A conveyor belt of books

I signed up, yet again, for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The goal is to get to 40 books this year. The goal is set by you, so you can set 100 if you want. 40 is a good number that I set because I know I can get past it. And I’ll also be able to do some decent reading. A 500 pager that takes 3 weeks won’t daunt me as much as if I had set the goal to, say, 60.

As we enter the second half of the year, I noticed that I had gotten to 21, in a canter. I took more than 3 weeks reading ‘The Cunning Man’, working my way back to time reading a book after bouts of illness all across the house. But I buttressed that with smaller books like a short story collection by Kalki and finishing off the last few pages of A.K. Ramanujan’s “Folktalkes from India”. The number is the goal.

I sit down and try to remember what all I read, and it isn’t easy. Books seem to come one after the other, making their marks while being read, but getting finished, and then you move on to the next one. It feels like a conveyor belt. But that is one risk that you do run when you read quite a bit, no? Some will stick longer, some not so much even if you really enjoyed reading them.

Richard Flanagan’s “Narrow Road to the Deep North” and Julian Barnes’ “The Noise of Time” stand out in the latter category. Really well written, with stories and prose that absorb and keep you well-wrapped in what they’re trying to say. But you still stay distant, never quite there. But then, is that what is expected when you read about WWII or Communism in Russia? How much can you relate to everything, after all? Sometimes you read to observe from a distance and understand… things. They might shape your opinion on something much later; reading a book isn’t that passive an activity anyway, it does change you and your perspectives in subtle ways.

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I found Robertson Davies’ “The Cunning Man” and Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” to be in the former category. More people, less events or historical settings. Yes, the latter can be construed as a biography of Toronto, of people who lived there, how they came about, the social scenes, all while talking about a set of characters. In fact, now that I think about it, the story as such isn’t that well connected. You don’t know what you are reading for or towards. But at the end you’re left with a menagerie of characters, many you relate to or at least understand.

Kalki’s short stories collection is translated by his grand-daughter. Almost all of them have an undercurrent of Gandhiism, nationalism (not the latest one doing the rounds, more of the pre-independence types), and even some from WWII. But that was the era he lived in. It says a lot about RKN that we tend to see almost all Indian writing in English of that era as having his aura, with quaint everyman characters and their lives – the printer, the banker or the teacher. But Kalki’s are markedly different, even without trying hard to shrug off any influence. It helps that they were contemporaries and he probably did not get influenced by any one. More importantly, these are translations, and the target was the average guy who bought the magazine on the way home after work. You don’t want to tell him about himself. I liked the translations because it stayed true to the Tamilness of the stories. At one point, when someone goes to visit a school, the sleeping teacher first thinks they are inspectors, gets all worked up, and in the next sentence, soon after the introduction as teacher, he is called a vadhyar. Many of the stories have strong Carnatic influences. You could say the stories don’t age well, you never get out of the TN or Madras of that time, but maybe that’s how it should be? He did write for specific audiences at a specific time in a specific medium. Sometimes, you want books to age well, sometimes maybe not. They can work like old B/W photographs, showing the hair and cloth trends of that time.

A.K Ramanujan’s “Folktales from India” are just that, folktales. They are short, some are long but never more than 5-6 pages. But they’re interesting, and fun. Some are too dark, so reading to children needs some caution. It’s surprising the content in some of the stories that we were told as kids, with themes like death and violence. And surprising how much kids these days are shielded in terms of stories while being exposed constantly to them through cartoons. Oh well, that’s not for me to comment.

Amidst all this, there’s the fitting in of non-fictions like Gaia Vince’s “Adventures in the Anthropocene” which is really a must-read for everyone to understand how we are changing the world, as in literally changing the world, and why we should be worried about it. Yes, there are positive steps being taken, but how much of what we are doing, whatever little we are doing that is, is going to be enough? The jury’s still out there on that, but the news trickling in isn’t pretty. More and more areas are getting turned into deserts under the influence of monocultures, changing rainfall patterns, and mismanagement of water. Huge lakes like the Chad lake or the Aral Sea are now less than 10% of what they were. (Yes, you read that right) She offers optimism though, that we will figure out a way, but not before we pay a hefty price for all the screwups.

At the moment, am working myself through Philip Ball’s “Life’s Matrix: A biography of Water”. For something on water, the treatment is pretty dry and am mostly working through shapes of atoms, why density increases or decreases. One of these days am going to wake up suddenly with a chemistry exam to face that I haven’t studied for.

It’s July already. Surprising how the months and years roll no? Like on a conveyor belt? Traditionally it’s time for a Kannada book. K.P. Thejaswi’s “ಅಬಚೂರಿನ ಪೋಸ್ಟ್ ಆಫೀಸು ಮತ್ತು ಇತರ ಕಥೆಗಳು” is what is lined up. The good Indhukka said she has a collection of Vasudhendra’s short stories for me. I did a wiki-read of him, and definitely someone I really want to read. One of these days I’ll go pick them up!

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