Reader Interview of Sreeraj (The Regular) @ BYOB Party in October 2019

We spoke to Sreeraj whose taste in books covers fiction, poetry and translations.

There were always a lot of books and magazines in the house, in both English and Malayalam, as everyone in my family read. Some magazines I remember are Mathrubhumi, Manorajyam, Kumkumam. My favorite author at that point was the detective story writer, Kottayam Pushpanath, and I especially liked his detective character, Pushparaj.

As I grew older, a writer who really influenced me was literary critic, M. Krishnan Nair. His weekly column Sahitya Varaphalam introduced me and many readers back in the 1970s and 80s to world literature. He suggested many rare authors and this kind of curation in pre-internet days was beneficial to learn about unknown books from foreign countries. I was a regular library goer and I still enjoy visiting the British Council, which has a huge collection of Commonwealth literature.

How has reading books synced with your career?

I’ve worked as an editor and right now am in the technical writing space. What I’ve learned from books is that to write well you need to read really good fiction and poetry. Writers like Ruth Padel and W.G Sebald have changed the way I think and write — so much depth and beauty in their writing.

How do you discover the writers you want to read these days?

Well, this is the time of Instapoets and Goodreads. I prefer to trust the judgment of reviewers in literary journals like TLS. I gravitate toward European literature a bit more but I must confess my love for Faulkner.

Faulkner’s prose is stellar. What advice do you have to give people who are attempting to read his work for the first time?

Well, no matter whose work it is –Faulkner, Kundera or Kafka– I prefer to close read the book first and then put it into context. Google is the best to dig deep. Identifying which books to read is far harder than reading itself. Social media offers many choices but sometimes visiting curated sites like Words Without Borders throws open to you a wealth of translations that will enrich your reading experience. Non-fiction titles may be popular but if, for instance, you want to understand psychology, reading short stories and novels by Henry James is more effective.

Preferences- eBooks or print books or audiobooks?

Print books, hands down, though I have noticed that the paper quality of books seems to be compromised these days. I’ve never been able to read an eBook that runs into hundreds of pages. Too much trouble. I’ve noticed that when poets read their poems aloud, it is far more impactful.

Thank you for sharing your book story, Sreeraj!

Reader Interview of Bindu (The Newbie) @ BYOB Party in October 2019

We got to speak to Bindu who had been quite disappointed by Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book.

Tell us about your book journey. 

It was academics that led me to read so widely. I did my graduation, post-graduation, M.Phil and Ph.D. in English literature, so I read all the time, be it the classics or contemporary fiction. The ecosystem in which I studied involved books and more books and even batchmate’s book recommendations. It was like falling into a rabbit hole filled with books.

Fiction or non-fiction?

Since I ended up being an academic writer, I continue reading heavy doses of fiction and subject-wise non-fiction.

Do you read multiple books on the same subject?

No, my choices are more random and recommendations matter a lot to me. I work with subject experts so they keep me updated not just on books on a subject but meta-books as well. That’s how I came across an author like Robert Sapolsky, someone I wouldn’t have discovered if it wasn’t for suggestions from others.

Do you read vernacular books?

Not really. No one has recommended any book so strongly. I did read Tamil magazines and stories while in college but the English literature that I was exposed to seemed so far ahead at the time.

What kind of literature do you prefer?

Well, I have been exposed to a variety of subjects including European, American and World Literature. I particularly enjoy the magical realism of writers like Marquez and Rushdie.

Favorite books?

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

Do you read poetry?

Poetry is very cryptic and takes more effort though I must say that I was wonderstruck by Vikram Seth’s poetry in The Golden Gate while it was impossible to finish his magnum opus A Suitable Boy.

Audiobooks or eBooks?

Audiobooks, no doubt. The last book I read or listened to, rather, was Lincoln in the Bardo. It was amazing. There are around 183 characters in the story and what’s available on Audible is the performed version. The main character is narrated by the author himself. I love the audiobook experience as it is completely hands-free and I find an excuse to do the mundane just so that I can get at least an hour’s worth dedicated listening. I’m into the listening culture as I grew up listening to discourses.

How much do you read or listen on average?

I’d say 1-1 ½ hrs every day.

Thank you for sharing your bookish experiences, Bindu!

