On the 10th of November 2019, I was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in a session with Harini Nagendra and Nirupa Rao. The session, The Secret Lives of Trees, offered us an opportunity to talk on a subject dear to each of us: trees.
Following Harini’s vivacious and insightful lead, our conversation swooped and veered, sallied and swung around trees. On the science of trees, on the connections between people and trees, and on the challenges of trying to portray the majesty and wonder and individuality of trees in art and in words. We spoke of the wood-wide web and the values of trees in our daily lives, of Myristica swamp forests and silk cotton trees, and even of what trees can help us discover about ourselves and our views on citizenship and belonging to place.
Listen on and leave your thoughts and comments below!
It began as a whim, a resolution for the new year, a year now already passed. At least, it seemed like a whim, sitting there by the campfire in the Kalakad mountains, with friends, under the star-sequinned night sky quilted with cloud. The rainforests were silent but for the creak and click of insect and frog; only the cataract over the nearby cliff continued its unceasing conversation with the rocks. Among friends announcing new year resolutions—more out of amusement than determination—I outed mine, as sparks crackled in the fire. I’ll read only books written by women in 2019, I said. Fifty books written by fifty women.
It was a strange resolution, like nothing I’d made before. And on its surface it carried the obvious problem: a quest for good literature, writing, and writers made sense, but why women writers? Why reduce women to an adjective? Writers are writers, aren’t they?
I’d always read writers without bias to gender—or so I thought—on my many book-reading binges since 2011. My stats on Goodreads, where I keep track of what I read, recorded that I’d read 100 books in 2011, 57 in 2012, 101 books in 2013, 40 in 2014, 37 in 2015, 50 in 2016, and 25 each in 2017 and 2018. I’d picked books up from independent bookstores, chain stores, used book stores, pavement sellers, online e-book retailers, public and university libraries, airport and train station bookshops, and my friends’s bookshelves, across at least half a dozen countries that I’d traveled to since 2011. I’d scanned the covers, browsed reviews online and in print, asked friends for recommendations, simply picked books out of curiosity or boredom, or on occasion found a book more or less by serendipity. And I read widely—ridiculously, distressingly widely according to some friends—more gourmand than gourmet in my reading as one put it. Excluding some technical books I read as part of my work as a wildlife scientist, I read literary fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, poetry, detective stories and murder mysteries, creative nonfiction, classics, westerns, popular science, spy thrillers, philosophy, nature writing, erotica, and comic books. From the Bhagavad Gita and the Therigatha to Anaïs Nin and Lucky Luke, from Gustave Flaubert to Shubhangi Swarup, from John Grisham to John Steinbeck, from Mahasweta Devi to Maya Angelou, from deluded Dawkins to marvellous Matthiessen. Almost anything except Chetan Bhagat.
Four hundred and forty six books over eight years: an eclectic but unblemished and unbiased record so far, I thought. Why bias my reading now towards women?
And then, one day, I decided to check. I skimmed the list of 446 books I’d read since 2011 and my apparently unbiased reading streak revealed itself to be something very different. It was obvious even at a glance. If I had only taken a few moments to reflect, which I’d not done all these years, I’d have noticed this earlier. I sat down and counted. To be sure. Of the 446 books (including 2 books that had been co-authored by a woman and a man), only 79 were written by women. Just 17.7%—or less than one in five books!
I began to look at all bookshelves with a new eye. Two wooden bookshelves at home held 333 books, of which only 68 (20%, or one in five) were by women. As did bookshelves in some of my friends’s houses—one friend’s bedside bookshelf stacked 71 books, only 8 by women. Airport bookshops, city bookstores, pavement sellers—more often than not, they all featured more male authors. Take a look at your own books—it is likely the disparity exists in your shelves, too.
