Ask the Readers: How Do You Decide Which Books to Read?

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image by practicalowl

So many books to read….so little time! That’s a perpetual problem for even the most devoted of readers. If you are like me, your buying speed far exceeds your reading speed, and so even in my house, I have hundreds of books I have not yet read. Yet, each trip to the book store ends in at least one purchase. 

When there is so much choice, and so many good choices, how do you select your reading material? 

If you have a reading list, how did you come by it? Do you pick books to read from reviews, such as NY Times or Amazon? Do you listen to opinions of your family or friends? Or do you have a couple of trusted readers you rely on, or trusted websites? 

How do you decide that this particular book is worth your time, and not all those others? 

Share  your answers in the comments below. 

 

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The Best Kind of Books

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 image by 0olong

 

Reading, to those who see books as living, breathing things, is not an optional activity. It is not a hobby, nor something one does only to kill time. It is not a weekend-only, or vacation-only task. It is as essential as breathing, to be done as much as possible, in whatever place, in whatever circumstances.

When you are a reader, and not merely someone who likes to read, the abundance of choice is as overwhelming as it is a blessing. But at some point, even the fastest and most dedicated reader realises that there is simply not enough time to read everything one wants to read. There is simply not enough life to sample every book one comes across, to taste and devour everything that has been described as “must-read” throughout the ages.

We are then forced to narrow down our selection. Unfortunately, there is no single list for Those-Who-Want-to-Read-Everything-But-Not-Have-Enough-Life. Each of us are left to our own devices. We may take advice from others, or try to follow those who have gone before us, but that almost always results in disappointment. The best books for us, the things we must read before we die, can only come from within us – based on who we are, what we want to learn and know, the stories we want to enjoy, and the stories that resonate within us.

There is no single definition for what these best books are, as they would inevitably be different for each of us. Perhaps some may overlap; some perennial favourites like Pride and Prejudice or the Lord of the Rings may make many lists, and yet they will still be left out from others. So how can you decide?

How can you determine what books you should spend your limited life span on?

Ben Okri, in his essay titled, Newton’s Child1 provides one of the best descriptions I’ve come across:

“The best kinds of books, however, have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading. They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or loved, or suffered.

Further encounters with suck books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live.

Their effects cannot be aspired to. And writers can never be altogether sure that they have indeed created this rare and living thing. For their mysterious effect can only be felt silently, in the secret chambers of consciousness, in the depths of sleep and forgetfulness, in states of being where the magic of the words can work unseen. This kind of writing keeps living through time, through generations, through stories people tell one another, through our solitudes and moods, and through the ways in which such books make us more creative as we live and change and grow – or even as we face the prospect of dying.”

Of course, one can only know for sure that the book is of the best kind after one has read it. How does it help narrowing our selection?

From our previous experiences. Think about the best kind of books you’ve read so far. Which books, which characters, which stories, which lessons have lingered in your mind, long after you finished the book? Which books have grown with you over time, or taken a firm place in your heart and remained never changing? Which books still make you smile in the same place, though you have smiled that smile a hundred times? Which books make you worry for the character in peril even during repeated readings, when you already know what happens?

Which books you cannot stop talking about, insisting to others that they must read them, and when they don’t feel the same as you about the greatness of these books, the only reaction you have is complete bafflement?

Which books have impacted you enough that you’ve reflected on the way you think, or the way you behave, or who you are? Which books have inspired you and encouraged you? Which books have mentored you?

Titles that make up answers to these questions would be your best kind of books. Look at these titles, and they in turn would lead you to other titles that may yet come to be your future best kind of books.

  1. Newton’s Child, A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Pages 25, 26)

 

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Airports: Gateways to the Romance with the World

 

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I was quite excited to read A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton, because personally, I love airports. They represent the gateway to the romance with the world. Not all of them, but certainly the big and busy ones, where there is constant movement, and screens blink rapidly with upcoming departures to places familiar and non-familiar.

