Friday, June 24, 2005

Books that Shaped Me

Re-reading this post, it's surprisingly personal. Instead of just answering a few questions, I've gone on about the books that changed the way I read while growing up, and by extension, changed me. I suspect that half my readers will be bored to tears, but I enjoyed writing it. Thanks, Indu.

Indu's tagged me for this book meme that's been everywhere around the blogosphere. This is the first meme I've seen a large number of BITSians involved in, and the first time I'm participating as well. Here goes...

Total number of books I own:
This is surprisingly hard to answer. There are about 300 books I have immediate access to at home. Then there are perhaps 150 in boxes some friends gave us recently when they went to Muscat, but we left India before I even looked carefully through this set. The books I did find were mostly very good - while scanning through one of the boxes, I discovered several Steinbecks I hadn't read. My grandmother's house contains another 80 or 90 books she left us when she died, and I have about 40 in America. All told, I guess it comes to somewhere between 550 and 600.

Last books I bought:
The Pickwick Papers
So Many Books, by Gabriel Zaid. This is a fabulous collection of essays on books and reading. Interestingly, Zaid owns over 10,000 books.

Last books I read:
Original Sin, P.D. James. This is the first of her books I've read, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. I normally dislike murder mysteries where the reader doesn't have a fair chance of solving the crime, but Original Sin is worth reading as a novel, not just a mystery. Lady James creates a wonderful atmosphere, and she capture the Thames - in many different moods - superbly.
First Meetings in the Enderverse, Orson Scott Card. A terrible disappointment. This is the only one of the many Card books I've read that I positively dislike. (The Shadow series is not good, but it has some redeeming qualities.) First Meetings is a collection of short novellas, each of which describes the coming together of some of the key players in the Ender's Game Universe (I refuse to use the term Enderverse!). A couple of the stories just don't work, and the retelling of Ender's time at Battle School is, frankly, awful. A large part of the reason for my distaste is that it contradicts Ender's Game in so many ways that the result is terribly sloppy. Card used minor contradictions well in Ender's Shadow as an illustration of how perspective shapes narrative; Bean's perspectives are different from Ender's. I doubt that's what he was trying with this book; it looks much more like lazy writing and editing.
UPDATE: Apparently, the novella I disliked so much was the original version of Ender's game that Card wrote; he later expanded it into the widely-read novel. Much of my criticism is then unjustified, but I still think the novel is far better. In my defense, the book never makes this clear; I had the impression that Card cut down the novel so he could include it in this collection to add cohesiveness.

Currently Reading:
Nothing! (Stifles a sob, and uses the hem of the sack-cloth robe to wipe ash out of his eye.) I'm completely book-deprived in Brunei now, but I'll be back in India early next week. I can't wait to do some serious reading!

Books that have had an impact on me:
I have no idea where to begin answering this. I think I'll pick some of the more unusual ones; most of these have affected my reading, rather than being life-changing. So, in chronological order:

The first has to be the Bible, and it would be even if I were going in order of importance. It didn't just affect my reading, though it did that too. When I was little, my family would read out stories to me from various children's adaptations of the Bible, but at family prayers, they would often read aloud from the King James version. I've heard it described as the only translation of any work that's a stylistic improvement on the original, and I can believe it. Even when I couldn't understand all the words, I was mesmerised by their rhythm and flow. I think that was the first time I realized that writing could do more than tell a story; good writing could sound good. To this day, the King James (or Authorised) version is my favourite, and the one I find easiest to memorise - the words just sink into your consciousness.

From around the same time, I'll list Enid Blyton's Noddy series. I was 3, and my sister Nisha - 5 years older than I - would read to me when my parents weren't around. (My parents being doctors, that happened fairly often.) I loved the adventures of Noddy, Big Ears, Tessie Bear, and the rest of the gang, and I kept pestering Nisha to read to me even when it wasn't convenient - when she was busy, or when her friends were around. Partly out of exasperation, but mostly because she enjoyed it, she taught me how to read so I could entertain myself. The first words I remember reading are "See Spot Run", and Nisha kept me at it until I could read Mr. Plod and Little Noddy by myself. I have both Noddy and Nisha to thank for a lifetime of pleasure.

Fast forward a few years, till I reach the second grade. I spent that year in Coimbatore with my grandmother, when my parents were in England. I was 6 and she was 71, so we didn't really have too much reading material in common; most of her children's books had been given away years ago. While rooting around in a cupboard, I found an illustrated edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, and it captured my imagination. Of course, I didn't understand any of it, but when I dug deeper, I found a modern retelling. I've forgotten the title and author, but the stories - The Sword in The Stone, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Balin and the Stroke Dolorous, The Quest for The Holy Grail - enthralled me. I spent longer with the Arthurian cycle than with my schoolbooks; that was the beginning of my fascination with legend and myth. It probably paved the way for all the Fantasy and Science Fiction I read, as well.