It was true for Indian writing as well, and moreover, seemed unrelated to how good the writers were—at least, how much I enjoyed their writing. Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi and Devdutt Pattanaik dwarfed the immeasurably better Arundhati Roy and Shobhaa De and Janaki Lenin. In one airport bookstore, atop a heap of apparently lesser volumes, Shashi Tharoor‘s books sat flamboyantly, rather like the prolific, sometimes prolix, writer-politician himself, while the equally prolific writer and novelistShashi Deshpande‘s memoir graced a corner that only someone determined to find her would discover. I understood better now why Deshpande had titled her book Listen to Me. I resolved then to not just read women writers, but only buy books written by women this year. I bought a copy of Listen to Me before I left the store.
Clearly there was something askew here—an unconscious bias or a bias I’d refused to discern or admit to myself. A bias that may not just be mine, but one compounded by how publishing, promotions, and book reviewing works to the advantage of men. One analysis of the New York Times Best Sellers List for novels showed a bias towards male authors from the 1950s through the 1990s, reaching near parity only in the first decade of the 21st century. (This is despite gender disparities within genres: best-selling spy novels are more often written by men, best-selling romance more often by women, for instance, while literary works are more evenly matched.) The VIDA Count, by the Women in Literary Arts organisation, tracks publication bias and parity in leading literary publications and, barring a few publications, reveals widespread gender disparity. Their 2018 VIDA Count reports:
Meanwhile, at 4 years in a row, the Feckless Five are back, with fewer than 40% of women writers in their publication totals: Times Literary Supplement (38.5%), The Nation (36.9%), The Threepenny Review (36.6%), London Review of Books (33.7%), and The Atlantic (33.6%).
The New York Review of Books, once again, had the worst numbers of all 40 publications at a measly 27.1%, which is, sadly, the highest percentage of women they’ve published since the beginning of the VIDA Count [in 2010]…
The 2018 VIDA Count also showed that less than 40% of the books reviewed (only 26% in the case of NYRB) were books written by women. The work of authors who identify as non-binary genders is barely gaining ground, too. And besides gender there is also the issue of race, which remains another factor of exclusion and discrimination. Of course, the reasons that drive these trends may be many, complex, and more nuanced than a simple male bias. As Kamila Shamsie wrote in 2015, commenting on a literary ‘manel‘ discussion where four men discussed ‘The crisis of American fiction’:
I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power – and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power – the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex.
One needs to examine the proportions of books in review in relation to the corresponding proportions of books by male and female authors published. One study reports that, in Australia, two-thirds of the books were written by women, but two-thirds of the books that get reviewed were those of male authors—an entrenched bias evident over nearly three decades between 1985 and 2013. But at least one editor has argued that more books by men are reviewed because some leading publishing houses publish men more often than women. Shamsie also notes how publishers submitting books for literary prizes do so with “a strong tilt towards books by men”.
Other factors, too, could be at work that relegate women writers to the background and devalue their work: how women writers are written about in the media, how books by women are priced less than similar books by male writers, how manuscripts written under a male pseudonym are more likely to be considered by a publisher, and how women are paid less than male writers. Shashi Deshpande in Listen to Me writes how she was described as a ‘grandmother’, how people often commented on her looks and the dresses she wore, how male editors who did not bother to read her work advised her to submit her work to women’s magazines, how some famous male writers denigrated and wrote and spoke dismissively of women writers.
It all adds up. A reader browsing a bookshelf or making what seems to be an informed purchasing choice has likely already been swayed towards male authors. Any personal bias, conscious or unconscious—more likely towards male authors given our social milieu—only accentuates the skew.
In May 2019, my own book was published by Oxford University Press: The Wild Heart of India, a collection of essays on nature and conservation. The book slipped out into the world and I watched as it found its own place among the thousands that appeared on the shelves. I did no promotions or events, as authors apparently are expected to do these days, but for a single book reading event at the wonderful independent bookstore, children’s library, and cafe, Champaca, in Bangalore, and a joint session on trees at the Bangalore Literature Festival in November with writer and scientist, Harini Nagendra, and the artist, Nirupa Rao.
