Of Smells And Secondhand Books

I’ve constantly marvelled at how everything in life (situations, routine, people, objects) can take on a new meaning when you look at things from a different perspective. Or atleast it makes you consider them in a whole new light, and realise that they might not be what you thought them to be. I had a moment like that, recently.

A few weeks ago, before putting down a book that I had been reading, I felt like smelling it. I don’t know if that sounds weird but it’s quite normal for me. So much so that my sister’s grown used to the sight of me sniffing a book at random moments. Anyway, just as I was savouring the ‘scent’, a thought struck me. What did that smell contain?

I’ve always loved the smell of books, and have a special fascination for that of old and secondhand ones (the book in question was a secondhand copy). But I had never thought of why, or what the smell might be made up of. Until this particular instance, of course. So, there I was, wondering what made a pre-owned book smell so otherworldly.

Perhaps, it’s all the hands that have touched the pages, the thoughts of previous owners and readers…a captivating blend of all the minds that have pored over it. Think of the memories and experiences a book could talk of, but can only exude through its touch and smell! Crazy as it sounds, the idea made books and their smells seem all the more charming to me. I realise I might be letting my imagination run a little too wild, but then, that’s just how I am (if you’re done with my rambling and want an actual, scientific explanation, check this out).

Almost every time I pick up a secondhand book, I wonder about the last person who had/read the book, what they thought about it and why they let go of it. Even bookstores selling used books evoke the same feeling in me. The cramped spaces and shelves overflowing with books make me wonder about the stories hidden under layers of dust. With all those tales, characters and the sheer magic of adventures (all waiting to be read) floating in the air, is it any surprise these places smell so special? Sometimes I fantasise that, maybe, if I listen carefully, I might even hear the soft rustling of books vying for attention — “pick me, hold me, read me”.

This post was partly inspired by the line ‘Try me. Test Me. Taste Me.’ from Chocolat by Joanne Harris, and partly by the secondhand bookstores I so loved and frequented (and now miss like hell!) in Bangalore.  

Just Out of The Coma

*treads lightly*

*trying to find my footing*

*stumbles, gets up*

*starts over again*

Clearly, I’m feeling a little lost. Like I’m trying to relearn something that was familiar but feels so strange now. Which isn’t far from the truth, of course. Anyway, here goes.

Sometime when I was in high school, I read about Alex Garland’s The Coma in a magazine.  And, immediately added it to my mental to-read list. The basic plot goes something like this: it starts with the protagonist being attacked by a group of men, one night, following which he falls into a coma. The rest of the book is just him and his consciousness talking, trying to make sense of reality and dreams. I’m sure the magazine must have put it in a much more interesting way, but, well, you get the idea.

It took almost ten years for me to get hold of that book but I finally read it a few days ago. And absolutely loved it, by the way. But then, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. I can’t seem to take up another book because I’m still sort of stuck in The Coma. And I felt compelled to write about it, atleast as a way of closure if nothing else (I love books that do that to me!).

When I started off with the book, I remember wondering why it wasn’t made into a movie, considering it deals with a gripping subject. You know, with all the talk about conscious and subconscious, it could neatly fit into the same category as Stay, for instance. However, as I read on, I realized why it couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be a movie.

From the start till the end, all you know about the character is his name (Carl). You don’t know where he is from, what his profession is, what he looks like or even what the other people in the book look like! Much like in a dream, the places and situations just keep shifting constantly, leaving you feeling disoriented. And intrigued. This vague, hazy plot definitely couldn’t be a movie. And, even if it were made into one, it would make absolutely no sense (I’m still trying to understand the ending, in fact).

And. yet, I loved the book. Why? I really don’t know. The first thing that struck me as interesting was that the pages weren’t numbered. It may not seem like a big deal but then, it takes off the sense of order that page numbers could give (and that works perfectly for the dream-like sequences), adding to the confusion. Maybe I loved it because it’s so unconventional. Or, perhaps, because it makes sense and yet doesn’t. Because there’s no right or wrong by which you can judge what Carl goes through. And, because, in a lot of ways, it made me question my own perceptions of reality, consciousness and life. So much so that, at a certain point, I looked up from the book, glanced around and wondered if the place and situation I was in were real or a dream (not kidding!).

