In which I subvert the meme for my own bookish ends:
1. An unfinished book on astronomy:
In the 7th grade, I decided to write a book on astronomy. I loved astronomy and thought that it would be wonderful to write about planets, stars and galaxies. This was, in no way, connected with school and I didn’t know where to get my information. Thus began a long effort in which reference books (primarily the Childcraft books from the makers of the World Book Encyclopedia) were consulted from the school library and the material was written down chapter by chapter in strict sequence, on foolscap paper, with a fountain pen, in turquoise blue ink. Illustrations of supernovae, sunspots, and planetary surfaces were made in full color using oil pastels and sketch-pens. After copious extracts on galaxies, the sun, the moon, and the inner planets, material began to dwindle. There weren’t many references to Neptune and Pluto that an 11-year-old could understand. Around the time, my father was transferred to another city, and we had to move during the summer vacation. It depresses me now to recall how the book was summarily abandoned, in the chapter on Saturn. The parents have preserved it diligently, along with so many scraps from a lighter, easier time. Uranus, Neptune and Pluto went unvisited, so did Halley’s Comet which had appeared 4 years earlier. I haven’t seen the book for many years. But stray factoids jump out of nowhere once in a while – like Mercury having a year that is only 88 days long, and Venus having a day that is longer than its year.
2. The library without a readership:
I counted about 130 books in my home when I was in the fifth grade. It was at this point that I took some business advice from a friend. The idea was to pool books from five or six homes and start a library. We were to lend books to people in exchange for a fee. I don’t recall the exact figure, but it was definitely less than a rupee (approx. 2 cents). People were supposed to read the book in a week, or else re-issue them for the same fee. The kid who owned the book got all the cash. This was all good. We were supposed to earn some pocket money; I am not sure if our parents knew about this. It didn’t work. The simple reason was that the kids who had contributed to the library pool, were the only readers I knew in the neighborhood. So, all we ever succeeded in doing, was lending books to each other, and paying each other a paltry sum – or more practically, exchanging books without paying the fee!
3. How I heard of LoTR for the first time:
When 9/11 happened, I was on a flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, and we were almost above Montreal. The closing of the US airspace meant that we had to reverse course, and I spent 4 days stranded in Amsterdam. One of those was spent in a Bosnian/Serbian refugee camp run by the Red Cross outside Amsterdam, where I happened to share a space with two men, one from England and another from France. We never asked each other our names, but talked to pass the time. The man from the UK talked about cricket and how Australia would prove too good for England in the Ashes. The Frenchman was writing a long letter to his girlfriend, but stopped to ask me what book I was reading (Harry Potter Book #1). He asked me if I had heard of a series of fantasy novels called The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t. He said I would enjoy them. In a strange way, the name of this blog owes a little bit to him.
4. I go to the public library to work:
I live on a university campus. Yet, on weekends, almost always on Saturdays, I take my laptop to the city’s public library and work from there. My usual pattern is to first look at the new arrivals, then browse any new magazine issues (usually just the sports magazine, but sometimes current affairs). Then I work for about three or four hours, with a remote login to my lab computer, thanks to the wireless internet facility in the library. Always, about fifteen minutes before the library closes, I check out a few books and leave. This has become a sort of easy ritual and I am going to miss it when/if I leave the Bay Area. I like the atmosphere in the public library; it is less serious than my engineering library. There are people of all ages, from kids who can barely walk, to high-school students collaborating on homework, to learned octagenarians who browse stock market quotes. I spend most of my week working among graduate students who are thinking deeply about something other than the topic of conversation, who are used to working in windowless cubicles and don’t get enough sleep. So it is nice to be among normal folk once in a week. ;-).
5. I have an aversion to self-help books:
It is not that I am bad at taking suggestions. But I have a fundamental disagreement with Norman Vincent Peale and the genre of religious self-help books that he spawned. I liked 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but when Stephen Covey’s son published 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, it was hard not to be cynical about the fact that the Covey family had decided to milk the 7 Habits paradigm for all that it was worth. I usually have no idea what Anthony Robbins is trying to say. And the more I see and hear Deepak Chopra speak, the more I think to myself that he is a fraud peddling Mysticism Lite. (Edit: Perhaps I am being unkind here. Perhaps he is not a fraud, and genuinely believes in Mysticism Lite. Still, that does not endear him to me. I mean, what do you say about a man who believes that it is possible to will a random number generator to produce more 1’s than 0’s ?!) It is true that there are some fine self-help books, especially on time management, that I have found helpful. But for the most part, I have been disappointed in them.