Thursday, October 27, 2011

I Collect, Therefore I Am.

Browsing in a used-book store is like walking down the streets of an unfamiliar neighbourhood without a map in hand, not knowing what the road you are on will lead to. But unlike a real stroll in unknown precincts, the path down the aisles of a used bookstore always leads you to reassuring terrain that is both familiar, yet unexpected. There is always a different set of surprises awaiting the reader each time he forages in the constantly changing shelves of a used bookstore, as opposed to the predictable displays of big-chain bookstores. Regular patrons know that it is not just the reduced prices, nor the idea of recycling that draws you, over and over again, to a store that thrives on the literary discards of readers. It is precisely this potential stigma of a used bookstore that is also its greatest asset. You don’t really know if the shelves are stocked by dint of people wanting to make a few dollars off books they do not deem worthy of their own bookshelves, or if it is only a shortage of shelf-space in patrons’ homes that drives the ingress and egress of noteworthy books. The answer doesn’t matter. For, even in the case of the regular bookstore, you don’t know if it is true literary merit that earns or superior marketing skills that snag a place of prominence for any given book. In a used bookstore, you are less likely to fall prey to the lures and traps of marketing, and are more likely to follow your own instinct; and if you’re open to it, you might even give literary happenstance a chance, where you may come across treasures in print that you could never find in regular stores – an instance of the book finding you, instead of vice versa.

When I was a schoolgirl, I used to collect stationery. I had a small collection of letterheads with fancy designs, and writing paper with logos of popular cartoon characters - and envelopes to match. I did not pursue this collection with any deliberate focus or passion. Rather, it began as a random stowing away of a few attractive letterheads, just in case I needed to use them in my imminent future that involved some amount of letter-writing. I continued with this habit of saving up stationery for a rainy day, when I might have needed something with a specific design. Gradually, without even realizing it, I was in the possession of an inadvertent collection. My accumulation of writing paper was not driven by a desire to collect for the sake of the art, but rather, by the wish to have adequate choices for a future need. Decades later, I find that I am still collecting in order to be prepared for a future need. The items I accumulate now, however, are not single sheets of decorative writing paper, but entire books.

Over the years, I have retained books, many that I do not need. Some are dictionaries of languages I speak, languages I have learned for a few years in school or college, or have had some small, insignificant exposure to. I held on to those dictionaries even after the immediate need for them had passed, just in case I ever needed them again. It turns out that I have many kinds of “just in case” books - not only dictionaries, but books on grammar, on language use, on art, on pets, on needlework, on cooking, on gardening and various passing interests. I am, it appears, a collector, and my affinity for used bookstores feeds this habit. What drives the habit of amassing books? Should I curb it? Is book collection similar to, say, shoe collection? Am I an Imelda Marcos with a penchant for paper rather than leather? The answers did not occur to me easily. I began with the premise that book collection is somehow superior to shoe collection, but that assumption was quickly dismissed: What if the books were on hateful propaganda, on eugenics, or on something equally deplorable? In such a case, shoe collection would emerge as the worthier pursuit. Thus, I concluded, there is nothing intrinsically superior about books. That they carry ideas and knowledge of some sort is incidental, and it does not make book collection any more laudable than collections of items of fashion, of vanity, or symbols of wealth. My instinct, however, insisted that amassing books, if not superior, is quintessentially human in ways that amassing other items is not. Jerry Seinfeld’s Porsche collection, for example, does not stem from a long tradition of vehicle collection. The same cannot be said of books. Book collection dates back centuries. No sooner had books (or primitive versions of them) existed, than man began to accumulate them in libraries. The 30,000 clay tablets with cuneiform scripts at the Library at Nineveh in Mesopotamia, the collections of papyrus scrolls from excavations of ancient Egyptian cities dating back to 1300 BC, and The Great Library of Alexandria all exemplify that the practice of accumulating written knowledge in a repository for later access and use is a long-established human trait. It is practically coded in our genes. As books came to be widely available household items, book collection too became household practice. Curbing this habit would be equivalent to thwarting a basic human trait, I surmised. I reveled in this discovery, feeling pleased that my random and impromptu excursions to used bookstores need not be discouraged nor be a source of guilty reflection. I was merely a victim of my own genetic make-up. As encouraging as this line of reasoning was, it still cast doubt on the idea that book collection is driven only by the desire to have information readily and easily accessible. In the age of Google, with instant, virtual access to information at our fingertips, the premise that we keep our shelves stocked in order to have potential answers to hypothetical future questions is weak. The real impetus that drives us to be consummate information compilers and collectors lies elsewhere.