If I had to pick out a favourite part (like I always do at the end of a book-rant), it would be this one, where Carl sums up how we’re all basically consciousnesses in a void:

“..if I were to lose an arm in an accident, I’d still be me. They wouldn’t say, he used to be Carl, then he lost an arm, now he’s John.

And, if, in another accident, I lost the other arm, the same would be true. Likewise with my legs, my sight, my hearing, my speech, my sense of touch. You could keep going, keep stripping me down, until I was only a consciousness, suspended in a void.

But, take away the consciousness, and suddenly I’m gone. Carl is no more. And take away the consciousness but leave the body, leave the full complement of arms and legs, and I’m still gone.”

PS: I found this interestingly similar review online – Consciousness in the void – Business Standard

Dear Library…

Come Sunday, I’ll be in a place I call ‘home’ in every sense of the word! The mere thought makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I badly need the change of scene.

Last night, while on the verge of falling asleep, I remembered something that I had wanted to write about. I read something a couple of months ago and made a mental note to blog about it whenever I found time. But then, I got busy (like always) and the ‘note’ was pushed off to some corner of my mind. Only to resurface as a half-conscious thought, last night.

I came across this article in The Guardian about libraries – how they were ‘in danger’ and about a campaign that invited readers across the globe to write “love letters to their favourite libraries”. The idea had an instant connect with me and I knew that I wanted to write one, too.

My love-letter is to a very special library, one that does not exist anymore. Sometime in 2004, when I was in 8th standard, our school campus was relocated. While the library was, technically, shifted to another place, it wasn’t the same as the one we had in the old school. That library will always be a part of my fondest and most cherished school memories, for reasons more than one.

So..here goes!

Dear Library, 

You might not remember me but I could never forget you. They say you always hold your first love as a dear memory. I think that applies for libraries as well. Atleast for a bookworm like me. 

You were my very first library (and love)! I remember getting a glimpse of your interior sometime when I was in 1st or 2nd grade. Since then, I couldn’t wait to get inside and check out all those books. Finally, when I did enter the room, a year or so later, I was on cloud nine! It was love at first sight!

Dimly lit, with a mysterious air that hinted at all the treasure troves (read: books) waiting to be discovered, you had an old world charm about you. I loved spending time there, amidst shelves and shelves of books. We used to have a Library hour once every week and I remember waiting for it so eagerly. Waiting to meet you, to explore all that you had to offer me. Crossing your threshold was like entering into an entire new world, a space where everything else ceased to exist. It was just me, you and books. Even the air smelt of books, old and slightly tattered, adding to the magic. 

You introduced me to Enid Blyton. I couldn’t get enough of Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers. I kept yearning to see more of you, and read more. You helped me take the first step into ‘Bookwormland’ and guided me along the journey, delighting me with the beautiful classics you held. I remember those years as a blur of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit (to name a few) and gems like Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna and Jane Eyre. 

I could never thank you enough for all that you have done for me. In so many ways, you made me what I am today. Hell, you might very well be the reason I write! Even though we had to part ways, I’ll never forget the time I spent with you, the happiness you gifted me. I know I never told you, but I love you; I always will. I believe you knew it all along. Every time I see the present library, or any library for that matter , I think of you and miss you. This is my way of trying to give back atleast a tiny bit of what you’ve given to me. 

Yours,

An ardent reader/admirer

Of Laws & Books

First post of 2015! 

I think Sir Isaac Newton was a genius simply for formulating the First Law of Motion – the Law of Inertia. Not that his other achievements are less brilliant, but I think the First Law is my all-time, top favourite. I see it manifested in so many ways, all around me, particularly in me. I wonder if Newton must have thought about the implications of his law in a personal aspect. Most people continue with their state of rest or activity (read: routine) unless acted upon by another force, which, I believe, could also be internal ( like, self-motivation, inspiration). My blog would be a perfect example. I remain lazy and “busy” until some sort of external/internal force comes into play. Once I get into the routine of regular blogging, I tend to continue it (like now). Until evil forces deter me. In this context, evil forces would be anything that keeps me from blogging. So, that’s the application of Law of Inertia in my blogging habits.