The publishers of my book had sent it out to a number of outlets for review and a couple of the reviews raised a pertinent point. Of the 60 essays in my book, I had written 10 with Divya Mudappa, a wildlife biologist and my partner, but nearly all the essays owed something to her as well. As I wrote in the Preface to the book:
Most of the essays emerged from journeys and field experiences with Divya… Journeying with Divya has always been an enriching experience of witnessing, photographing, and forming the impressions, images, and ideas that finally found expression in these words. I co-authored 10 essays (or their earlier versions) with her, but most of the others, too, are from our time in the field together: out of a memorable encounter, an extended conversation, a close observation, a shared silence.
Two reviewers made the point that her name deserved to have been on the cover, too. I was glad that the reviewers, both men, pointed that out—clearly, there are many people out there sensitive to this. There is sometimes a thin line between a considered decision and the perpetuation of a latent bias. Applied to my own work, it struck me that I may not even be the best person to realise or understand on which side of that line I myself stand.
As the weeks passed, I did little more than share links or send emails to friends about my book’s existence. But I could not avoid an egoistic urge to check every bookstore I visited whether they had my book on their shelves. Except at Champaca and a stall at the Lit Fest, none of the dozen or so bookstores I visited in 2019 stocked my book. Save one. And there, I was in for a surprise, a pleasant, yet short-lived surprise.
In December 2019, there, on the top rack of the Wildlife/Gardening shelf in Starmark bookstore, Chennai, stood my book flanked by works of two authors I greatly admire. Julian Hoffman‘s Irreplaceable, one of the most beautifully-written books on nature and conservation of recent times, stood on one side. One book away on the other side was a recent anthology of essays by the late M. Krishnan, probably India’s most well-known nature writer.
Books by women writers were there, too: Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember on the Chennai floods and Harini Nagendra’s Cities and Canopies. But then, I stepped back a bit and took in the whole shelf.
Leaving aside the encyclopedia volumes and a couple of misplaced books, there were 43 books. Of these, an astonishing 37 books were by men, and only 6 books were by women (of these, 3 had a male coauthor). Several authors were white men, of course, including the long-dead Jim Corbett, a shikari famed for his tiger and leopard shooting exploits.
This was in a large bookstore in Chennai. The city I was born in. A city that considers itself one of the biggest in India, with a cultured citizenry and a vast population of readers.
There was not a single book by a woman author from outside India. Why Peter Wohlleben’s pulp nonfiction, but no Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction? I was thrilled to see Julian Hoffman’s book and bought a copy, but it would have been equally wonderful to see and buy a book like Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing. And isn’t it time we grew out of Jim Corbett and read better natural history writing?
I looked again at my own book on that shelf. I turned and walked away.
I had begun 2019 with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, quickly followed by Nayanjot Lahiri’s Time Pieces, Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and the Therigatha in translation. The latter, a collection of verses in Pali by ordained Buddhist women or therīs is considered among the most ancient examples of women’s writing in the world, some from as early as the 6th Century BCE. I tried to mix fiction and nonfiction with poetry and classics. I read books old and new. From Austen’s 1813 classic, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1949) and Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love (1954) to books published just this year: Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, Bahar Dutt’s Rewilding, Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest, and Ali Smith’s astonishing Spring. (Okay, I must admit I cheated with that last one. I began reading it on New Year’s eve and although I could hardly put it down any free moment I had, I could finish it only after 2020 had arrived.)
Through 2019, I’d tried to read whenever I could, but travel and work kept me from reading. By December 31, it was clear I was not going to meet my target of 50 books. I’d read only 42 books. Not a bad number that, in literature: 42. Still, thanks to the anthology Well Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, I managed to read, in total, the work of 63 women. And many extraordinary writers.
Looking back on 2019, I found no cause to regret my ‘whim’ of reading women. In fiction, I will remember it as the year I first read Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2018.