I look at these screens and I am overcome with the desire to just go to these places, unplanned. I want to put aside the ticket I purchased, and hop on a different plane, to a different place because “These screens implied a feeling of infinite and immediate possibility: they suggested the ease with which we might impulsively approach a ticket desk and, within a few hours, embark for a country where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses, where we understood nothing of the language and where no one knew our identities.” [Kindle Location 239]

The places I know nothing about, and particularly the ones I have never heard of, always seem more enticing. It’s not because I don’t want to visit again the places I love, but because “The lack of detail about the destinations served only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, St Petersburg, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Grand Cayman via Nassau…all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation.” [Kindle Location 239]

Airports, and particularly these boards listing all these places, tantalise us with a promise of an escape, both permanent and temporary, from whatever bothers us at home. It’s up to us to remember that most of our problems go where we go. “How quickly all the advantages of technological civilisation are wiped out by a domestic squabble.”[Location 364] The airports merely offer us the sunshine if want to escape the rain, a chance to practice a new language with the natives, try a cuisine of some exotic country, or meet up with the new friends we’ve made online. Airports can whisk us away to a new romantic adventure.

De Botton seems to share my fascination with the airports, though he’s far better at capturing the sense of it than I. As I read this book and explore his, “snapshots of travellers’ souls on their way to the skies,” [Kindle Location 401] much of what I felt were familiar emotions. We both particularly agree on the importance of what one witnesses at the arrivals and departures halls. “Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes, running through our civilisation – from our faith in technology to our destruction of nature, from our interconnectedness to our romanticising of travel – then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.” [Kindle Location 89]

The assembly of people from different places and races, sounds of various language, a multitude of emotions, all against the backdrop of blinking screens with names of the places unvisited reminds us how much bigger the world actually is. Bigger than our own concerns. Bigger than our personal prejudices. Bigger than our idea of normalcy. “One wants never to forget that nothing here is normal, that the streets are different in Wiesbaden and Luoyang, that this is just one of many possible worlds.” [Kindle Location 822]

With the romance of the travel we are also afforded a glimpse into the wealth of our world. Often busy complaining about the financial crisis and our personal debts, we rarely give a thought to “the modern era’s daunting technical intelligence,” and “its prodigious and inconceivable wealth,” which becomes obvious when one looks at the “dolphin-like bodies,” of aeroplanes, and “knowledge that each plane had cost some $250 million.” [Kindle Location 192]

It is not merely the romance of travel that we see. Airports offer a glimpse into our reality, into the divisions of society that still exist. First glimpse was through the luggage that passengers carried. Besides the obvious difference between the designer luggage versus the budget suitcases, “The wealthy tended to carry the least luggage, for their rank and itineraries led them to subscribe to the much-published axiom that one can now buy anything anywhere.” [Kindle Location 216]

De Botton sees the whole philosophy of life at the airport. From the romance of the travel, to financial status of the world, and to our human emotions and fears, the worst of which is usually death. Most of us hardly ever think about the amazing feat we are accomplishing, flying in a metal box in an air. As frequent flyers, we tune out the safety instructions, and disregard the possibility of a plane crash. We don’t want to think about it, because air travel has opened up the whole world to us, made it smaller and reachable. Yet, the possibility of death exists, and perhaps, “most of us could benefit from a brush with a near-fatal disaster to help us to recognize the most important things that we are too defeated or embittered to recognize from day to day.” [Kindle Location 340]

However, more than likely we are going to spend less time philosophising about death, and more time thinking about, “why, if one was in any way talented or adept, one was still unable to earn admittance to an elegant lounge,” while we waited, “on hard plastic chairs in the overcrowded and chaotic public waiting areas of the world’s airports.” [Kindle Location 605]

Despite the philosophy of the world’s real problems, De Botton returns to the romance of the travel, in comparing it with the profession of writers. “Considered collectively, as a cohesive industry, civil aviation had never in its history shown a profit. Just as significantly, neither had book publishing. In this sense, then, the CEO and I, despite our apparent differences, were in much the same sort of business, each one needing to justify itself in the eyes of humanity not so much by its bottom line as by its ability to stir the soul. It seemed as unfair to evaluate an airline according to its profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements. The stock market could never put an accurate price on the thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occurred around the world every day under an airline’s banner: it could not describe the sight of Nova Scotia from the air, it had no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong Kong ticket office, it had no means of quantifying the adrenaline-thrill of take-off.” [Kindle Location 710]