Much to my embarrassment, my WordPress Annual Report says that I’ve put up hardly 10 posts in 2014. And, trust me when I say I feel truly bad about it. I hope 2015 turns out to be a better year for my blog and that I’ll be better able to overcome the sinister powers (including lethargy & laziness).

I finally completed ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. Thanks to my schedule and lack of effort, it took me almost 5 months! That’s nothing less than atrocious, I’d say. But I’m glad I persisted. Because it’s one hell of a book! I absolutely loved it. I agree it has serious content in the form of concepts and philosophies which might seem a little too complex at times, but I enjoyed it, nevertheless. I was drawn to some of the concepts, like, for instance, the perspectives about selflessness as “the lack of self” and selfishness as “self given prime importance”. Another thought that appealed to me was the need of man to create for himself, rather than for others.

The book has some of  the strongest characters I’ve ever come across. In fiction, that is. I’m not going to harbour the fantasy that such people could exist in real life! I highly doubt there can be individuals like Howard Roark and Dominique Francon who are so rooted in their principles. I loved the character of Gail Wynand as the man “who could have been”. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ll admit that my heart went out to him, reading of the pain he suffered when he realized his power over people would prevail only as long as he said what they wanted him to say.

While reading, I have the habit of underlining whatever catches my attention. My copy of ‘The Fountainhead’ is filled with very frequently underlined parts. Which clearly indicate how much it has captivated me. So much that I think I’ll need a bit of time before I move on to another book. And, even when I do, I know the characters of this one will still be etched in my mind.

Stepping back into real life, my college will reopen tomorrow…which means: back to the same, hectic routine. But I’m going to try and overcome the force of “busyness” so that I can continue in this state of activity. 🙂

 

Let’s Talk Books

Hasn’t it been quite a while since I last did some book-talk? Considering my love for ranting about books, I reckon it has been far too long. So, here goes. I read two books in the past nearly-two-months. ‘Inferno’ by Dan Brown and ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry.

For anyone who has read the earlier books by Dan Brown, Inferno won’t be particularly impressive, I believe. The twists and revelations lack impact. By the end, even the basic plot seems a little vague and over-the-top. Also, unlike his other books, I felt this one had some parts which just didn’t make sense to me.  Inspite of the fact that it is an action-packed thriller which takes you through a beautiful city (Florence), always offering new bits of information and keeping you engaged, I have to say that I didn’t feel an affinity towards it. One possible reason might be the repetition in the main elements that define a Dan Brown book – the 24-hour time span, the action, the narrative, the basic thread of the plot, the interweaving of history, art, places and facts and even the outline of the main characters. Some of the situations failed to excite me solely because of their repetitive nature. Inferno is definitely not going to be on my list of favourites.

Coming to ‘The Secret Scripture’ (a critically acclaimed novel by Sebastian Barry) , it’s a book that surprised me. When I started off, I instinctively knew that I’d find it slow, intense and a tad complicated. Not an easy-breezy read, that is. I wasn’t wrong. I found it sort of dull. I kept expecting it to wear off. But, even when I was halfway through it, the dullness persisted. The book failed to draw me into it; I just didn’t feel that urge to go on reading, to know what was going to happen. That’s when the surprising element of the book came into play.

Sometime towards the second-half, the characters started ‘coming to life’, their situations gaining an intensity I hadn’t perceived till then and I could sense myself feeling for the characters. Towards the end, I was very deeply into it. So much that I couldn’t help feeling a bit reeled by the climax, taken aback by the sudden developments. When I began reading The Secret Scripture, I had my doubts about liking it. But, now, I still think about the characters and their lives, long after having finished the book. Do I need to add that I absolutely loved it?

