnival

There’s nothing in a literature festival more literarily stimulating than the carnival atmosphere. Plenty of words, wordplay, a couple of Nobel laureates but without the sense of magnitude and detail — crowds, durbars, tents, tented lawns, tainted halls and painted faces — how would the global zeitgeist be captured even by the convergence of so much literary genius on a historic locale for colour, continuity and mock controversy? Are these writers on holiday, or writers at work?

Needless to say, I had a brilliant time.

Desai in conversation

Supriya Nair has one of the best summaries of the festival here.

Mayank has the best pictures here one of which also features me 🙂

The videos of the sessions are here and here.
And the sessions which I enjoyed the most were ‘The Crisis of American Fiction‘ and Vikram Seth’s ‘The Suitable Book‘.

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Where do you find the time?

It’s occasionally been found in speeding taxis and Paris hotel rooms. Alpine meadows and mourning doves are rich in it, though can be hard to find. Forget about fountains and rainbows, they’re myths. Rarely it falls from geese flying north. Sometimes sunlight on water contains trace amounts. Check in the attic and under the peonies, but it moves fast and is hard to catch. Now and then it has been stolen from babies sleeping on airplanes. From girls reading in parks. From headlines and editorials. If you never take a water aerobics class, you’ll have more time than some. Give up all hope, and you might get a little more. Say no. Smile. Read. Read even when you should be sleeping. That time counts double. I-95 is a gold mine, though you’ll have to fight others for the time found there. Take the bus. Follow the river. Don’t be afraid to be late. Read poetry. Poetry gives time back, but most people don’t know it. Never watch television. Movies are fine. Documentaries are better. Sometimes, read novels in translation. Just consider it. Don’t remodel your kitchen. Don’t remodel anything. Don’t even think about it! Hire a babysitter, or not. Make do. Let your spouse help. Stay calm. Go to New York. Leave New York. Again, never take a water aerobics class. Don’t get a dog. Decorate minimally, including holidays. Maintain no position on Halloween costumes or children’s birthday parties. Use gift bags. Shop rarely. Spot clean. Keep a notebook. Copy. Borrow. Mimic. Steal. Never offer to be class parent. Volunteer elsewhere, if you must. Do not scrapbook. Avoid cooking. Bake once in a while. Rewrite, repeat. Listen to music. Have a drink.

If you do all this, one day you might find a package on your doorstep. Open it carefully. Inside will be time, tied in bundles of a thousand, smelling of jasmine. Congratulations! It’s all yours. Now hide it well.

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2010/12/13kane.html

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To study the evolution of the language, a few students at Harvard have come a nifty little yet powerful Google tool that lets you track the usage of words or phrases over a period of time. Once you feed in your query it scans the entire corpus of over 200 million Google books to arrive at very interesting trend graphs.

As I see it, the Books Ngram Viewer could be used not only to track the evolution of language and trends over time, but also to compare and contrast the frequency of certain terms online and in print (perhaps when used in tandem with tools akin to Google Trends.)

The tool can be tried here: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/info

And the piece of research on cultural evolution basis Google Books as printed in Science is here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2010/12/15/science.1199644

Crossing the Chasm

The debate about e-readers and real books has been going on for at least a year now, with passionate arguments for and against both by people passionate about reading. I didn’t have anything to say in this debate because I hadn’t seen any of the new, improved e-readers till I actually started using a tablet. But even before I saw the e-book readers, I had thought that if they’re as good as the reviews say they are, e-readers would be really convenient to travel with, but that’s it. There is so much more to a book than just a story.

But having finally seen and used the Galaxy Tab – I thought about this a little more. Is there really more to a book than just a story?

First, I thought of how I buy books. These days, they’re mostly new, for two reasons.

a) I’m not as badly paid as I once was(relatively speaking), plus, my interests have become narrower and narrower as time has passed, so I don’t buy music or shop for clothes as much etc. So I have that much more to spend on books.

b) There simply aren’t as many expansive bookshops around Delhi. And with Flipkart it’s now quite easy to get books that have been out of print for years, authors long dead you’d never heard of, writing of a style that you rarely find any more.