Bring Your Own Book (BYOB) Party on Jan 18, 2020 (Saturday)

RSVP on Meetup OR Register on Eventbrite

RSVP on Meetup OR Register on Eventbrite

Happy 2020! Time for the first BYOB Party of the year and it’s at the Pothi.com office!

Have you read a book that you are craving to chitchat about with someone? Have a favorite book that you think everyone would love, if only they knew about it? Want to see what others are reading and have interesting conversations beyond weather, traffic, and real estate?

Then come to the BYOB party on Jan 18, 2020 and talk away! Try to avoid a bestseller and if you have a copy, bring it along and read us a passage. All languages are welcome.

There will be refreshments and swags courtesy Worth A Read.

Venue:  #634 (Ground Floor), 5th Main, Indiranagar 2nd Stage · Bangalore

FAQs

So, what really happens at a BYOB Party?

Everyone brings a book and talks about it. Conversations follow and they are good. So are the refreshments!

You can take a look at what happened in some of our earlier parties here:

Do I have to be there for the entire duration of four hours?

We aren’t closing doors or locking you in. But the party is best enjoyed if you are there for the entire duration and listen to people talk about a variety of books. Trust us, you won’t know how time flew.

Do I have to bring anything?

Nothing really. But if you have a copy of the book you want to talk about, you might want to bring it in. Other attendees might want to have a look, or you might want to read a paragraph from it.

I am an author. Can I bring a book written by me?

A good writer should be a voracious reader. It would be preferable if you brought a book you really like written by someone else.

Who are the organizers?

Worth a Read.

I have more questions. Who do I contact?

Shoot an e-mail to jayajha@instascribe.com

Okay! I am ready to come. What do I do?

Join our meetup groupRSVP, and come over!

If you are not on meetup, you can also register on Eventbrite.

Asuras and Acid Attacks @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 7)

Image result for asura anand neelakantanAnshuman is a mythological history buff, so he had high hopes when he picked up Anand Neelakantan’s Asura:Tale of the Vanquished: The Story of Ravana and His People.

The story is one among several that incorporates the tradition of retelling stories. Anshuman enjoyed the introduction- Ravan is multilayered and not evil incarnate. “Instead of Ramayana, you could call it Ravanayana. There are quite a few glimpses of brilliance in the portrayal of this ruler. He displays great desire to do something for his people,  he sets up his kingdom, meets Mahabali…his flaw is his temper but then why should he control his temper? Why should he become perfect? Why can’t we accept his ten imperfections if he has? What hurt the book would be the editing and the way Ravan becomes the villain that he always had been in more popular versions of the Ramayan.”

Image result for you beneath your skinI read You Beneath Your Skin, a socially relevant book by Damyanti Biswas. The whydunnit takes the reader on a journey through smog-filled Delhi and explores the lives of Anjali Morgan and Jatin Bhatt. Damyanti deals with hard themes with so much panache.  Acid attacks, corruption, poverty, inequality, patriarchy and so many other issues that malign the fabric of the ancient city come into the fore. All author proceeds from the book go to Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks.

And with that, we come to the end of the BYOB Party in October 2019.

Startups and Nomads @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 6)

Abhaya spoke about The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz. The book is primarily targeted at CEOs. “It’s a polarizing read,” Abhaya said. “Just go take a peek at Goodreads. Horowitz has a tendency to idolize Silicon Valley and his love for rap music could be jarring for some readers. But he believes in telling like it is as a CEO should. If you do not share information, you are isolating yourself from solutions. Also your credibility increases if you are honest with the people who have been hired to help your business.

“In the over-advised world of startups, Ben manages to address some things no one else would address. And those things that come only from someone who has been in the trenches. Your key customer disappearing in a snap, right before you are about to make a big move, finding cracks in your accounting right before a deal, have the external world explode just when things were beginning to look good. If you stick around long enough, the question is not if these things will happen. Question is when.

I do not agree with everything he says… but I would suggest that every startup founder to read this. This is not a template on how to run your startup and you do not have to make the same choices but it will give you a taste of battles that lie ahead or remind you of those that you have yourself fought.”

You can read Abhaya’s Goodreads’ review here.

Another book Abhaya talked about was The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad a book that throws light on the nomadic people who live in the FATA area. Abhaya enjoyed reading the vignette style short stories that shared a story arc.

