In an alternate universe, Don Quixote, oblivious to the pleadings of Sancho Panza would have made a full tilt at the windmills, sitting astride his grumpy steed Rocinante. Even for the Quixotic character such a move would have posed a challenge due to the location of the windmills. It would not just have been a stern test of Rocinante’s speed but also stamina. Am willing to wager that the aging bastard would have outrageously tossed his master off his back and made for safe ground.
The sight of every windmill, with due respect to its utility is a monumental testimony to the originality of Miguel de Cervantes. However, the current generation that is held ransom to swipes, slides and selfies isn’t intrepid enough to think of either Cervantes or Don Quixote.
A real tragedy that would have made even the eccentric hidalgo from La Mancha shed a tear of regret.
(Word Count: 150)
Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #111 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.
This is a book that I have finished reading 8 years later than when I should preferably have. But as is the case with wisdom, good habits, realisation, and love, better late than never. “The Shallows”, (a Pulitzer Prize Finalist), penned by acclaimed author, Nicholas Carr, issues a wakeup call that is timely, topical and terrifying. Bringing to bear, the prescience of Socrates and the peculiarities of the science of neuroplasticity, Carr dissects in an astonishingly lucid manner the deceptive perils of an inviting buffet of virtual richness that the internet offers us all.
The book opens with a bleak throwback, as Carr takes his readers back in time to the climax of the seminal Science Fiction movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In this master piece by Stanley Kubrick, the supercomputer HAL issues anguished pleas as it is being dismantled. “My mind is going. I can feel it.” HAL laments. The internet, while not exactly ripping our minds to shreds, is ‘rewiring’ our cerebral circuits that are marvelously, yet vulnerably malleable. Employing the pathbreaking proclamations and postulations of the legendary communication theorist, Marshall McLuhan, to describe how the internet has subtly yet, undoubtedly taken over our minds, Carr painstakingly brings to us the stark essence of McLuhan’s immortal phrase, “the medium is the message”
In the internet era, where communications take place at a frenzied pace and where web hopping makes the phrase pub-hopping seem extraordinarily pedestrian, a noticeable change can be found in the reading habits of people. As Carr points out, the trend now is to ‘skim through’ lines, sentences, paragraphs and pages rather than deep read in peace and calm. Similar to the phenomenon of spending as little time as possible at each website, and clicking furiously on one hyperlink that leads to the next, which in turn, leads to another, we also surf the pages of a book with scant regard to either the meaning or essence contained within. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves”, writes Carr.
It is precisely to award such a flurry of distractions that Carr retreated to the mountains of Colorado from the suburb of Boston to expedite the writing of this book. “When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words. I tended to write in disconnected sprits, the same way I wrote when blogging.” He also deactivated his Twitter account, stayed off from Facebook, “shut down” his automatic news reader, and abstained from checking emails for long stretches of time.
Carr also informs us that we often, unknowingly, transform ourselves into the medium which we employ in the normal course, to send and receive our message. Plagued by debilitating indigestion, insomnia, and migraines in addition to experiencing deterioration in his eyesight, German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, and philologist Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche got himself a curious typewriter called the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. Whilst this aided the author greatly in his writing endeavour, it also brought about a distinctive change to his writing style. In the philosopher’s own words, “The writing ball is a thing like me, made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys. Patience and tact are required in abundance as well as fine fingers to use us.”
Carr relies on a plethora of empirical research conducted by famed neuroscientists and experts in the field of neuroplasticity to bolster his argument that the internet is influencing us – none for the better – as a species. For example, there are lots of passages and pages devoted to the landmark work of Austrian-American psychiatrist Eric Kandel. Kandel who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in the year 2000, went on to show that short-term and long-term memories are formed by different signals. This is true in all animals that learn, from molluscs to man. This is where the book gets more than just a bit dense and esoteric. Dwelling on the differences between short term and long term memories, implicit and explicit memories, Carr elaborately and enthusiastically dives into the complicated field of neuroscience and the reader is left wondering whether the movie hall has projected the wrong cinema after an intermission.
Carr, in addition to Kandel, draws on the works of many distinguished academic luminaries whose contribution span subjects, geographies and eras. Norman Diodge, J.Z. Young, Michael Matthias Merzenich, Rene Descartes, and H.G.Wells are some of the names that adorn the theories set out in Carr’s work. No wonder the endnotes to the book make for some reading that is as impressive as the main body itself of the book.