And then to talk of my over obsession with books. You can’t really relax while you read it, you have to be careful about how you handle it. So, given the state of the books and my eagerness to buy and keep them regardless, I don’t think I can truly say there’s more to a book than a story. The story, obviously, is the only thing that matters. In which case, there’s no problem with a good e-reader.

Later, I read ‘My book cull: a loss of shelf esteem‘ in the Guardian, and it kind of reinforced what I thought and made me more open to the concept of e-readers.

Last night, though, I changed my mind again.

Curled up with a stack of books around me – all recent purchases from my two favourite bookshops in the Delhi, Fact and Fiction in Basant Lok Market, Delhi(because it carries books that no other bookstore in Delhi has), and The Midland in South Extension, Delhi(because of the magnanimous discounts) – having just finished one book and browsing others to see what I should read next, I realised again that a life with only e-books would be a very sad life indeed.

There is a joy in browsing through pages. There is a joy in touching pages. There is a joy in the heft of a book. There is a joy in looking at a cover. There is a joy in browsing a bookshop, reading chapters here and there and finding something good you may never have heard of before, which you can’t do in an online or e-book space. Add that to the joy of the story, which is already such a great joy, and you’ve got joy upon joy upon joy upon joy for ever and ever and ever.

No e-book can ever match that.

Which doesn’t mean I hate e-readers. And doesn’t mean I will never buy e-books. I will definitely buy some when the technology settles down – there’s a lot of experimentation and trial and error still happening – and the time comes when all e-readers, even the most basic, can be used to read all e-book formats.

It would be really convenient to travel with. But that’s it.

PS: It’s been more than ten days since I have been twiddling with the new Galaxy Tab. Loved the easiness of reading news with Pulse and the wide gamut of books now available via Kindle, Aldiko, Kobo and others. But it’s not yet time to say goodbye to non-e-books. There are some products and services where i’d rather be ahead of the curve.

Romancing the bookmarks

Looking for a particular book at home yesterday I realised something strange. I have developed a strange affection for bookmarks.It’s strange because I’ve never been a bookmark person. When I need to mark my place in anything I read, I shove in whatever’s handy – a credit card receipt, a scrap of paper, an envelope or bill, a business reply card of the kind that sometimes falls out of magazines. But usually, nothing that’s specifically a bookmark.
So where did all these bookmarks come from? Well.

At Crossword in Bangalore, they sometimes slip four or five bookmarks into your purchases. Not all the time, but fairly often. Landmark never did before, but the last time I was there, I returned with a stack of bookmarks, shoved within the pages of one of the books I’d bought. And Flipkart.com, at least at first, always had a bookmark placed within the pages of every single book you ordered.

I have occasionally used one of these bookmarks, but otherwise they’ve (obviously) been collecting quietly in a corner of my bookcase and now I have stacks of them. An envious collection to say.

This makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t like keeping things that I don’t use – that becomes clutter. And I don’t like clutter. (I note that the older I get, the more minimalist I become.) It’s not that I’ve never had bookmarks in my life. When I was a kid, I used to land up in St. Paul’s and buy them in hordes and I remember this one bookmark quite a gorgeous one. But I never used it as a bookmark. I kept it among my treasures to look and stare and feel proud at every now and then. Do not know what’s happened to it by now. Meanwhile, I used receipts, envelopes and scraps of paper for bookmarks.

This lot that I’ve collected is nothing like the one I’ve described above. These are vehicles for advertising, though some of the Crossword ones have lovely quotes about books, such as “Never judge a book by its movie” and “Wear the old coat, buy a new book”. They are entirely expendable.

So the next time the raddiwalla calls for old newspapers, he’ll also be given a bunch of bookmarks.

Pangs of unfinished books

Once I begin a book, I have to finish it. Even a bad book. I don’t know why – maybe I hope to find something that redeems it? Maybe it’s so bad it’s fascinating? Maybe I’m looking for reasons why it’s bad so I can recognise a good book when I come across one? But I don’t need to read a bad book to recognise a good one, so maybe it’s to make a good book seem an even better book when I read one after a bad book? And then I guess it also something to do with the fact that I often drop a line to people to tell them how well-read I am.