A delightful book that had me both chuckling and reflecting seriously on how we as humans relate to animals. This book is many things: murder mystery, Cannery-Row-esque story set in rural Poland, a biting critique of hunting and Christian ideas of human dominion over nature, a commentary on the similarities between astrology and sociobiology, and a tale of one woman’s determination. How Tokarczuk manages to pull all that off, while keeping you turning the pages for more, is something of a wonder. I can see why she is considered one of Poland’s “most celebrated and beloved authors.”
Then there was Joan Didion, who wrote powerfully of life and society rendered bleak and chaotic by loss and disruption. Her graphic description of her protagonist undergoing an abortion in a shady clinic and the character’s ensuing tailspin down the freeways of America is like nothing I’ve read before.
An unflinching look at social and mental breakdown in pared-down prose by a writer I’m sure I’m going to be reading more. If a book can take you down a path, or send you tearing down a freeway, into the desert, into nothingness, into nothing, into knowing how much it matters when nothing matters, then maybe this is that book.
I read the wonderful poetry of Mary Oliver and Anne Carson and Kathleen Jamie, adding them all to my list of favourite authors without a moment’s hesitation. I read nonfiction that I’d happily recommend to anyone with an interest in today’s world: history (Time Pieces, Nayanjot Lahiri), archaeology (Devika Cariapa), memoir (Listen to Me by Shashi Deshpande, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald). On environmental science and politics and for good nature writing, here are two books well worth your time.
A clear, hard-nosed, and incisive look into environmental issues and battles fought. This is a book anyone concerned with the environment in India or more broadly in relation to the developing world must read. Sunita Narain’s is one of the most informed and compelling voices in the world and the work she and her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment, have managed to do, against immense pressures and push-back, is remarkable. This books tells all in that same compelling voice, sharing her experiences that are eye-opening, sobering, and inspiring at once.
Part memoir, part quest for self, family, and nature in Taiwan, this is a gentle book with a gentle narrative voice that carries the reader along on a very personal journey. I like it for its simplicity and clarity, and its evocation of Taiwan and her family that is both personal and yet placed neatly within the great sprawl of the island’s history and geography.
Of course there were places where the writing sagged or books in which I felt I would have liked something more, something different, a different perspective of women by women. But, then why not perspectives of men by women or of anything, for that matter, by women? Anyhow, I am no critic, and worse, I’m a published male author, and how male authors see women often just doesn’t cut it. So I won’t even try. What I can attest is how much I enjoyed reading what I read.
It was not just books on themes that one might ascribe, not without the stain of bias, to women: family, women’s lives, sexual abuse and rape, mother-child relationships, love. These themes, and they are great literary and social themes, were certainly present in powerful, compelling, provocative stories told with a rare empathy by powerful and tender narrators. But the writing often rocketed out of these pigeonholes and soared into the skies. You could place some of these books on a family-themed shelf, but to do full justice, it is the shelf that would have to expand enormously to fully capture the range in these books: the idea of home, belonging, and caring for a differently-abled sister in Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights, the contemporary life of women in India in Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair, the sexual abuse of a girl child in a fake godman’s ashram in Anuradha Roy’s searing book Sleeping on Jupiter, the fabric of a family shredded by the brutal rape of the mother in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, the love and lust and longing in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love, and Ismat Chughtai’s The Heart Breaks Free and The Wild One.
Other books brought to the fore thought provoking and powerful stories—fiction and fact, fake news and real—of racism and white supremacy, power dynamics, gender discrimination, our current crises of climate and immigration, of democracy losing to demagoguery, of life under slavery and colonialism. The works of Mary Beard (Women and Power), Sunita Narain (Conflicts of Interest), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), Ali Smith (Spring), Wilma Stockenström (The Expedition to the Baobab Tree), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and several women writers of colour in Well Read Black Girl, are just a tiny sample of that spectrum of work by some of the best writers who are both of our times and timeless.
If, having read this far has sparked your interest in reading (more) women writers in 2020, you could mosey over to Reading Women and take their 2020 reading challenge.