Carr also dwells on the perils of multitasking. We are continually switching back and forth between manipulating the keyboard of our laptops, sending and receiving a spate of instant messages, shifting between posting selfies on Instagram and updating status on Facebook, all the while expressing our angst in 280 characters (the character limit was 140 when the book was written) on Twitter. This multitasking warrants and demands allocation of attention to various objects simultaneously with no particular focus on any one particular object. It is such a relentless mental motion that has the incredible impact of altering the physiological structure of the brain at the cellular level. A part of the brain called hippocampus, informs Carr, has a different structure for the cabbies of London who have a prodigious capacity to remember every nook and cranny as compared to a person who drives using a GPS for navigation.
Even though I had no idea of this book until a few days ago, going through the same made me realise some subtle yet perceptible changes that had taken over my writing. Until a few years ago, especially before I got myself a well functional blog, I used to review books by initially setting out my thoughts on paper. I would first compose what the writer Anne Lamott famously describes as “shitty first drafts” and refine them by crossing out lines, striking out passages and scrawling additional squiggles in between words. Once I had my blog up and running, I began reviewing books solely on my personal laptop. Although the shitty drafts still appear on the screen, they are, as I introspect in hindsight, well and truly shitty. Words which were earlier idyllic, expansive, sincere, spontaneous, and non-judgmental are now edgy, restless, abstract, curt, short and angry. They are like virtual bee stings. There are deliberately “introduced” words that are extremely amenable to hyperlinks. Sheets which earlier used to look like messy abstract paintings in black and red are now replaced by perfectly symmetrical black lines punctuated with links in blue, or is it green? Even this particular review devotes a paragraph solely to cover the sources relied on by Carr. This is a paragraph that could easily have been excised from the review, but then again so would have been the hyperlinks!
Carr wonders whether Socrates could have pioneered history’s first technology scare. In the “Phaedrus,” the learned and pragmatic philosopher bemoaned the invention of books, which “create forgetfulness” in the soul. Sacrificing remembrance at the altar of writing, Socrates warned, that people with a penchant for reading were blindly trusting in “external written characters.” This might be the right time to think how an unfettered and total trust in the internet could impact us not just as communicators, but also as human beings.
“The Shallows” – time to bring back the long and undeservedly neglected fountain pen!
The late Rayasam Bheemasena Rao, popularly known by the nom de plume of “BeeChi”, (he preferred to employ his pen name in the bilingual and thus it was ಬೀchi), was a famous Kannada humourist. He was referred to as the George Bernard Shaw of Karnataka. A blend of satirical humour and philosophical musings is the usual imprimatur of this writer and “Devarillada Gudi” (Temple Without God) is no exception. An unexpected invitation to visit Russia, when it was still the Soviet Union, as part of a delegation consisting of authors from across the world (with the exception of the United States) accords a rare opportunity for the 62 year old ಬೀchi not just to venture out of the country, but also experience the culture of a nation that is humongous in its breadth and reach. In “Devarillada Gudi”, the author reminisces his nineteen day sojourn of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic and is held in thrall by a country not just well renowned for its communist philosophy but also for being solidly atheist. A non-confirming individual himself, ಬೀchi, ponders along with his readers about various aspects that have an intersectionality with atheism in so far as culture, freedom and socialism are concerned.
But even before he can leave the shores of Mother India ಬೀchi is giving a harrowing taste of bureaucracy and red tapism when he visits Madras (now Chennai) for his passport. Mr. Muthuswamy and officer with a stentorian voice and a stolid demeanour almost puts paid to ಬೀchi’s hopes by being as intransigent as possible in processing his application. This after sitting on it for full eighteen day period. Only a visit to Delhi and to the right “connections” ensures that the author gets his passport in the nick of time! In the flight, ಬೀchi gets a ‘flavour’ of Russia, when a fellow passenger takes copious swigs of alcohol straight from the bottle without bothering about the need for or the presence of glasses. ಬೀchi is in absolute thrall of Soviet Russia right from the moment he sets foot in the country. Staring out the window of his hotel room in Moscow that over looks the river, he takes in the sights, sounds and smells of the nation. There are some passages in the book that are cringe worthy though. One of the first things that he asks his guide is for the location of prostitutes! Upon getting a response that such a practice is not found anywhere within the land, he sets off into a reflective bout that has at its core the concepts of fidelity and chastity.
Although a severe attack of duodenal ulcer resulted in the author abdicating his drinking habit that extended for three and a half decades, he still continued smoking and carried his favourite brand of “Ganesh Beedis” even to Soviet Russia. In an enclosed market area, he fishes out his smoke pack and is about to light a beedi when an Indian friend residing in Russia for a long time, gently dissuades him from putting flame to his beedi. When ಬೀchi protests stating that there are no signs prohibiting smoking, his friend informs him that not smoking in a public place is a civic attribute that requires neither enforcement not monitoring. The friend also takes him to a basement within the marketplace where there is a separate and expansive smoking lounge.