We don’t book a ticket for the plane. We book a ticket for an experience. Whether it’s meeting the family back home, have a romantic gateway, a family fun time, first meeting with a new love we met online, a religious pilgrimage, a solo adventure, or something entirely different. De Botton says, “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go…The notion of the journey as a harbinger of resolution was once an essential element of the religious pilgrimage, defined as an excursion through the outer world undertaken in an effort to promote and reinforce an inner evolution.” [Kindle Location 940]

If a travel agent teams up with a psychologist to offer this kind of service, airports will no doubt see a surge of far more happier and satisfied people in arrival halls.

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Is Literature Necessary?

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 image by auntiep

I was changed by literature, not by cautionary or exhortatory literature, but by the truth as I found it in literature. I recognize the world in a different way because of it, and I continue to be influenced in that way by it. Opened up, made more alert, and called to a greater truthfulness in my own accounting of things, not just in my writing, in my life as well. It did that for me, and does that for me, and no one touched by it in this way should have any doubt of its necessity.

– Tobias Wolff

I have felt the power of literature, as Wolff described above, and I continue to feel it. Books can be mere pass time, they can be a distraction, they can be so many little things….and so much more.

Literature is both a representation and an extension of our reality.

Books that touch us are the ones that resonate with us, and they do so, usually by showing us some kind of truth. It might be a truth about ourselves, about our world, or about our faiths and beliefs. It doesn’t necessarily jump out at us from every book, highlighted and ready for a moral lesson of the day. Sometimes it does, but most of the time, it’s just a quiet recognition that settles down within us. Literature, therefore, is a force of truth as a representation of our reality.

As an extension of our reality, literature enriches our minds, nourishes our souls. From good books, we learn about places we have never seen, and people we have never met. We feel the emotions that we’ve felt many times, and some that we have never felt. We can see the depth and range of humanity – at its best and its worst. We can see, finally, the gossamer strands of complicated layers that make up our world. Layers that are made of societal rules, individuality, people in our lives, internal and external influences, and so many other things that we may not even be aware of. Things that like a pebble thrown into calm waters, could create far-reaching ripples in our lives. Literature shows this. It shows us our lives, more clearly, than we can ever understand when we are caught up in living it.

It expands our horizons. It doesn’t matter where we were born, or what our circumstances are once we have an access to the library. Suddenly, many new worlds are open to us, and it is up to us what we make of them. There are no rules binding us, nothing to stop us from exploring as far as we want. Literature gives us an opportunity to feed our mind. It gives us an opportunity to expose ourselves to all sorts of ideas and thoughts which might throw us into utter confusion at first, make us question everything we thought we knew, and then guide us, slowly but surely, to find our own way, to affirm our own beliefs, and our view of the world.

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.

– Helen Keller

Is Literature Necessary? 

That question should not even need to be asked. It is unfortunate that it does need to be asked, because literature is not valued in our modern age as it should be. The concept of “learned men” is lost. We take literacy for granted, but we have forgotten why it’s so valuable. 

Literature, particularly great literature, gives us guidance to be great. It challenges our beliefs, and yet reaffirms others. It broadens our horizons, yet can take us home where we truly belong. It can bring untold joys and show us the ugliness that resides in the world, and in the hearts of men. Literature is the mirror of our society and our aspiration. 

Literature is not just necessary, it is essential.

The only way to protect it, the only way to ensure that it survives, is to use it.

Enjoy the literature, make the use of it, and the more we use it, the longer it will last – through each one of us. 

 

 

 

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How Books Can Open Your Mind

I watched this inspiring TED Talk, and it’s something that every Kaizen Reader should watch, and think upon. I have had a similar experience to Lisa Bu, in which that books have become my ultimate teachers, my companions.

Books have either taught me the values I hold, or they have reinforced what I was taught by people. Books are there to shine a light on the path, or to illuminate an existing one. They teach, they advice, they hint, and they challenge. Books open my mind, and my heart and they make me search my soul. Watch this video, and think about how books open your mind.