Or if you’d like a peek at what I read in 2019 and check out some of those books, here they are.
Whether you take the challenge or pick women to read from my bookshelf or any other shelf, chances are you will have a wonderful year of reading ahead. And when a woman’s voice lingers in your mind as you turn the last page of her book, you may find that it has been worth your while to listen to her.
After a long hiatus, I’m getting back to blogging here at View from Elephant Hills. Over the next few weeks, I aim to move my posts from the presently-dysfunctional Coyotes Network blogs. Do bookmark this page or take the RSS feed from below if you’d like to follow my work.
Update (8 Jan 2019): Most of my posts till 2014 are here now. Still have a bunch to bring over from the Coyotes Network. Should be done in the next few weeks!
I went trophy hunting—in the year just past—roughly twice a week, every week, without fail. It was difficult, it was wonderful, it needed the patience of a stalker, the resistance of a gone junkie. On my hunts, I roamed the alleys and mazes of concrete jungles, scoured dark recesses and dusty nooks, scanned thousands before selecting the few, the chosen, the one. I have them all now with me, waiting to be proudly displayed on my shelves. My trophies of 2013, harvested from five countries across three continents, from over two dozen places: books.
It was an unusually good year for book hunting. I had had to travel on work or for taking a break from work to places far from the small hill town of Valparai where I live. The icy grachten of Amsterdam in January, sun-drenched northern California in April and May, verdant Vermont in July, quiet Uppsala in August, the dour streets of London in October, the dense forests of Mizoram in December, passing through Bangalore or New Delhi or Mysore or Coimbatore or Chennai, Indian cities that I visited on other trips on work or to see friends and family, always coming back home to the Anamalai hills, to Valparai. A little too much travel, if you ask me, and with too much time in workshops and meetings, places where there is always too much talk and too little done, so many moments when you itch to leave the room, go home, take a cleansing bath. On the work front, it was a year of moderate and quiet progress in Valparai itself, although the world around appeared to careen towards catastrophe and conflict, whether from extreme climate events around the world, or, closer to home, over disputes on how to conserve the Western Ghats or coexist with wild species like elephants. On the personal front, too, it was not an easy year, with deaths in the family, illness and stress among people close to us, worry and guilt about personal time infringing the ineluctable backlog of work. But wherever I was, there were always books at hand, or else I went looking.
The books were an attempt not so much to escape from it all, but to find solace and space, as they say, in the scheme of things. To make sense of the world around us, to see the world through other eyes, to feel transported, thrilled, or transformed by great art: what does that better, if one pays attention, than books, than literature? So, at the least opportunity, I hauled myself out of whatever I was doing or wherever I was, on quests for books. Books in public libraries, once-used books in curbside shops and on pavements, books in small, independent bookstores and larger, lavish bookshops, books in digital formats online for my Kindle, books borrowed from or gifted by friends (what are friends for, anyway?), books rediscovered in the shelves that Divya and I have lovingly filled and tended over the years, here in Valparai. As Emily Dickinsonwrote of these “kinsmen of the shelf”:
Unto my Books—so good to turn—
Far ends of tired Days—
It half endears the Abstinence—
And Pain—is missed—in Praise—
And so, with the books in hand, I read. I read for the sheer joy of reading, for meeting my self-imposed challenge of reading one hundred books in 2013, for filling every empty space in everyday life. I read with a vengeance, read with heart. I read with attention, and read myself to distraction. I read on buses, on trains, on flights, in bus stations and train stations and airports. I read while waiting, secretly exultant at the delayed flight, the slow unpunctual train, the taxi stuck in traffic. I read while the morning coffee brewed in the filter, while the computer booted up, while being driven from somewhere to anywhere, while listening to music, while watching but not really watching the rubbish on television, while the rotis baked and the dal cooked in the kitchen, while waiting for meetings to begin, while waiting for them to end. I read on the couch, in the bed, sitting on chairs, on rocks, on river banks, in cafés, in bookstores, in a watchtower overlooking ranges of hills, in a cave in deep rainforest. I read sitting, standing, reclining, or lying down, in places a few feet below sea level (in The Netherlands) to over thirty thousand feet (on transcontinental flights). I read in sun and shade, under streetlamps and fluorescent tubes, using a LED headlamp or by candlelight. I read under the sharp buzz of caffeine from one-coffee-too-many, with that lightheaded feeling that one gets in the other ‘coffee shops’ of Amsterdam, with a mind mildly muddled by beer or vodka or wine. I read with both eyes flitting left to right and left again, or sometimes, just with one eye, the other drooping closed, moments before melting slowly, deliciously into sleep at night. I read on the shores of Lake Tahoe, on the banks of the Singelgracht, in my cousin’s swanky apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, on BART and Caltrain in California, in the homes of friends and family wherever I went, and most of all in the hills of the elephants here at home in Valparai. I just read and read and read.