Books are entwined with our identities. Our shelves are perhaps visible, tangible extensions of our inner selves. If we are what we amass, book collection affords us the singular opportunity to display and reflect multiple aspects of our complicated identities. Unlike the art collector, the car enthusiast, the coin collector or the philatelist who demonstrates in his collection only a single facet of his or her multiple interests, your personal library has the potential to represent the entire you. This ability to capture the whole person under the umbrella of one collection has made libraries (personal and public) long-standing, universal phenomena in the literate world. Our enthusiasm for books and libraries is also evident in our fiction. There are many libraries and librarians (villainous and heroic) who feature in fiction genres. Our pre-occupation with libraries even in our imaginations is a natural consequence of the prominent status we have given to books as collectible items. The fictional library most written about is probably Jorge Louis Borges’ ‘Library of Babel.’ This hexagonal-chambered library with a copy of every book that ever existed is a metaphor for the universe. Setting aside the details in the story and their connotations, the idea of a library being chosen as a microcosm of the world is almost inevitable. If Borges had not created that fictional scenario, then someone else would have. Books are so closely entwined with our identities that they even take on a mantle of anthropomorphism. Why else would we protest, ban and try to banish ideas that are in conflict with our own beliefs? We behave as if their existence in print were a tangible threat not just to our ideologies but a peril to our very existence. Book-burning and book-banning are the underbelly of the coin of externalizing our identities onto books. Radicals who fight to keep books and certain kinds of knowledge away from young, impressionable minds are not stupid, narrow-minded zealots. On the contrary, they are acutely aware that our personification of books has its consequences. They strive to limit exposure to multiple viewpoints and theories, and promote only their own because they recognize, better than others, that the printed word has as much agency as people do in shaping our lives.

The idea that our bookshelves contain personifications of ourselves is most evident in the case of a person in exile. In his article, ‘The Lost Library,’ written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman evokes a sense of loss not just for his country and the people he left behind, but for his books that he personifies as his “companions:”

“Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world…….How often, during the years of roving, had I not dreamed of the day when I would hold in my hands the first book of my lost library, place it back on a shelf, turn and reach for the next one, untouched during all those years, thumb it, read a couple of lines, glide into those pages and find a note scribbled in the margin by my younger self, and then look up as if roused from a delirium, the next volume calling for rediscovery, how often had this future been evoked?”

Years later, after the ousting of Pinochet, when Dorfman returns to his country and to a fraction of his personal library that survived the regime and a flood that destroyed many boxes containing his books, he writes of his experience re-uniting with his companions of old:

“True, reading from here and there in my library was like taking a trip in a time machine. Every volume I dug out of its box, saved from the soldiers and the deluge, offered me an expedition to the past, a geological inquiry into the layers of the life I used to live, a way of communing with the eyes and mind of the boy, and the adolescent, and then the young man who slipped into the covers of this novel or that treatise on philosophy, meeting old friends again.”

One can argue that libraries lost due to exile or immigration can be easily replaced if we ignore, for argument’s sake, the issue of financial costs of replacement. Although it’s natural to assume that one copy of a beloved book is just the same as any other, that assumption falls apart the instant books are personified. As Dorfman’s essay suggests, when you celebrate re-uniting with the very books you held in your hands as a child, as an adolescent and then a young adult, you endow books with qualities that transform them from mere objects to objects with unique individual histories. The essence of a used bookstore lies in that recognition. You relish the fact that the books you buy there have made journeys of their own, that other pairs of hands have touched the very pages you turn, and that others’ eyes have perused or skimmed over the exact print that your eyes now parse. You believe that you are shaping the book’s life as much as it may shape yours.

Monday, September 5, 2011

BETWEEN YOU AND ME - Musings on Letter-writing

[T]here is something magical about letters, both in its writing and in its reading that cannot be captured by any other form of prose. It is my favourite genre. Not even the memoir can replicate the tone of a letter-writer composing for the benefit of a single pair of eyes –or a few pairs at most. Writing to one person evokes a voice that cannot be harnessed by a larger audience, especially an unnamed and anonymous one.

I often ponder over the allure of letters: Traditional letter-writing may be a dying mode of communication, but judging by the number of books of the collected letters of various public figures, letter-reading, thankfully, isn’t likely to perish anytime soon. What is it that makes letter-reading endure even in the face of extinction of letter-writing? Is it the voyeur in us that enjoys being privy to information that was meant for someone else’s eyes? Even with the implicit permission that comes with published correspondence, reading other people’s letters is like taking a guilt-free bite of the forbidden apple. It provides a primal thrill.