In the fourth grade, I was bored and cranky when recovering from a bad bout of fever. The head of my mother's department at the time, Dr. Valerie Major from Wales, lent her The Hobbit to keep me occupied. I loved it so much that she sent me her precious copy of The Lord of the Rings a couple of days later. That started a life-long love affair with Tolkien, and fantasy in general; I've read the Rings trilogy 21 times so far, and the rest of the middle-earth canon fairly often.

Readers Digest is a magazine, not a book, but I'm going to include it anyway. We've subscribed to the magazine for as long as I can remember, and the arrival of each new issue was one of the events of the month. The whole family would fight over who got to read it first; I usually won. (Being the youngest has advantages!) The quality of the magazine was a lot higher then, and I would read and re-read every issue several times. For many years, whenever I had nothing to do, I would while away a few hours with an old Readers Digest out of the collection. In those days, the contents were printed on the front cover, and I can still close my eyes and picture some of my favourite issues. Readers Digest made me a much more discriminating reader - I consciously thought about why I liked Penny Porter's regular articles about her ranch, and why I often disliked the 'Drama in Real Life' feature, why an article about shipping in the South China Sea might unexpectedly stay in my memory, and the story of a murder investigation would not. 'Test Your Own Word Power' probably improved my vocabulary, so that's another way Readers Digests had an impact.

Sophie's World is the only book on this list I don't love. That's putting it mildly; someone gave it to me in the eighth grade, and I hated it. It's a history of philosophy shoved badly into a novel, it just doesn't fit. Perhaps I was just too young, but the two parts seemed very badly interwoven; the philosophy was fairly good, but I detested the plot. Still, I enjoyed my first experience of philosophy, and came to read more. I also realized that a good plot wasn't as central to my enjoyment of a book as I had thought, which led to a significant increase in the amount of non-fiction I read.

To Kill a Mockingbird was a book my father often talked about, and we owned not one, but two copies. Strangely, then, I didn't read it until the ninth or tenth grade; as soon as I did, it became one of my favourites. Atticus Finch, Jem, and Scout are each among my most-loved fictional characters, and Atticus remains one of my role models. To Kill a Mockingbird is also on my list of books to read to children. (Yes, I maintain such a list. No, I've never written it down; when I find a book that would be appropriate, I make a mental note. No, I don't have children, nor will I in the near future, but I have lots of young cousins to read to.)

I discovered The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in BITS; BSL had copies of the first trilogy and part of the second. Not since Middle-earth has a world so rich been created; Stephen Donaldson portrays the land vividly and in exquisite detail. The themes are incredibly powerful - unbelief and leprosy and powerlessness, sacrifice, self-righteousness, guilt and despair, sin and redemption. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a compelling, complex hero, far removed from the one-dimensional characters found too often in fantasy.
I've long been an advocate of simplicity in writing, of never using a difficult word where an easy one would do. Donaldson, on the other hand, never hesitates to use an unusual word if it conveys his meaning best. I like to think I have a good vocabulary, but I used a dictionary as often in the two days it took me to read Lord Foul's Bane as I had in the preceding five years. Not once did I disagree with Donaldson's choice of words. His prose is both powerful and beautiful; this is high fantasy at its absolute best.

Important! I'd love to hear other people answer these questions; if you have a blog and haven't participated yet, consider yourself tagged. Leave a comment letting me know where to find your post. If you don't have a blog, answer the questions in a comment to this post. Feel free to write as much or as little as you choose.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

On My Religion and Politics

John Danforth, a former (Republican) senator and an Episcopal minister, has an excellent op-ed in today's Times.
It is important for those of us who are sometimes called moderates to make the case that we, too, have strongly held Christian convictions, that we speak from the depths of our beliefs, and that our approach to politics is at least as faithful as that of those who are more conservative.
People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers. But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators.
[M]oderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators. Far from claiming to possess God's truth, we claim only to be imperfect seekers of the truth. We reject the notion that religion should present a series of wedge issues useful at election time for energizing a political base. We believe it is God's work to practice humility, to wear tolerance on our sleeves, to reach out to those with whom we disagree, and to overcome the meanness we see in today's politics.

