Five (bookish) things you don’t know about me

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.

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12 thoughts on “Five (bookish) things you don’t know about me”

  1. Those were all great, fascinating answers to the meme! I love the idea of the astronomy book and am so glad your parents saved it for you. My parents kept alot of things but I wish I had saved more of my drawings from when I was younger.

    Very interesting way to learn about Lord of the Rings. Definitely unforgettable!

    Happy New Year to you and yours, I hope you have a marvelous start to the year and that it just gets better and better!

  2. Thanks Carl and Heather. A Happy 2007 to you as well!

    Carl, yes it was an unusual way to hear about LoTR. I wish I had known the person’s name. I do have a picture of him though.

  3. I love the stories you tell about your life, Polaris. Your routine in the public library was beautifully described, and your approach to your work comfortingly rational. I think you were made to be a scholar.

  4. What wonderful answers! Your astronomy book is a treasure. I have an aversion to self help books too. I read part of a Chopra book once before I knew who he was because the book had Merlin in the title and I thought it was fiction. After a couple of chapters I realized this was no Arthur story. Ever since whenever I hear about Chopra I get the willies.

  5. Great meme. I never have such great stories to tell! My favorite is the library without readership! Now that sounds like something I would have done as a kid! I love the public library, too. Not that I don’t want to hang out at the library where I work (maybe if I didn’t work there?), but they both are so different–it’s kind of nice. Happy New Year!

  6. Lily: I’m flattered. At the moment, (inside a job search and trying to battle A.B.D (all but dissertation)) I feel far from scholarly, more like some pretender who is waiting to be found out πŸ˜‰ . Many congratulations on the 9rules inclusion! I went to the thread rather late, after seeing the leaf on your blog, and was thrilled to see your name there.

    Stefanie: Yes, Chopra wrote at least a couple of books based on the story of Merlin and King Arthur. I think I read the first one. I was watching him on Colbert the other night, and he was saying strange things about quantum physics. I don’t understand quantum physics too well, but I know enough physics to know that he was taking everyone for a ride.

    Danielle: Isn’t the library without a readership so typical of the “ventures” that children embark on, often with more enthusiasm than rational thought? It’s funny to recount the story now. You are in a unique situation to know how the different library systems work, because you work at a (university?) library yourself. What I really love about the public library is that people of all kinds get acquainted with books and with each other, in a quiet, friendly setting. I don’t know what to make of kids playing video games of dubious kinds on the library computers, but I absolutely love it when parents sit between shelves and read aloud to their kids. That must be a lot of fun for all involved. I haven’t been to Europe long enough to look at their public libraries, but I can say for sure that the American public library system is one of this country’s great treasures.

  7. I do love this take on the meme, Polaris! I won’t suggest the library idea to my son, or else I can see trouble ahead. He occasionally goes through phases of business ventures! And I do understand about the dislike of self-help books. I remember reading once that the manuals for the car radio or the computer are written in a discourse that’s almost impenetrable, whereas self-help books rarely stray into words of three syllables. Why, the author wondered, did we think the human system might be so much simpler to explain than the mechanical or electrical one?

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