Quote from his Goodreads review: ” The author spent large part of his life as a civil servant in the FATA area and seems well acquainted with the area, the tribes, the history. The writing shows his love for the people but there is also a certain detachment. He describes both good and horrific as a neutral observer, never taking a judgmental tone, letting your own reactions and emotions to color the bleak landscape he is describing.

The stories show various facets of life in these areas. We get to see the disruption caused to nomadic lifestyle by the firming up of national borders, the strict tribal codes of behavior, interplay between the government machinery and age-old tribal culture and the status of women in the society.”

More books in Part 7.

Dice, Idleness and Coffins @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 5)

Sandeep read Dice Man by George Cockroft, who used the pseudonym Luke Rhinehart. The premise of the story is fascinating. A psychologist decides to make life decisions by casting dice, thus changing his life from a predictable one to a game of chance. The book has had its share of controversy as it encourages a permissive mentality and the protagonist had disturbing similarities to the author himself. The premise of the book reminded one of the readers of what he called the monkey syndrome, an actual study conducted where a blindfolded monkey throws darts at a newspaper’s financial pages to select a portfolio. Don’t be surprised that the monkey does about as well as an expert.  The best book to read on randomness has to be The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Shravani enjoyed reading the very humorous book Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow: A Book for an Idle Holiday by Jerome K. Jerome. This is an old book, published in the nineteenth century and is available at Gutenberg.org. Yet it is fun to read and whimsical in content. “I found this book on one of my tours to Sikkim. I picked up the book at an obscure cafe and what really hit me was this line-‘It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.’  The essayist talks about a host of topics from weather to babies. The idea of witticisms led to a short detour on the writings of Mirza Ghalib and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.

Apurba picked up the conscientious writing of Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich. Boys in Zinc is set in the background of the decade when the Soviet troops engaged in war in Afghanistan. The peace mission had turned ghastly as more and more Russian soldiers, young men, who went to Afghanistan with noble ideals and came back in coffins.

“The book teaches you the nature of war. War is not just soldiers being sent. It’s about young men (many of them during Brezhnev’s premiership didn’t have adequate military training), who went as soldiers, clerks, part of the medical contingent, etc, and the women who were mostly exploited.  The book was a revelation to me. There are things that the interviewees (the book itself is a series of interviews) say, mostly mothers, things like people should not go to war at the drop of a hat- think of the blood, sweat and tears it takes to birth a child. The situation was so pathetic that soldiers were ill-equipped and fought with old weapons and even ate the food that was available to them from the rations of WWII.

“People on the ground did not understand what was happening. There was a lot of deception- when the coffins came in, people were declared dead, not that they had been killed. How could healthy young soldiers just fall down and die? When we are young, we are taught to die for the nation but war is senseless,” Apurba said.

Svetlana Alexeivich’s Nobel Lecture is one to read. Check it out.

The general consensus was that war could only be fought by those who were heavily invested in the geographical place in question.  While war is senseless and endlessly repetitive as lessons are never learnt, one way of implementing systemic change would be to make sure that kingmakers do not shy away from the war effort. On a completely tangential note, the Kerala government school system has succeeded because teachers send their own children to these schools and hence invest heavily in teaching well.

More books in Part 6.

Stars and Strangers @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 4)

Image result for the city and the starsEveryone’s favorite sci-fi author Arthur C. Clark’s book The City & the Stars was discussed.  The city Diaspar was destroyed by invaders and it became the last refuge for human beings. A man called Alvin is the first human in the city and he has no memories whatsoever. All he has is curiosity, not the fear of newness that his compatriots have.

Watch Arthur C. Clark talk about A Space Odyssey here.

 

Bindu spoke about Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. The anecdotes are painstakingly researched and have the usual Gladwellian flair.  As I found out on Amazon.in, the book talks about all kinds of questions: How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?

“But though the anecdotes were fantastic, the conclusions he draws from these were not relevant to me at least.,” Bindu opined. “There was great storytelling value but I didn’t really learn anything that I didn’t know already. I mean there is no second-guessing what strangers think; I can’t even tell you what my family members think!” You can read a similar opinion about the book here.

“Of late, I’ve started to listen to more quality online lectures. A much better investment of time.”

The entire discussion shifted to the 10,000 Hour Rule mistakenly attributed to Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell used Ericsson’s provocative generalization and somehow the idea of 10,000 hours became the touchstone of learning. Listen to this Ted Talk that disputes this idea- you need just 20 hours of deliberate practice to get started on something. You could also take this idea of ‘less is more’ to another extreme- take the expert capsule courses that last for 20 minutes a day and give you certification. That’s dangerous too, especially if it’s certification for something like machine gun expertise!