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Are Money and Comfort Necessary for the Writing Process?

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An Essay based on A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 

I first met Virginia Woolf at Mrs Dalloway’s party. She was a stranger – an aloof, sharp, beautiful woman with whom I didn’t feel an immediate connection. Relationships with books and authors are the same as relationships with people. With some, it’s an instant connection, recognition of a kindred spirit. But with others, it takes time. Virginia and I are still growing. The more I learn about her, the more she fascinates me. That’s why there are three of her books on the Kaizen Reading Challenge list.

 A Room of One’s Own seems an apt place to start, with its focus on what a writer needs to be able to write. Woolf comments upon various interconnected issues, but the undercurrent running throughout the whole book is the importance of money that provides for one’s basic needs so that one can focus on writing. That is as relevant today as it was in 1928. Except that today, this is no longer an issue for just women.

We have come far enough in gender equality that this issue applies to both sexes. If there are any fortunes to be inherited, it is no longer only men who inherit them. When Woolf said,s interconnected issues, but the undercurrent running throughout the whole book is the importance of money that provides for one’s basic needs so that one can focus on writing. That is as relevant today as it was in 1928. Except that today, this is no longer an issue for just women.

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

[Kindle Location 37, Chapter 1]

she wasn’t talking about the importance of money for its own sake. She didn’t say a woman must have thousands of pounds, a big house and a bunch of servants if she is to write fiction. It’s about what money gives you. A sense of comfort and security of knowing you have a roof over your head, bills are paid, and you have somewhere to write.

The physical comforts cannot be overrated. However lofty heights your soul may aspire to, it is framed in a corporal body. As such, it has basic human needs like every other person.

Woolf was right when she said,

The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

[Kindle Location 237, Chapter 1]

We have not yet gotten to a stage where science can separate heart, body and brain in different compartments. However inconvenient it may be, it’s probably a good thing for our writing, enabling us to tap into not just intellectual but also our emotional capacity. However, attempting to tap into your inner muse when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from is rarely successful. The image of a starving artist may sound romantic, but in reality, it has no more romance than the lives of millions of other starving people.

Woolf asks,

What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?

[Kindle Location 329, Chapter 2]

Necessity is too definitive, for it would change from person to person. Some people are able to bear discomforts more than others. Yet, it would be logical to say that comfortable conditions of living would be more conducive to the creation of works of art, and the availability of that comfort is dependent upon having money. Even if the impact of gaining some money is not as momentous as it was in Woolf’s times.

The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women…of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.

[Kindle Location 486, Chapter 2]

Woolf was an intelligent, socially conscientious woman. She knew the importance of being able to vote, the tide of change it represented for women, yet it was the £500 per year that she found more valuable. For it was the money that bought her independence, without which, political rights mean very little.

Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.

[Kindle Location 503, Chapter 2]

These basic needs were her security. They gave her the freedom to be a writer. These are the very basic needs that prevent people today from blossoming into their inner artist.

Woolf raises this in a reflection about women who lived during Shakespeare’s time. 

For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.

[Kindle Location 541, Chapter 3]

It wasn’t a puzzle. Woolf knew the answer to that too.

What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached  to life at all four corners…But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

[Kindle Location 543, Chapter 3]

That is the same concern we face today. The environment nurtures creativity, but it can also distract. There is a reason people pay small fortunes to attend writers’ retreats. The reality that was true then, is true now.

Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.

[Kindle Location 676, Chapter 3]

Art available in abundance is not perceived as necessity, and yet take it away – every book, every film, every painting, and every play – and the world will mourn its loss, and be changed forever. However, until that happens, complain about being a struggling writer, and people will tell you to get a real job.