“It is very difficult to be a hero without an audience, although, in a sense, we are each the hero of a peculiar, half-ruined film called our life.” 

[A note, in case you decide to read it: Have the patience and perseverance to go on reading even if you find it slow initially.]

The book I’m currently reading is the latest book by Khaled Hosseini – ‘And the Mountains Echoed’. It’s amazing, so far. It is emotionally intense, bit more than the previous two books. Or maybe it’s just because I’m too deep into it. Anyway, Hosseini has outdone himself, once more! Another thing I loved about it is that there is a change in the narrative, the way the story is told. More about it, once I finish.

What have you been reading? 

 

The Shining: Which Truly Shines – Movie or Book?

I thought that soliloquy might have just managed to save my blog. But looks like the ‘saving’ is still under way.

Last day, I wrote in my diary, after quite a long time. And, I don’t know if it was the myriad thoughts already in my mind, bursting to be freed, or the way the pen floated so smoothly over the paper (LOVED the feel of it) or even the mere act of writing…but I ended up writing a lot. Like, a lot. And not just normal diary entries; the ‘lot’ included random thoughts, some crazy, some profound. At the end of it, the process of emptying all those thoughts onto paper felt so great, so relieving…so much that I couldn’t stop smiling and feeling happy. And that also gave me  this longing to blog. Which is why I’m back here, nearly one month after I promised myself I would try not to neglect my blog!

The book I’m currently reading is ‘The Shining‘ by Stephen King. I saw the movie a few months ago. I kept seeing it in all the ‘Top the-shiningHorror Movies’ lists and decided to watch it (being the horror-movie-fan I am). Unfortunately, I didn’t like it much. I was disappointed, to be honest. Yes, it might probably be because I was expecting a real horror movie. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t figure out if there were actual horror incidents in the movie or if they were all just the characters’ imaginations. I’d call it more of a psycho-thriller than a horror movie.

But the book is an entirely different case! There were quite a few instances in the book which gave me the chills (and I’m only halfway into it!). It pulls you pulled me into the life of the Torrance family in a way the movie didn’t. The characters have a depth that they lacked in the movie (in the movie, I couldn’t figure out if Jack Torrance had a streak of insanity right from the beginning or if the hotel/the ghosts did it to him)…a depth that makes you understand why they act/react the way they do, that makes you see sense in what happens to them. It’s a lot different from the movie in terms of situations, characters and plot. Jack Torrance seems to be a much more emotional person, deeply attached to his wife and son, more than I remember him to be in the movie.

Well, I did some googling, and, turns out I’m not the only one who didn’t like the movie so much.

Stephen King has been quoted as saying that although Kubrick made a film with memorable imagery, it was not a good adaptation of his novel and is the only adaptation of his novels that he could “remember hating”. 

… King suggested that he disliked the downplaying of the supernatural element of the film, which he felt took the “bite” out of the story and made Jack a less sympathetic character. According to King, he viewed Jack as being victimized by the genuinely external supernatural forces haunting the hotel, whereas Kubrick’s take viewed the haunting and its resulting malignancy as coming from within Jack himself.” 

Sometimes, I wonder why exactly books turn out to be much better than their movie adaptations. The experience with ‘The Shining’ offers one possible explanation. A book can delve deeper into characters than a movie, giving you a lot of background with which to understand more about a person – his traits, behaviour, idiosyncrasies. This is particularly true in the case of books made into movies. The book would have drawn out a complete portrayal of the characters, giving you a perfect grasp of why they acted in the way they did. The movie can hardly achieve this kind of detail, considering the limitations the medium has, as compared to a book. So, when someone who has read the book watches the movie, they see semi-detailed characters, interesting situations omitted/altered, less sense in the way the plot pans out.

 

Whatever reviews might say, I’d skip the movie and go for the book any day! 🙂

Care to mention the movie-adaptations which, you felt, lacked the depth of the book?   