Some more 10,000-hour trivia— the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a walking man and 10,000 step goals in Japan.

More books in Part 5.

Economics and Economists @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 3)

Fasih spoke about probably the only book he’s seen that makes economics appealing The Undercover Economist

“This book is less theory and more anecdotal. Tim Harford is an economist, journalist and podcaster. He likes to look at the big picture. So he takes you through the simple consumerist act of buying a cup of coffee and then he asks you where the money goes. How much does the barista make? What drives the costs of running the cafe? What kind of information do you convey when you buy a cost-effective cuppa or a pricey latte?

“He then moves onto the economics of supermarket displays. Have you ever thought about why an organically grown lemon is never kept side by side with the regular lemon? It’s obvious- it’s not economically viable to keep two highly differing rates together.”

So Harford talks about the Mafia, immigration, China’s economic revolution and makes us think about how each of our financial decisions creates an impact in the world.

“You might want to check out the second part of the book too The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run–or Ruin–an Economy He talks about the ideal economist as man of the world. Check why economists should be more like plumbers.”

Jaya continued the economics discussion with the book called  The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner. Economists like philosophers frame their principles based on the times they live in. The book gives you insight into the lives of economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Through their ideas, the book makes an attempt to understand the workings of a capitalist society.

“The book is good for an overall understanding of economics. Why does economics start with Adam Smith? Until capitalism came into being, there was no need for any economic theory. The monarch called the shots. Economics came from making sense of society and society came into the picture when capitalism came into being.  This was a revelation to me. Initially, we had philosophers; now we have worldly philosophers. The book puts things in a historical perspective and for that reason I recommend it.”

Other books about economics? The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000 by Niall Ferguson and Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt (or the Chetan Bhagat version of economics as one reader said) are good places to start. The economic discussion ended with the well-intentioned but problematic Midday Meal scheme. You can read about it here.

More books in Part 4.

 

Habits, Personality and Corporate Culture @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 2)

This time we had a wider range of non-fiction. Rohan spoke about a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg. This book talks about the science behind habits and how good habits translate into more success stories. “The author talks about how habits are formed,” Rohan said. “My biggest takeaway from the book was the way he broke down the process of habit formation int three parts: trigger, response, reward. So if we want to form habits or break habits we need to fix the trigger. Being able to break an unpleasant habit is very satisfying. In my case, I used to eat a lot of junk food before, but I realized that my goal was to satisfy my hunger. I replaced junk with fruits and nuts and got the same sense of satisfaction from my food.” The book also features negative habit disorders like OCD and alcoholism. While there was a time when electric shock therapy was the norm to break habits, today alcoholism is tackled with Alcoholics Annonymous. Social pressure helps immensely in habit-breaking.

“The BYOB Party encourages people to cultivate the habit of reading books,” Jaya said.

Personality: What makes you the way you are (Oxford Landmark Science) by [Nettle, Daniel]While habits can be rectified, personality is hard to change. Samarth spoke about Personality-What makes you the way you are, a book by Daniel Nettle. If you distrust personality questionnaires, reading this book provides a lot of insight. The book explores the science behind human personality. Samarth summed up the book effectively.

“I used to believe that situation and circumstance were more of the determinants of the trajectory of a person’s life than his or her personality. This book changed my perceptions. In the past few decades, there has been a renaissance of sorts in the field of personality psychology- the brain is now the subject of intense study and conclusions have been drawn about the brain’s functioning using technologies, genetics, and genomics. The author validates the five-factor model which measures personality on five scales or what can be grouped into the acronym OCEAN (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). Personality has now been directly linked to the structure and function of different parts of the brain or variation in the prevalence of a gene. All of these variations in personality traits can be found in other species too- like mammals, fishes, birds…so there have been studies conducted on the personalities of fish and it turns out that some fish are more exploratory and others more inhibited.

“An interesting aspect of personality is heritability. An organism could manifest behavior that has a clear advantage or disadvantage for its survival or reproductive success. It makes sense to observe uniformity in personality traits. The conclusion I made is that there is no personality profile that is optimal for all situations and all times. The optimal personality depends heavily on the local environmental conditions which fluctuate over time.