The very people, who look down upon and give “practical” advice to the struggling artists, hero-worship successful ones. Just think about a mile long queue for book-signings, midnight book releases, and intensity of fans for success stories such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Eat Pray Love. As Woolf said,

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

[Kindle Location 845, Chapter 3]

She is not the only one who’s being honest about importance of money and comfort in a writer’s life. She references Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said,

The poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance…a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

[Kindle Location 1406, Chapter 3]

In today’s society, we are not absolutely ruled by the circumstances of our birth. Education is available to people of all backgrounds. With the long reach of the Internet, more and more opportunities are available for those with a vision and a drive. While a poor child in England today does not have as hopeless existence as a child of an Athenian slave, he also does not have the ease with which opportunities are available for the rich child. Intellectual freedom is still difficult to achieve, for it requires time to study, and to reflect. One can only find that time once the bills are paid, and there is a place – a room of one’s own – to sit down in.

 

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5 Reasons Why You Should Write In Your Books

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image – my copy of Lolita, marked up

 

There was a time when I would have said it was criminal to make any marks in a book. I look after my books. To treat books with care is natural for me. I don’t ever remember thinking, I must be more careful with my books. I always have been.

I always use bookmarks (or in the absence of them, something – post-it, receipt, tissue, whatever is there). The spines of my book only crack when it’s a book I re-read often, so it’s then a bit more like an old age character rather than neglect. I tell you this to establish that I love my books. I intend to have a proper library one day when I finally settle down somewhere and buy a house, so until then, all my books are waiting to have a permanent home.

However, despite my obsession with treating my books with care, I still advocate writing in books, underlining, making notes, and all sorts of things. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

– Edgar Allen Poe

 

 5 Reasons Why You Should Write In Your Books 

 

1.  Active Reading
By underlining, or making notes as you read, you are turning reading from a passive activity into an active one. You are not merely taking in what you read, you are processing it at a deeper level. It’s useful for retaining information, but it’s also better for getting more out of what you are reading. Before you can keep an effective reading journal or a commonplace book, you need to become an active reader.

2. Thinking Out Loud
People usually mark their books when a relevant, or somehow important thought occurs to them as they read, usually because of what they are reading. By noting this down, you are thinking out loud – or rather on paper, and capturing your thought process. This will also give you invaluable insights on how your personal inner commentary relates to what you read.

3. Making Associations
Taking notes, while reading actively, will naturally lead you to make associations you might otherwise not have made. Even if you think about them, chances are you will forget them if you don’t write them now. It’s curious how many unexpected connections our mind makes, and you will find yourself recalling information from various sources, often quite unrelated, and making associations with your current reading.

4. Looking Back
Browsing through one’s marked book is a fun and often insightful thing. As you look back, you will your notes and underlines, which will tell you what made an impression on you at the time of the reading. If it’s a book you often re-read, then you might find yourself changing your opinion over time, or you might find the opposite. No matter what the final result, your markings will tell you a lot about yourself.
 
5. Leaving a Legacy
Imagine leaving not just a library behind, but a library of your very personal books. That’s a legacy indeed. What a curiosity it would be for your children and grandchildren to look at your personal notes. It will be something that brings them closer to you (or at least one member of your family, because there is usually one who appreciates such things), even after you are dead. 

How about you? Do you write or make marks on your books? 

 

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5 Reasons Reading is Essential

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image by DollyGarland

 

I love books. Since I’m putting time and effort into this blog, it’s evident that I believe in the power of books. Reading for escape is good, and I encourage it, but books can offer so much more. They can contribute so much to your individual potential.

That’s the topic I want to expand on in this article, and talk about why reading is essential.

Pleasure

Books are definitely for pleasure. So often people who don’t read much say that they try to read only “useful” books. That’s a completely wrong approach, and it’s even worse when you do it with your children. Never mind about the vocabulary benefit or career progression, start by reading whatever you want to read it. Encourage  your children to read, by making it fun.

Learn to enjoy the written word. Read for the pleasure of it. Once you fall in love with books, you will automatically expand your horizons to “useful” books. 

When it comes to reading, nothing is wasted. Every book, every story will teach you something if you are paying attention.

Personal Development

There is no teacher, no school or college on this planet that can teach you more than books. We live a golden age of information. Books are available relatively cheaply, and if you make use of the libraries, freely. Thanks to electronic readers, you are not required to lug volumes of physical books around (unless you want to). 