The abundance of books of published letters, recent and old, of the correspondence of rock-stars and presidents, writers and chefs, actors and comedians, affirms our voyeuristic nature and our appetite for fundamental thrills. While it may be voyeurism that fuels the consumption of such communication, there is, on the other side of this arrangement, the concomitant vulnerability of the letter-writer. E. B. White (who was a regular contributor to Harper’s Magazine and the New Yorker, and most known for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and Elements of Style) attests to this feeling of being exposed. In a letter written on June 11th, 1975 to the editor of Harper, he says:

“It never occurred to me, when I got into this thing, that it was an entirely different kind of exposure from the ones I had been used to as a writer of prose pieces. A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist - nothing shields him from the world’s gaze except his bare skin. A writer, writing away, can always fix things up to make himself more presentable, but a man who has written a letter is stuck with it for all time.”

The permanence of what is said in a letter is easily appreciated in today’s world of WikiLeaks and virtual immortality. While all other writing can be forgiven on the grounds of faulty technique or inadequate substance, what is revealed of the writer in his letter draws from a source that goes beyond and deeper than the mechanics of writing. It can neither be explained away nor forgiven. Gottfried Leibniz explored the idea of ‘language’ being a mirror to the mind; it is not a far stretch, then, to say that letter-writing is one of the windows to the soul.
In a variation on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, the poet John Donne articulates, in the beginning of his epistolary verse to Sir John Wotton, just how powerful letters are in navigating the soul:

“Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak...”

This brings me to the ‘love-letter,’ - what the French call the billet-doux, but not to be confused with what the English call ‘French letter!’ Of all the elements in our repertoire of verbal expression, technology has changed the nature of the love-letter more than any other form of communication. Among whatever that might be lost or gained by the shift from the physical pen and paper mode to the automated and virtual medium of communication, nothing endures a bigger loss of character than the love-letter. Here is a poem bemoaning that loss:

Love In The Time of Cyberspace

Fermina Daza of modern day
gazes into the distant array
of shedding trees and autumn leaves.
It’s a spectacle that season weaves
in yellow, red and orange of hue so keen
they overwhelm the fading green.
It’s a tapestry where colour spills
into a compilation of megapixels
that converge on her computer screen.

The heart is not equipped
to deal with the sterile drill
of Times New Roman or Ariel.
Of words with meaning but no tone,
a one-dimensional message with voice unknown.
Formatted words devoid of the breath
Of her Florentino.
For Love in the time of cyberspace
has lost the charm and stately grace
of Old World expression.

Only the hand-written note
carries the soul of its writer:
As the letters meander - an unsteady boat
cruising the stream of ruled lines.
The crossing of ‘t’s and dotting of ‘i’s
in a familiar scrawl or writing style,
of letters that plunge down, and once again rise.
The slant of the hand, as if blown by a breeze,
to make angles with the ruled lines:
Obtuse, acute or ninety degrees.

If receiving a letter can be compared to receiving a gift, some interesting differences emerge between the two transactions. While there is pleasure to be derived from being generous, and being the giver of the gift, the greater delight lies with the person who receives a desirable present. The same logic, however, does not hold true for letters. One cannot say that the letter-recipient gains greater pleasure by reading the letter than the letter-writer has gained by writing it. In the case of letter-writing, the distribution of happiness seems to be more equitable between the writer and intended reader. Or perhaps, it is possible, as Jawaharlal Nehru suggests in one of the more than 200 letters from prison to his teenage daughter, Indira, outlining world history, that the greater satisfaction belongs to the writer:

“What a mountain of letters I have written! And what a lot of good swadeshi ink I have spread out on swadeshi paper. Was it worthwhile, I wonder? Will all this paper and ink convey my message to you that will interest you? You will say, yes, of course, for you will feel that any other answer might hurt me, and you are too partial to me to take such a risk. But whether you care for them or not, you cannot grudge me the joy having written them, day after day, during these two long years……I have sat here, writing to you and thinking of you, and watched the seasons go by…..”

One of the more entertaining collections of letters I have read is ‘The Groucho Letters - Letters from and to Groucho Marx.’ While it is expected that the comic personality of Groucho Marx is also visible in the letters he wrote, what is not so obvious is that just the act of writing to Groucho brought out the humour in other people. Groucho was, in effect, “the cause of wit in other men.” Poet and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot corresponded with Groucho over several years, leading up to a meeting in London a few months before T.S. Eliot’s death in 1965. In a note sent to Groucho outlining the arrangements made by the Eliots to entertain their guests, Groucho and his wife, Eliot writes:

“The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”