The year that began with reading Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, filled up quickly with many books whose authors and voices I will remember and continue to hear, speaking to me as to a confidant or companion, for long. Still, eight books stood out as my best reads of 2013, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which I read on my Kindle, and others that I read as paperbacks. Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, a powerful novel on hunger and the depravity of totalitarian regimes set in the Russian Gulag during World War II, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a stark novella set in the American west of the 1920s, Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, stories remarkable for their imaginative detailing as for narrative technique, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, describing three journeys of a lost young man, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a classic, more like a non-fiction novella than an essay, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a hard-hitting early book about homelessness, poverty, and living on the street, and finally, William Strunk and E. B. White’s classic for all writers, The Elements of Style, a book I re-read for perhaps the third or fourth time.
On 29 December 2013, as I clicked past the last page on my Kindle of the hundredth book, I found myself dissatisfied with ending a year of reading with Thoreau’s Walking, more a long essay than a book. So I picked up a paperback from a friend’s bookshelf and ended the year reading this fine classic: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Through the year, I had kept track, on my online Goodreads account, of what I read and what Divya and my friends were reading. Among ourselves, we sent and received book recommendations that led to more reading, or helped find new authors to read. It was also interesting to compare impressions about books and authors with Divya and friends who had read the same books, to see what we agreed on and what we felt differently about them.
Still, not everyone takes kindly to such reading. On 2 January, when I wished my mother-in-law for the new year and invited her over to our home in Valparai, she replied: “Yes, I will come, but you must not be reading.”
So at this point, 101 books, 18816 pages, and more than five million words later, a statutory warning: Relentless reading can cause injury to friends and family.
What is good etiquette for a person who is reading a book? I am not talking about posture or mothers’ reading instructions (“Sit up straight, hold your book at least twelve inches away from your face, read in good light.”) This is about when and where it is appropriate to be reading a book, especially in company. Occasions when one is at a dining table or hosting guests are certainly out there in the forbidden list. I never read at a dining table, unless I was alone or waiting for people to show up. Still, I watched with envy as people at dinner tables, at home or while eating out, whipped out their so-smart phones, caressing their email and twitter feeds on touch screens, or their hands under the table, fingers flitting at the virtual keys, sending that all-important text message. And if the phone rang, of course, it must be picked up, the clangorous urgency of its shrill metallic cries immediately mollified with soft words and conversation. Even guests are forgiving, if you say, “I have to take this call” and step out with your phone for a quick chat, an extended ten minutes, or even longer. Imagine their chagrin if you say, “Can you excuse me for a few minutes? I was just in the middle of this wonderful passage in The Night Country by Loren Eiseley.” Or, their horror at: “Wait! I’m pages away from finishing Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and I cannot rest until I know how it ends.” The tyranny of the mobile phone, I tell you, trumps books any day.