There are books on every topic you can imagine, and let’s not forget the wisdom that’s been passed through the ages in the form of books. Everything you want to learn, books can teach you. Of course, it requires discipline and will-power, because books are not going to punish you if you don’t do your homework. 

I find it baffling and an absolute shame that so many people don’t take advantage of this easily available resource to improve their personal and professional lives. But that’s why this world has a larger population of mediocrity than it has of people who are always striving to fulfil their individual potential. Look at any successful people throughout all ages of history, and you will find that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM READ BOOKS! 

Language Skills

As a writer, it’s essential for me to keep up with language skills. It’s astonishing how little vocabulary we use on average. Oxford English Dictionary has more than 170,000 words yet on average, we use 25,000 words. That’s mere 15%. 

Reading helps you increase that percentage so that if you are not currently at an average level, you can improve your skills. If you are at an average level, you can extend it. Most people have a higher percentage of passive vocabulary than active.

Active vocabulary is the words that you can recall and use instantly. Passive vocabulary is words that you recognize when you see or hear them, but are not able to use naturally. 

Focus

Reading, and actually understanding the story or the concept requires attention. You can read with half a mind on the page. You have to focus. It’s a good skill to have, and in this current age of distraction, one that is lacking in many people. 

It may be difficult at first, but once you get into a story, you will forget about the world around you, and focusing will become easier. That’s why it’s important to start with the type of books you will love and have fun with.

Moral Education

It sounds high and mighty, but your moral values are the foundation of your character. Both nurture and nature contribute it, but reading gives you control over creating your values. My parents taught me right from wrong, but I learned more from books than I did from anyone else. Simply because what I learned from books, wasn’t advice. They were stories. They were examples of characters I’d fallen in love with, or admired. It was logical then that I would want to embrace the qualities I admired in them.

 

What lessons have you learned from books?

 

 

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The Humanity of Taboos: Explored through Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

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 image by Dolly Garland

 

Note: I first submitted this essay with my MA in English Literature application. I received the admission offer, and so now I can publish it here. 

The Humanity of Taboos

Explored through Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

It is not the most common thing to associate Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita1 with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things2. Published forty-two years apart, former by an established Russian author relocated to America, and the latter by an Indian author who has produced no other work of Fiction, Lolita and The God of Small Things are two masterpieces with one thing in common: they show us, as we will see throughout this essay, that taboos are taboos not because they are against human nature, but because they are a side of human nature we would rather feign ignorance too.

Nabokov didn’t write Lolita to be scandalous. He wrote it because it was a story that called to him and he felt that if he didn’t finish it, “the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life.” [Nabokov, 310]

Roy felt a calling too, but of a different kind. Her story is semi-autobiographical, set in the world of her childhood. When asked about the book’s focus on the caste system and attitude towards women, Roy said, “I never set out with the intention to write about it. I think one of the saddest things that’s happening to literature is that it’s getting over-simplified by this diet of simple political ideas.”3

By remaining true to their fiction, they managed to pinpoint unpleasant truths of our reality more effectively than any political statement or philosophical argument could ever have done. Through the lives of their very human characters, both Nabokov and Roy showed us the immorality of our humanity.

It’s a norm in the Western society to paint paedophiles as monsters. Yet, as we go through Humbert’s narrative, and feel disgust as we’ve been conditioned to feel by the moral compass of our times, a trace of sympathy sneaks in when we see him suffer, and know that however taboo, he loves. “…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” [Nabokov, 275, 276]

We don’t believe him merely because he says so. We believe him because we’ve witnessed his journey, and also because even he is relieved by the awareness that it wasn’t just “the foul lust.” [Nabokov, 281]

Humbert’s relationship with Lolita is a taboo because the rules of our society say so. If that wasn’t the case, the reaction to this novel would have been different. As Humbert pointed out, “Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces. Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds.” [Nabokov, 19]

The taboos in Roy’s world are labelled different, but the crimes are similar. All the central characters break rules, and suffer the consequences, though some pay a price much steeper than others. “Perhaps, Ammu, Estha and she (Rahel) were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tempered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.” [Roy, 31]

Roy shows us the humanity’s fear of any threat to its order. The society creates layer upon layer of structure, each with its own set of rules, embedded in the very consciousness of people from the time they are born. Very few people, like Ammu and Velutha, manage to escape this inherent conditioning. The majority, like Vellya Paapen, merely struggle on, accepting their lot in life.