Surprisingly, ಬೀchi is extremely reticent and almost entirely silent on the actual writers’ conference itself. Other than devoting a complete chapter to Syed Sajjad Zaheer (whom the author affectionately refers to as Comrade Banne Bhai) an Urdu writer, Marxist ideologue and radical revolutionary who worked in both India and Pakistan. In the pre-independence era. Sajjad Zaheer comes down to attend the conference from London, but meets with an untimely death, felled by a massive heart attack. ಬೀchi also describes the Lal Bahadur Shastri memorial in Tashkent and the impeccable manner in which the memorial has been maintained in stark contrast to the sheer neglect that Shastriji’s own country has chosen to take towards preserving the legacy of one of its most loved, gentle and yet formidable of all former Prime Ministers.
The book however frays the reader’s nerves no end with ಬೀchi’s obsession towards atheism. He beats the trumpet of skepticism so much and at every drop of a hat, that the reader can be forgiven in accusing the author of being tone deaf. According to Hindu tradition, the medium of paper is associated with Saraswathi, the Goddess of Knowledge. Hence books and papers are accorded the greatest degree of not just respect, but reverence even. Hence when the former Governor of Karnataka Shantaveri Gopala Gowda created a ruckus in the State Assembly by tearing a speech and stomping on it to show his displeasure, the media took him to the cleaners for being downright disrespectful. ಬೀchi attempts to give an abominable twist to the whole episode. He wonders that since on aircrafts there is no facility for the use of hand faucets in the loo and the only available option is toilet paper, wouldn’t the act of relieving oneself itself be showing scant disregard to a worshipped piece of tangible item? If this argument sounds the least bit didactic, wait for the next one – what about the donkeys that merrily chew on paper?
These are the kind of passages that are bone jarring in what is otherwise an entertaining an engaging book. If only ಬೀchi had taken it a bit easy on the atheist quotient, “Devarillada Gudi” would have made for a fantastic read. And yes, by the way wasn’t the whole idea underlying the book a writer’s conference in Moscow?
When it comes to books, I have two uncompromising rules: no page gets dog eared, and there is no marking the pages. Recently I read “Bird by Bird”, by Anne Lamott, a past recipient of a Guggenheim, former book review columnist for Mademoiselle, and restaurant critic for California magazine. I still do not dog ear any pages. Ok I know I mentioned ‘uncompromising’. But I still do not believe in dog earing any pages. Juxtaposing side splitting humour with soul scarring stories of personal tragedy, Ms. Anne Lamott gifts every aspiring writer with a simple and practical guide that instills hope, induces optimism and most importantly exhorts the dreamer to keep doing what she loves doing the most – writing. Yes, in plain, simple and colloquial terms, “Bird by Bird” just instructs you to get off your procrastinating and hesitant ass, and – write! While this might not seem to be either ingenious advice nor a silver bullet for obliterating every writer’s cupful of woes, it is without doubt old wine in a never before seen package and never before experienced flavour.
The “techniques” which Ms. Lamott alludes to in her book are time tested principles that have not just stood but bested the tests of sceptics. However, the manner in which she endeavours to distill such methods in her readers is what makes the book so unique and magical. From obdurately spending time on churning out “shitty first drafts”, to carrying index cards wherever one goes, with a maniacal penchant, Ms. Lamott emphasizes the need to “just getting something down on paper.” The fixing of the hideous output can come later. Ms. Lamott also tackles “writer’s block”, the dreaded scourge of every writer, in a singularly novel manner. “Write about your childhood. Start with kindergarten. Then year 1, 2, 3, … Who were your teachers, classmates, what did you wear, who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked?”
Ms. Lamott urges her readers to abandon perfection. Writing with a sense of gay abandon – “write as though your parents are dead” – aids and abets discovering new directions and finding a purpose. Deriding perfection as the ‘voice of the oppressor’, Ms. Lamott argues that the attribute can come into the way of lively and frisky writing. Hence the exhortation to plunge into shitty first drafts and bother about the aesthetics later. To a great extent, this principle resonates with the title of the book. Many years ago, when the author’s older brother was struggling to come up with a report on birds, that was long overdue, her father (an author of repute himself) put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” A great inspiration to Ms. Lamott, the book contains many poignant passages involving their relationship and character. Ms. Lamott also paraphrased the irascible, irreverent, yet incomparable Kurt Vonnegut as she drives this powerful point home. “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth”
Coming back to my reneging on a self-imposed sacrosanct principle of not “sullying” the pages of a book, using any writing instrument. I had to resort to this ‘sacrilege’ because the passages against which I was making those copious margin notes were holding a mirror to my conscience. The fear of scathing criticism that put a spoke in the wheel of extroverted writing reverberated with my own trepidation of being not just found out, but called out as well, in public, and on social media. More the scrawls and scribbles expanded from mere trickles and dribbles into furious outpourings, less was the conviction that it was taboo to mark a book.
