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V. S. Naipaul on How to Be A Good Student of English Literature

 

V. S. Naipaul is a winner of Nobel Prize in Literature, the Booker Prize. He’s the author of House of Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, and numerous other books. Between Father and Son: Family Letters is a poignant collection of letters he exchanged mostly with his father and elder sister while studying at University of Oxford. In one of these letters, he gives advice to one of his younger sisters, Sati, on how to be a good student of English Literature.

It’s a spot-on advice, as valid today as it was then. For everyone who’s interested in not just getting degrees in English, but to really participate in literature, these few words of wisdom could open up a path of great immersion. 

 

English lit. demands more than a mere knowledge of the texts, and a familiarity with the criticism of your text editor. You must do your own thinking about the books you read. Learned criticism is what you need. In other words, if you are studying Milton, get to know something of his life, the temper of the times he lived in, the literary conventions.” 

– Between Father and Son: Family Letters, Pg 186

 

 

In other words, thought is indispensable. You must realise in the first place what the writer set out to do…Having found out the aim of the writer, ponder on the difficulties of the achievement, and then see where he has failed.

– Between Father and Son: Family Letters, Pg 187

 

Thoughts on why we read certain books at certain times

Like most book lovers, I’ve piles of unread books. I continuously keep adding to it by buying new books. Realistically, unless I retire and read full time, it seems unlikely that I will be able to read all the books I own in a decade. But we are not going to talk about the book buying…that’s a whole separate issue. What I have been pondering is what makes us pick up one book over another, why I start reading a certain book as soon as it arrives in the post, or even on the way home from the bookstore, whereas others must await their turn for months, years, or even decades? One thing is for certain, there is no logic behind it as far as provable logic goes. So what drives these decision?

This particular pondering started because I just picked out my “Vintage” collection, which I bought almost to the day five years ago. For five years these books have sat on my shelf, looking gorgeous, but I’ve ignored them as I selected other things to read. Oh I have admired them, I have considered reading them, but they never quite made it out of their spot and into my hands. I don’t know why. Just as I don’t know why today this is the collection I was drawn to. 

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There are other books for me to read. In fact, it would make more sense to start reading a second book in The Liveship Traders trilogy, because I recently finished the first book. It would make more sense to finish reading Rousseau’s Confessions that I’m in the middle of. There are a lot of other books that, logically, I should be reading right now. But instead, I took out my collection, intending to read a book by Maugham, and instead started reading The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I’ve never read anything by Richard Yates. In fact, even among this collection, I should be and am more drawn to Isherwood – whose journals I enjoy – and Maugham, due to his reputation. Yet, they must wait some more. 

I believe that books are like people. Sometimes we meet the right person at the right time and everything falls into place. At other times, the people are right but the timing is wrong and things don’t work out so well. This happens with books too. A right book read at the right time has the power to transform lives. It can offer support, comfort, hope, understanding, a really good cry, fuel dreams, energize, deepen emotional understanding, educate and make you think. The right book at the right time can be a miracle, often a mini miracle, but sometimes a mega miracle. So that’s why when books draw me to them, I listen. When I feel the urge to read something in particular, against all logic, I read it. The stuff that needs to be read will be read somehow. But books that your heart/soul tells you to read…that’s where magic may happen. Sometimes, signals get crossed and it’s just an ordinary book. But sometimes, it’s another alleyway, exploring uncharted territories inside one’s own soul. 

Ishmael and the Failings of Human Race

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I just finished reading Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn, which was recommended to me by Nik Perring (his book Beautiful Words is truly beautiful, and a lesson in how you can say a lot of things in few words). 

This is a philosophical novel. It is dialogue between a teacher and a student, where the teacher is encouraging the student to see through the myths human culture is trapped in. The teacher is a gorilla and the student is a human. It may sound weird, but when you read the book, the concept works. This book was awarded Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991, a $500K price, before it’s formal publication in 1992. 

I don’t want to give spoilers, because if you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend that you do. Though published in 1992, it is in fact even more relevant today when we consider the situation humanity, and the planet is in. The dialogue is Socratic, based on logic. And like any logical conclusion, once you figure it out it seems obvious. It highlights the failings of humanity, but more importantly, WHY we fail as a race.

I read about 50% of this book on my kindle while running 17.29 miles over two days on the treadmill. If you have ever attempted to run on a treadmill, you will know that it’s very difficult to stay entertained. I breezed through it, and it was easier than running with music or movies. It’s written in easy-to-read style, not heavy academic/jargony prose. It is basically a conversation between two people, and you can agree or disagree.

It may not change your perspective, it may not change your idea of humanity, but at the very least it will make you think. Perhaps it will encourage you to see things from a new angle. Isn’t that what good books are supposed to do?

 

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 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.