The idea that the audience can influence the voice of the writer is not insignificant. The more specific the audience and the more familiar the writer is with the intended reader, the more unique the voice. The word ‘unique,’ in this context does not imply superiority to the voice of general prose. It only means that the writing to a pre-determined and specific audience, as in the case of letters, reflects the relationship between writer and reader. In the case of general prose, there is an unnamed and anonymous audience. Thus, there is no explicit alliance that can be reflected by nuances in the writing, by tone of voice and other stylistic parameters that derive from distinct human relationships. What will happen then, to our collective range of linguistic expression, when gradually over time, there are fewer and fewer instances of this unique writer-reader relationship?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Discovering the Fountain (pen) of Youth

As a symbolic step in re-connecting with my past, I recently bought myself a fountain pen. I was transiting through the airport in New Delhi on my return to the US after an extraordinary two weeks in India. Among the many shops and kiosks that attempted to lure the traveler into buying one more or one last trinket or indulgence, the name William Penn, in bright red, drew my attention from afar. I had lived in Pennsylvania for 9 years, and the name of its founder brought back associations that were incongruous with being in an Indian airport. 'The World Pen Store,' written underneath the name in smaller letters cleared up my confusion. I smiled, not just at the pun, but also at the idea that there was an entire store devoted to writing instruments. The presence of this store was comforting. The ongoing brouhaha in many US elementary schools over the diminishing importance given to penmanship and the apparent preference by some of computerized assignments in place of handwritten ones came to my mind. It occurred to me that in some indirect and elitist way this store seemed to address that problem. I imagined a magnanimous equivalent of a Bill Gates using his $12,000 Montblanc to sign a cheque that would go towards promoting handwriting skills in privileged elementary school children who only knew how to type their names. And even while I was immersed in this absurd reverie, I knew that I wanted a piece of that elitism - if for nothing else but because a fountain pen could connect me to my past in ways that no other single item could.

In school I had taken pride in my penmanship. To my schoolgirl vision, the form was just as important as the content. I had an early interest in writing. In imagining the manuscripts of writers, I had visualized carefully handwritten stacks of paper making their way to publishers; then I had been disappointed to realize that the finished product of published books were typeset, depriving the author of showcasing her penmanship. I had an early disillusionment in publishing.

I took an interest in calligraphy, and spent much time manipulating the slant of the chiseled nib and perfecting the direction of the strokes. I was an enthusiastic letter-writer, and a card-maker. I would re-write my letters entirely if they had too many corrections in them, and I would discard versions of birthday cards because the calligraphy of the birthday message was not evenly matched in slant or size. My pre-occupation with the form of the hand-written word was enabled and encouraged by the generosity of uncles and aunts living abroad returning with Parkers, Sheaffers and calligraphy pens with interchangeable nibs. As a school girl, I had owned a sizable collection of fountain pens; and now, over 20 years after I had graduated from high school, I didn't have a single one of them in my possession. Finding myself by happenstance at the counter at William Penn, with only a few more hours left in India seemed like a sign that was hard to ignore.

I followed the curve of the display counter showcasing pens by Dupont, Montblanc, Caran D’Ache and Omas, until I had come full circle. I realized then that not only had I been unaware that such stores existed, but I hadn’t even heard of some pen-makers who evidently made very expensive pens. As an aspiring writer, that was two strikes against me. I consoled myself with the knowledge that even if the brands were unfamiliar, I knew which of the letters in their names were silent. I resolved to not let a third strike against me occur too easily.

My travel to India was an unusual journey in that it entailed many 'firsts.' It was the first time that I had left my two young children behind in the US for an extended period. It was the first time in 16 years that I had spent my birthday with my parents and extended family in India. That I was celebrating a milestone birthday, my 40th, made it all the more significant and memorable. It was also the first time in many years that my days centered solely around my needs and my pleasures. Aside from the obvious satisfaction that my self-indulgence afforded me, my trip back to my home in India was one of discovery. In the two weeks that I spent with my family, and in the many meetings with friends, under circumstances and in settings that were reminiscent of time spent together more than 2 decades ago, I discovered things that I had forgotten. I discovered that some relationships endure, through absence, distance and even neglect. And those are the ones that matter. My relationship with writing is one such.

Buying myself a fountain pen was a gesture that would serve dual purposes: It was a symbolic step in re-connecting with my past, and it was a literal first-step in beginning this blog, for much of the writing here has stemmed from my musings in a note-book, rendered through my newly acquired Lamy. This blog is an experiment in writing. I don’t know what direction or focus it will take, but I begin in the spirit of the advice that Seepersad Naipaul gave to his 18 year old son:

"In writing one must have something to say, but if one wrote only when one thought one would say the right things, one would seldom write."