The Saleem Sinai effect :)

I thought it’s time I took a look at my blog, blew off the dust that must have gathered and maybe get it back in shape. Also, since it’s vacation and I’m practically jobless, it’s not like I can give the “I’m busy” excuse and ask my ‘inner voice’ to shut up every time it points at my blog and asks me to do something about it. And with some friends who keep asking me to blog, I hardly had an option.

To be honest, I can’t really think of anything much to blog about. So, to get myself back into the flow, I thought I would just write about the book I read last. I started reading ‘Midnight’s Children’ sometime by February end and, much to my relief and happiness, finished it a few days ago! Finally! It’s very slow, and boring, at times. I felt it had a lot of unnecessary details and digressions. If I were to read it again, I doubt I would be patient enough to finish it. But did I like it? YES! Would I recommend it to you? YES!

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Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is a book that was adjudged the ‘Booker of Bookers’ – the best novel to have won the Booker Prize in its first twenty-five years – in 1993. When I started reading it, I was curious. I wanted to know what made this book so great that it was given the Booker of Bookers title. As I progressed, I was confused. By the time I finished it, I wasn’t bothered. Whatever might have been the reason [for the award], whatever it might or might not have won, I loved it. I don’t know if it makes sense but I have a kind of bond with every book I read. Maybe not with the books I didn’t like. But with most other books, I do. Inspite of the way it irritated and frustrated me, I think I have ‘bonded’ with this book. And that’s what is important to me, as a reader.

Coming to the book, one point I strongly felt is regarding the implied focus of the book and its actual one. The title and the blurb/outline on the back cover lead you to believe this book is about the Midnight’s Children. My friend was reading this book before me and once, when I asked her how it was going, she said, “I reached Book Two (the book is divided into three parts) and yet, nothing seems to be happening.” I didn’t understand what she meant but once I started reading, I did. If you read this book, thinking it’s about Midnight’s Children, you might end up being very much disappointed. Because Midnight’s Children is just a part of it. Not even a major part, I’m afraid.

This book truly and totally belongs to Saleem Sinai, the narrator and protagonist, born on the exact moment of India’s independence, (and as a result, gifted with extraordinary powers). It is Saleem’s biography; one which he writes, and at the same time, narrates to his ‘mighty pickle-woman’, Padma. Saleem irritates, frustrates, confuses you just as much as he evokes your interest, moves you to laughter or tears and creates a place for himself in your mind. He can go on with his elaborate thoughts that are way too detailed and end up getting on your nerves. There have been many instances when I felt, “Why can’t he just shut up and get on with the story?” But then, that is how Saleem is, and after awhile, you get used to it…and the next time, you will be prepared for his rant. He digresses way too much but he is also adept (super-adept!!) at keeping you hooked (throwing in interesting bits about what lies ahead). He is one hell of a writer-narrator, I must say! I know it’s Rushdie who should be appreciated but, well, I think I’m too attached to Saleem to realize the difference. [And, anyway, when I appreciate Saleem, it’s basically Rushdie I’m talking about, in an indirect way]

Like I said, it’s Saleem’s biography. And he relates it in a very detailed way, including very minute facts. You get to know absolutely everything, right from the details of his grandfather’s marriage, his parents’ life before his birth, all the ‘unspeakable’ acts he committed, the people who changed his life, so on…until his death. I’d be surprised if you have ever read a biography more detailed than Saleem’s. And, I forgot an important part. Saleem, being connected to India by his birth, relates the country’s historical and major events in a parallel manner. Which is brilliant, I think! The work of a genius, in fact. The writing style is kind of unconventional (different would be an understatement) but I loved it, nevertheless.

I’ve grown to love the character and am so attached to him (obviously, I know, literally, everything about him!!). So, well, I could go on. If you intend to read this book at some point, go ahead. I hope you will have the patience it demands and love it as much as I did. Only advice I’d give is: Don’t read it for Midnight’s Children; read it for Saleem.

This is the most favourite quote from the book. I think it kind of defines the book, and Saleem, as well. And what I loved most about it is the strikingly beautiful truth it talks about.

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