Don’t know, but I end up spending a lot of time deciding(read struggling) how to finish reading such books. I vividly remember my first such struggle was with this book. Now I was really keen to know how Sculley went about making transition from Pepsi to Apple but the book just went about dragging and seemed to not to end. This illustrious list also includes luminaries like this. To say such pangs are limited to certain genres, will be an under-statement.

I’m a little better when it comes to Shakespeare, though. I read Shakespeare as prescribed text for seven years of my life. I can still quote extensively from Macbeth, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and the rest. (Incidentally, another excellent source of Shakespeare quotes is PG Wodehouse).

Another of such struggles was about dealing with this. And I didn’t like the book. Perhaps because it was Fantasy. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of it, but what little I have read never inspired me to explore the genre in any meaningful way. I’ve always thought it weird that I don’t like fantasy. I mean, I’m fascinated by sci-fi, astronomy and stars and the whole wide universe and can largely make a claim about reading the entire Asimov oeuvre . At school, I’d pore over the ‘universe’ entries in all the encyclopedias, gaping, awed, at the pictures. As a teen, I spent hours on the terrace after dark, gazing up at the sky (and getting a horrible crick in the neck), asking myself every now and then, What if I were offered a place on a spaceship out to explore – but a spaceship that would never come back. Would I accept? (In my teens – obviously more angst-y than I was consciously aware of at the time – the answer was a given. Yes. Of course. Today, well, I’d have to think very hard about it, but I suspect the answer would be No.) Given that kind of interest, I think I don’t like fantasy because the fantasy books I have read are so dry. Written in such a way that even the author seems unable to get into world she or he has created. I wondered if, maybe, I was being unfair by thinking this as I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, so I picked up the Chuck Hogan/Del Toro book that was next on my reading list and read the first page, and yes. I was correct. Within a single page, I was well into Hogan/Toro’s created world, but entire fantasy thing has made me feel left out. NOT a good thing when it comes to novels. I’ve read only fantasy book that I really liked. That was Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, and I read it not because I was suddenly suffused with the desire to read fantasy, but because Debashree, the God-mother of SFF genre, thrust it upon me with evangelistic fervour. I was deeply sceptical and said so loud and clear, but Debashree assured me I would love it and, to my surprise, I did. But not enough to even read more books, let alone exploreFantasy. So the genre has always and will always remain a closed book to me (sorry, this is a most un-funny pun). I am better able to cope with sci-fi, however. Especially comic sci-fi. But I still can’t say it’s anything close to a genre that I specifically look out for. That was sparked by Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was on a Infy bus wondering what I am doing to my life when I started reading it, and laughed so loudly and hysterically, snorting and weeping, that everyone including the driver turned to stare at me as though I was mad, but I just couldn’t put the book down. And of course I read all the others in the series that began as ‘A Trilogy in Four Parts’ and ended as ‘A Trilogy in Six Parts’. I tried re-reading it recently and was appalled to discover that I can’t. It just seems so… tired. And outdated. None of the passages that had made me laugh so hysterically raised even a smile. Maybe I’ve just read it too often, I thought (and it’s true, I’d re-read it many times), but that can’t be it. Because I’ve re-read all my P.G. Wodehouse books at least a hundred times each, not to mention all the Asterix comics, but they still make me laugh. Anyway, Douglas Adams inspired me in my youth to look for more comic sci-fi , and I found Terry Pratchett – of whose enormous output, I found the one book I read was quite enough. How, HOW had I found those books funny? Terry Pratchett seem so juvenile to me these days – books by writers who say, look! I made a joke! Everybody, clap! Still, somehow, I seem to be drawn to writers like this. My Pratchett of today is a man called Jasper Fforde who has a series of sci-fi fantasy books featuring a ‘literary detective’ named Thursday Next. For some reason I have yet to figure out, I have to read every Thursday Next book as it comes out (the last one was called First Among Sequels. I ask you!). They’re great as one-time reads, so I buy, read and then pass them on to my nephew or deposit on the office Book Exchange (the top of a cabinet where anyone who has a book or books to dispose of dumps the said book or books, for any random passer-by to pick up and take home – rather like http://www.bookcrossing.com). But otherwise, I’m not at all fond of Fantasy.

Gimme a real world, any day. This planet has its problems, true, but I’m rather fond of good old Earth.