For us, religion should be inclusive, and it should seek to bridge the differences that separate people. We do not exclude from worship those whose opinions differ from ours. Following a Lord who sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners, we welcome to the Lord's table all who would come. Following a Lord who cited love of God and love of neighbor as encompassing all the commandments, we reject a political agenda that displaces that love.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Random Grammar Rant

I nearly put this in the middle of Hiatt's column in the previous post, but it was so irrelevant to his point that it deserved a post of its own. What is it with Americans and the use of the word 'different'? Things differ from one another, not than one another. X is different from Y, not than Y. When this sounds awkward (though it is right, nevertheless), one can modify the sentence to simply say "X and Y are different".

I see this mistake everywhere in America - in general conversation, on the evening news (not that that means much), and - worst of all - in the print media. It grates on the ear or eye. Sure, American spelling and grammar is different from that of most of the rest of the world, and that's fine; I can deal with it. But I'm told this isn't correct grammar even in America! Sure, ordinary people make occasional mistakes, and that's cool too; I know I'm not perfect. But I've never seen a mistake so widespread; one expects better of professional writers, at least.

Ok, done ranting. Question: What's the difference between zeugma and syllepsis? Those of you who know why I'm asking probably read Madeira, M'dear. I'm a little confused - some of it seems more like syllepsis than zeugma to me, though Martin seems to disagree.

Welcome to the Second Season of Pseudo-Random Thoughts

It's been a month since my last post, which is the longest I've gone without blogging since I began. Thanks to all the commenters; if it weren't for you, I might have waited even longer before resuming. My only excuse is that the net connection here is terrible, and blogging's no fun without decent internet access.

After leaving Champaign-Urbana, I spent a couple of days in Santa Barbara with Lakshmi - or perhaps I should say without Lakshmi. ;-) You haven't lived until you've eaten one of her super-sandwiches. Lachu, if you're reading this, what's the name of that cheese? It doesn't taste the same without it. I can't find any of the garlic sourdough bread either. The UCSB campus is incredibly beautiful (photos here) and I had a wonderful time, largely due to my charming hostess.
I flew out from LA to Brunei, where my parents have been working for the last year, and have been here ever since, except for a few days holidaying in Malaysia. In another 10 days or so, I'll be flying to India for a cousin's wedding. So that's my summer; more information on each part of the vacation in subsequent posts.

The Geomblog has had some very good posts in the last month, one of which pointed me towards Michael Nielsen's introduction to exander graphs. I've been meaning to read about them for a long time, but kept putting it off until now. Ditch, if you haven't already, check them out.

The reading assignment of the day, though, is definitely Fred Hiatt's superb piece in the Washington Post. I've been waiting a long time to read this; I wish more people understood it. I'm excerpting parts of it, but you have to read the whole thing:
"Two of the country's largest newspapers, for example, have devoted more than 80 editorials, combined, since March of 2004 to Abu Ghraib and detainee issues, often repeating the same erroneous assertions and recycling the same stories," [Rumsfeld] said. "By comparison, precious little has been written by those editorial boards about the beheading of innocent civilians by terrorists, the thousands of bodies found in mass graves in Iraq, the allegations of rape of women and girls by U.N. workers in the Congo."

The Post has criticized the administration for failing to give detainees hearings as called for under the Geneva Conventions; for writing memos that toyed with the definition of torture and undermined long-standing Army restraint in questioning prisoners; for prosecuting low-ranking soldiers while giving the brass a pass; for allowing the CIA to hold prisoners beyond the reach of the International Red Cross or any other monitor; and for refusing to empanel a truly independent commission to examine accountability for prison abuse up the chain of command, up to and including the White House... [Rumsfeld] would point out that none of these offenses, even if accepted as true, is as heinous as filling a mass grave.

But just invoking such a comparison, even implicitly, amounts to a loss for the United States. If we have to defend ourselves by pointing out that we are morally superior to terrorists, it's a loss.

The United States and this administration in particular continually assert the moral right to behave differently than [sic] other nations. We will not be bound by the International Criminal Court. We insist that other nations give up their nuclear weapons while we keep our own. We wage war without U.N. Security Council approval. We publish annual report cards on everyone else's human rights records.

[A]ny nation asserting such a high calling will be judged by an equally high standard. Are we better than the beheaders, the mass killers, the U.N. peacekeepers raping young girls in the Congo? That's not close to the right question.

Do we behave as well as we claim, as we should, as we expect of others? That's the beginning of the right conversation -- and why it's fair to write more editorials about exceedingly mild Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay than about the unspeakable mass graves of Hilla.