The most valuable piece of advice contained in the book relates to getting one’s work published, or most importantly in not getting one’s book published. For all those who harbour the impression that getting published is the moment Bilbo Baggins finds the Ring, there is a word of warning as well as succour. While publishing no doubt bestows immense joy upon a writer and puts her firmly on the literary map, the writing journey does not end there. After the celebrations, again come the gnawing moments of uncertainty and the pressure of keeping up with expectations. Bilbo Baggins, after all was hopelessly lost in the Misty Mountains when he found the ring in a cavern.
The goal of writing is to keep in perpetuity the art of writing itself. As Ms. Lamott informs her readers, the greatest pleasure that is derived by writing is writing itself. This brings me to the brilliant, yet complicated philosophy first pioneered by James Carse, in his book, Infinite Games, and later on popularized by Simon Sinek. The sole objective of an infinite play is to keep playing, in perpetuity. Unlike in a finite game, where the opposing factions are always on the lookout for executing a terminal move that would kill the game, infinite games are antithetical to terminal moves since they are self-perpetuating in nature with no end. Thus, while finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries.
Its barely a couple of days since I finished reading this marvelous book, and I already feel as though I have grown a domed carapace that shields me from any ugly or downright dastardly darts that may be flung at both me and my writing after completing Ms. Lamott’s book. Whilst such an imaginary carapace might not lend me a life span of 250 years within which to write a book, it definitely has succeeded beyond my wildest imagination in investing me with a courage that will make me not just hammer away at the keypad of my laptop, but hammer away with a new found gaiety and a lightness of being, that is extremely and extraordinarily bearable.
“Bird by Bird” – the no bullshit guide to writing.
“Drink the coffee before it goes cold.” With these words of warning, the waitress at Café Funiculi Funicula, Kazu Tokita sends her customer on a tryst with the past, in Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s powerfully emotional and introspective novel. An impeccably crafted work, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is a paean to love, fortitude, courage and guilt. The novel concept of time travel is just a peripheral accoutrement to the primary objective of human sentiment and demonstrativeness.
Kei and Nagare Tokita are owners of an ordinary, unassuming and non-decrepit basement café. Small in size and smaller in glitz and razzmatazz, Funiculi Funicula is famous for an Urban Legend attached to it. It is a Café that permits time-travel. However, a set of seemingly ridiculous rules prevent the Café from being flocked to by intrepid and eager customers wanting to either go back or surge forward in time. The quintuple set of problematic rules go something like this:
The time traveler, cannot meet people who haven’t visited the café;
The present cannot be changed irrespective of what the time traveler does after going back in time;
The time traveler must occupy a particular seat that takes him or her into the past or future;
The time traveler cannot move from the seat that he is she is perched on throughout the duration of the time travel;
There is a time limit attached to the time travel itself. The time traveler should drink up a cup of coffee placed before him/her before it goes cold; and
The bizarre and Byzantine concoction of the rules are made even more exasperating by an added imposition. Time traveling is restricted to just one escapade per person. In other words, once you have elected to travel back in time, you cannot utilize yet another opportunity to do the same. But even these regressive rules are no match for a heart that is lachrymose and a mind that is restless in perpetuity. Mankind, as a breed is always looking to unwind deeds of the past with a view to making the future tolerable. There is a perpetual cycle of recrimination, repentance, remorse, regret and revision. Every act cries out for a closure. Hence Kei and Nagare have no choice but to entertain and accommodate beseeching pleas for salvation.
Whether it be the plight of the dizzyingly beautiful Fumiko Kiyokawa who is torn apart after her boyfriend goes away to the United States to achieve his personal aspiration of working for a gaming company, or the owner of a snack bar, Yaeko Hirai who wants to atone for the unspeakable outcome caused to her sibling by her deliberate neglect, the ‘time-travel seat’ at Café Funiculi Funicula is a beacon of potential hope and solace.
Once in a way, there comes a book reading which you are transported into a state of stillness and contemplation. A part of such contemplation would also be a nagging regret that someone beat you to the idea. Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s book is one of them. Personally, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold”, has been the best book that I have read this year. It looks highly unlikely that I would have a change of either opinion or heart within the next remaining month and a few days when the year finally ends. It would be remiss not to mention the simply lambent translation from the original to English by Geoffrey Trousselot.