“Interesting studies have been conducted and variation is not uncommon, so there may be two people of the same age and from the same place who have very different life stories. Circumstances play a huge role and biological factors can not be underestimated. Nature and nurture- very much a case of both.

“So what’s the use of taking a personality questionnaire? Based on your scores, and where you stand, you can learn about other people who are similar to you. You can tap into that and better orient your life, maximize your strengths and minimize your failings.”

Jaya agreed. “Putting a label on yourself helps you understand why you are the way you are. Then strengths and weaknesses are not about changing but more about acceptance. Introverts are at a disadvantage at the corporate level but once you identify yourself as an introvert, you can look for solutions to combat difficult situations. In a corporate set-up, you could send out emails before a meeting so that there is more clarity and the people you meet with are on the same page.”

There is no morality in personality. Once you accept who you are rather than try to fix who you are, life becomes far easier. A glimmer of hope lies in the fact that some aspects of personality are malleable but trying too hard to change who you are could lead to mental health problems that are best avoided.

Ralph worried whether personality questionnaires were merely data waiting to be mined. He got the book The Secret Life of organizations: Invisible Rules of Success for the Young Indian Professional by Shalini Lal and Pradnya Parasher.

Ralph read out some parts of the book.

“How much do employees care about the organization?” to which answers included: “An existential question,” “They mostly bail out in the hour of need,” and “Depends on how much the company cares for them.”

“Do you see your peers as competitors or collaborators? Do your peers see you as a follower or a leader? How much cooperation happens? What’s the secret answer?”

“How do you get ahead in your career while taking people along with you?”

The general consensus was that the authors had baited their readers with the title. Who wouldn’t want to know more about the secret life of organizations? The book is geared toward the bright-eyed graduate who must make the transition from campus to corporate. Which white-collar worker believes that compassion is the bedrock of corporate life?  Advice like that works only when you start out in your career. No secret there.

Reading a Poem @ BYOB Party in October 2019 (Part 1)

Image result for 52 ways of looking at a poem bookSreeraj never hesitates to talk about this book 52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem: or How Reading Modern Poetry Can Change Your Life. “In most book meets, you hear the complaint that modern poetry is not as good as the poetry that Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote but Ruth Padel can change this bias.” Ruth Padel, the great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin,  is well-versed in science, evolutionary theory, the environment and wildlife – a perfect mentor for those who want to understand contemporary poetry.  Even though her book caters to the British audience, it’s a refreshing read.

“I attended a poetry session conducted by Ranjit Hoskote who also knows Ruth Padel. The topic of the session was the hierarchy of the senses and poetry. If you read poetry, what you see is primary, then comes hearing, then smell, etc. The senses follow each other in a specific order.”

To understand a poem, you must learn to see whether these five senses are present or described. Modern poetry has been described as cryptic but in reality that is not the case. Using 52 poems by writers like Dereck Walcott, Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duff, Seamus Heaney and many others, she teaches the reader how to read a poem.

Take Dereck Walcott’s poem from Omeros, Chapter Two, section 2:

Seven Seas rose in the half-dark to make coffee.
Sunrise was heating the ring of the horizon
and clouds were rising like loaves. By the heat of the
glowing iron he slid the saucepan’s base on-
to the ring and anchored it there. The saucepan shook
from the weight of water in it, then it settled.
His kettle leaked. He groped for the tin chair and took
his place near the saucepan to hear when it bubbled.
It would boil but not scream like a bosun’s whistle
to let him know it was ready. He heard the dog’s
morning whine under the boards of the house, its tail
thudding to be let in, but he envied the pirogues
already miles out at sea. Then he heard the first breeze
washing the sea-almond’s wares; last night there had been
a full moon white as his plate. He saw with his ears.

“The poem is simple enough. It speaks about a man getting up in the morning, his dog getting into the door, the sea. When we read the poem again, picking out words or punctuation that strike us, we understand. The poem is a puzzle. We understand that the character hears the shaking saucepan, the leaking kettle, the dog’s whine,” Sreeraj said. “Then we understand that since the emphasis is on hearing, the author’s character is blind.”

A discussion ensued on science poetry, enjambment, synaesthesia, ghazals, nazms and bad translations. You can listen to Ruth Padel speak about poetry and her efforts to help conservation movements here.

More books discussed in Part 2.