Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The masochistic bibliophile

There are books that one genuinely wants to read and those that one feels one ought to read. Into the second genre fall classics, epics, self-help books, autobiographies and books written by prominent personalities.

In recent times, I’ve had to plough my way through books such as “Imagining India” by Nandan Nilakeni and “A Better India, A better world” by N.R.Narayana Murthy.

Nilakeni took it upon himself to list down all the problems that are plaguing India and went on to describe each of them in painstaking detail. Narayana Murthy pondered over weighty questions such as “When will the fruits of development reach the poorest of the poor, and wipe the tears from the eyes of every man, woman and child, as Mahatma Gandhi had dreamt? And how should this, our greatest challenge ever, be negotiated?”

In both the books, the intention and determination of the authors to inflict third-degree boredom on their readers come through clearly. But, I slogged on gamely and finished reading them. I complimented myself on my staying power and on clearing the endurance tests with my sanity still intact.

But more challenges were to come my way. Last week, I picked up from the library the latest book of Amartya Sen’s, “The Idea of Justice”. After reading through 250 pages of the book, I can honestly state that not one page has made any sense to me so far. Intellectual stuff can also be made intelligible, but Amartya Sen makes no such attempt. The experience was akin to watching a Polish movie without the sub-titles. The saving grace was that I had the sense not to buy the book, paying the full price. I have borrowed it from a lending library at 10% of its cost.

Why did I have to read 250 pages to realise that I didn’t understand a word of what was written? As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I didn’t want to read it but thought that this was one of those books that I ought to read. From now on, I must learn not to indulge in such masochistic rituals.


Viky said...

Contrast that with how bill bryson describes a lot of science in plain English.

Mambalam Mani said...

Have you read The Alchemist?

Raj said...

Viky it is not about the language alone. It has to do with the sheer monotony, an unwillingness to make the subject more interesting for reader consumption and the absence of an overarching theme. After reading 650 pages, you wonder what he was trying to prove.

Mambalam: I hope you don't mean that you liked the book. I found it absolutely juvenile.

hari said...

I agree. Some authors are just plain boring, even if they discuss the most interesting topics.

Others make the dullest subject interesting with their wit and keen insights.

What makes category #1 intolerable is combining sheer verbosity with a holier-than-thou arrogance.

Shalini said...

Books are commissioned with the sheer persona of the writer in mind. It has nothing to do with content. The author is well known, so the book sells.( But not always)There are some well known writers who are my favourites.

I have found extremely interesting books written by obscure authors who none have heard about except perhaps I. Hours spent in secondhand book shops can give more reading pleasure than going to a plush bookstore and picking up the "latest" from the shelves. This works the same for books for children too.

So Moor market, here I come. (Does it still exist in Chennai?


Raj said...

Hari, all the authors I cited were verbose, but were by no means arrogant. Each of them could have compressed the entire content of his book into a 5-6 page essay and made the same point ( such as it was).

Shalini, there is a difference between well-known authors, and well-known personalities who write books. The first type we want to read, the second we feel we ought to read. That's what the publishers exploit.

Mambalam Mani said...

Oh no! Not only was it juvenile but it was overly repetitive. After the first few pages I felt the same things being said in the same order in different ways. I mentioned it because that was the first book that came to my mind that gave me a similar experience.

Raj said...

Mambalam Mani, it's a relief to know that a loyal reader of my blog did not like the "alchemist".

ramesh said...

your observation is spot on .. books you 'ought' to read include james joyce's Ulysses .. what bull shit that was, i swear i understood not a paragraph in my reading of 50 pages after which i abandoned the damned thing in haste .. bah the book brahmins pretend to be pretentious to make us feel bad .. three cheers for simple entertainers ..
i guess the b.a students of english need to have these tomes as their arsenal to counter us engineers' treatises on say therodynamics (both of which are equally unintelligible)

Anonymous said...

It becomes all the more boring when they dont have anything new to say. Most times its cliched stuff, rather than something truly out of box or path breaking. (PS: i havnet read any of the books u mention in ur blog, Except Alchemist, which i threw out of the window, never to touch Paul Cohelo again even with a barge pole)


Emancipation said...

Raj, unfortunately, I bought all three books you mentioned but read not a single one. After reading this post, it now seems highly unlikely. Thanks for ruining the little enthusiasm I harboured for 'The idea of justice'-although I totally agree with you.