Humbert knew he was breaking the rules. He doesn’t ask for or expect forgiveness. Though he claims his preference for young girls a natural inclination, he knows that it is a violation of legal and social rules, and accepts his due penalties. What he insists on, is making the world aware that he loved, and loved truly. “…how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still grey-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” [Nabokov, 276]

It is not just Humbert towards whom our emotions are inverted. Lolita, the victim by the standards of our society, should have been the one a reader would root for. However, though we can see that she is largely a product of her circumstances, there is also an element of her inherent nature that does not generate sympathy. Lolita, as a person, as a child, does not fit neatly into the victim mould. In her relationship with Humbert, she was more often the one with the power. Humbert knew it too. “…I was weak, I was not wise, my schoolgirl nymphet had me in thrall.” [Nabokov, 181]

When Estha is abused, we feel the emotions we are supposed to feel, because both characters meet our moral expectations. Estha is a good boy, a victim. The man who abuses him is someone we can easily envision standing in a corner, looking out with a predator’s eye for vulnerable children. “The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s hand closed over Estha’s. His thumbnail was long like a woman’s. He moved Estha’s hand up and down. First slowly. Then fastly. The lemondrink was cold and sweet. The penis hot and hard.” [Roy, 103]

Lolita is not frightened of Humbert, though perhaps she doesn’t see another way out. When we see her manipulating him, using his lust against him, while we can’t blame her, it becomes a clash of two taboos. Humbert is wrong by our moral standards for having sex with a minor. Lolita is wrong by our moral standards because she behaves like a prostitute, demanding things and money for her favours. “Her weekly allowance, paid to her under condition she fulfil her basic obligations, was twenty-one cents at the start of the Beardsley era – and went up to one dollar five before its end.” [Nabokov, 181]

Estha on the other hand is terrified that “The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man could walk in any minute.” [Roy, 194] The fear drives him to find a refuge away from home, to discover, “The boat that Ammu would use to cross the river. To love by night the man her children loved by day.” [Roy, 202]

The relationship between Ammu and Velutha is one of the two main taboos in The God of Small Things. It is this relationship that offers hope of finding one’s own happiness, even in the world made of rigid rules. “And on Ammu’s Road (to Age and Death) a small, sunny meadow appeared.” [Roy, 337] It also sprinkles sorrow that seeps through the lives of all the central characters. Everyone is somehow left broken, and alone.

The second main taboo is when the twins, Estha and Rahel, have sex. Technically, it is incest and like Humbert’s love for Lolita, based on the rules of our society, we are expected to show disgust. Yet, as we travel with the story, we can see that, “…what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.” [Roy, 328]

For Estha and Rahel, the fraternal twins with “the single Siamese soul” [Roy, 41] there was intimacy that went beyond their individuality. The events that destroyed their lives, made them accomplices in the deaths of Velutha and Sophie Mol, and the slow disintegration of their mother’s life, connected them further. For two people, so intertwined that there was no clear distinction between where one person began and another ended, the sex was merely an attempt to find solace in the company of the only other person who knew everything, could understand everything, was a part of everything – and was essentially a sharer of soul.

The characters and the scene make us think about – even if we can’t quite gather the courage to challenge – the taboos as defined by our civilised society.

Despite the seemingly destructive themes, both novels end on a hopeful note, highlighting that no matter how rigid the rules, no matter what the consequences of breaking those rules, humans will strive to capture the fleeting moments of joy. In The God of Small Things, the hopeful note is highlighted in an impactful manner by ending the story, in the middle, when Ammu promises to meet Velutha, “Tomorrow.” [Roy, 340]

In Lolita, the hopeful note comes from Humbert’s acknowledgement of his crime. “I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape.” [Nabokov, 307] His regret is not for loving Lolita, nor for having sex with her. His regret is because he caused her pain, and destroyed her childhood. However, he also convinces us that his love for her was genuine, in his own way, and ends his memoir wishing Lolita only happiness.

Humbert also shows us another side of Lolita, which in turn makes her a more sympathetic character. “She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom…” [Nabokov, 283]

Neither of the authors set out to convert us to change our moral compass, but they show us that like nearly all the elements of humanity, the definitions of monsters and victims are not always black and white. Their works and their worlds challenge us to look at our own morality, at the taboos of our society, and consider the reasons behind them. People who don’t like that challenge are the ones who call for banning of these books.

Oscar Wilde4 said it long ago, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” Both Roy and Nabokov shame the world, by showing us the humanity of taboos.

 

Bibliography

1.    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Penguin Books 1997, ISBN 0-14-026407-8
2.    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo 1998, ISBN 0-00-655068-1
3.    Small is Beautiful – An Interview with Arundhati Roy, Harper Collins Australia http://www.harpercollins.com.au/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=50000537&displayType=interview
4.    The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Chapter 19

 

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My Commonplace Book and Why Everyone Should Keep One

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 image by brbl

 

Make your own Bible. Select and Collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.

– Emerson Journals July 1836

 

I previously talked about the commonplace bookwhat it is and where it comes from. My research into the concept made me motivated to start my own commonplace book.

Why Do I Want to Keep A Commonplace Book 

As a regular journal keeper, I had to consider how this was going to work. My journal captures my life, or at least parts of it. I also have a quote journal, which while not regularly used is a place where I collect quotes. These quotes come from anywhere, and are not necessarily part of my reading. As much as the idea of keeping a commonplace book appealed to me, I wanted it to be something worthwhile so that I wouldn’t stop doing it once the novelty wore off.

I want my commonplace book to be about something specific, so I decided it would be a thing I use to improve as a reader and as a writer. In essence it will be a reading journal, but the notion of calling it a commonplace book feels far more romantic.

It differs slightly from a reading journal because the focus in the commonplace book is on other people’s words. In a reading journal, I might be too lazy to copy entire passages and may simply refer to the page numbers from the book. However, the point of a commonplace book is to write down quotes and passages you want to preserve. You make the work and the words your own, by transcribing them, and by digesting them.

Building Expertise

However, just because it’s for a specific purpose does not mean it’s limited. Think about what it would mean to be a better reader. You would read more and wide. You would read fiction and non-fiction, books, articles, essays and poems. All of these formats and ideas would bring you in contact with just about any issue humanity has faced or will face, as well as with a range of human emotions. For a reader, no book stands alone. Each story, each essay….every new sentence, it builds upon the material you have already explored. With each new piece of literature, you are not starting the journey, you are merely continuing it. 

Writing is the same. You may start a new article or a new book, but the writing ability you have today, is the result of all the words you’ve written in the past. 

Your commonplace book can be a place to see this evolution for whatever topic interests you, or whatever your purpose may be. You can see where you were when you started, and how far you’ve come. Have you finally read the classics you always meant to read? Have you finally figured out just how to appreciate Virginia Woolf’s works, or understand that Oscar Wilde’s sarcasm is so powerful because it is always coated in truth? 

Your commonplace book can be a place where you continue to build your expertise in one or more area by continuously mining the best information from available resources, by recording  your responses to it, and then using that information to come to your own conclusions and making personal associations.

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.

– Seneca

A Tool for Personal Evolution and Assessment

A commonplace book can also be a record of personal evolution. As I read, as my taste changes, as my knowledge increases (hopefully), and as my mind gets used to making more and more connections between various pieces of literature, as well as between literature and life, this will be reflected in my commonplace book. A commonplace book therefore can be both a tool for self-growth, and self-analysis.

One gets a pretty good idea of a man, his likes and prejudices, his quirks and manias, the variousness of his mind from reading a commonplace book. 

– William Cole

I want my commonplace book to be a place where I take the time to not only enjoy but to explore my reading, to make associations between literature and life, to learn how great writers did things, and to use it for continuous improvement. It will be a record of my Kaizen Reading

Are you keeping a commonplace book? What would you want to use it for? 

 

 

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