How much time can one spend reading in a day? I calculate that, from the books I read last year, I read about 50 pages a day, on average. At my reading pace (moderate, not fast), that is about an hour and fifteen minutes of reading time, ranging from a low of a few minutes on some busy days to around five hours on days when I had more time or was travelling by train. This did not include time spent reading newspapers, magazines, stand-alone essays, the occasional scientific paper that I was reading or reviewing, in print or online. All told, it would still be about two hours a day, on average, of reading time. Is that a lot? Compare that with television viewership in Indian metros, which apparently exceeds two hours a day, while it averages around five hours per day in the US. Still, I can’t use these numbers to my advantage, as the hours add up for me because I watch TV, too. But: I sometimes watch TV whilereading a book! (Is it really so odd, that while reading about the almost unendurable depravity and deprivation in the concentration camps of The Hunger Angel, one finds a kind of release watching the slaughter of Nazis on TV as portrayed by Quentin ‘The-rant-ino‘ in Inglourious Basterds?)
Still, if you find yourself seized this year by the idea of making it your year of books, and you happen to be in or near any of the places I was lucky to visit, here are some pointers to places where you may find something of interest, too.
Public libraries: Check out the great Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, although it is a library with no members and books can be read sitting there, but not borrowed. The small public library in Valparai itself is a good place to find local and regional newspapers and magazines, and titles in Tamil (a bunch of books on nature and wildlife that we donated last year is yet to pass through the bureaucratic channels and appear on its shelves). Still, I wish we had better and bigger public libraries, like the one I enjoyed visiting in San Mateo, California, for instance, or the wonderful Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam. With excellent collections, comfortable and inviting reading spaces, and ancillary facilities including internet, audio-visual materials and public documents, these are truly fantastic public spaces for local people and casual visitors.
Another quiet and enchanting library is the public library at Craftsbury Common in Vermont. In this rustic Vermont community (less than 200 households), the library was housed in a clapboard building along the road on one side of the meadow-like common until about a decade ago. As recalled by David Brown, a long-time resident and Director of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop that is annually held here, when a new building was ready on the west side of the common, members and volunteers from the Craftsbury Common community formed a long human chain to pass the books hand-to-hand to move the entire collection to the new building. I thought almost everyone from Craftsbury Common would have had to gather to make the chain. Imagine that: almost all the books of a public library passing through the hands of almost everyone in the community!
Institutional libraries: If, on reading the above, you are tempted to visit Craftsbury Common in Vermont someday, don’t miss the other library, a short distance down the road, the Brown Library of Sterling College, which is open 24 hours a day. One of the smallest colleges in the US, Sterling College lays strong emphasis on nature, conservation, farming, forestry, and sustainability, and it certainly shows in their library. It has one of the widest collections of environmental periodicals I have seen and an excellent collection of book titles, too. In California, I spent a lot of time in two of the libraries at Stanford, where I was enrolled in a creative non-fiction course (a Stanford Continuing Studies course taught by a superb instructor, a poet and former Wallace Stegner Fellow, Peter Kline). The Green Library was my refuge for many happy hours of reading just about anything from the New Yorker to Earth Island Journal, fiction and reference. Down the road, past the grand main quad and the green oval, is the Falconer biology library, where I spent many hours reading, even sleeping, on their comfortable plush chairs, and writing at the large tables with views of trees through the windows. In India, I did not much enjoy the institutional libraries, perhaps because I felt a bit lost when I was there. The library in the new building of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore was a bit of a disappointment, given that it did not have much on nature and conservation, or literature, that I could find. The Centre for Ecological Sciences library, an old, cozy haunt, in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is also displaced now to a monstrous new building with an elevator and imposing corridors confusingly flaring away in all directions. I confess: during a short visit there, I could not even find the library. The tiny library of our own institution, the Nature Conservation Foundation, is just a few shelves and stacks in the garage of our Mysore office. Still, I found a book or two to pick up there.
Smaller, independent bookstores: Of all the places where I loitered and lingered looking for books, some of the best were the smaller independent bookstores. The English Bookshop in Amsterdam is a fantastic place located near the heart of the world heritage canal district with an eclectic but tasteful choice of books for the book aficionado. Its proprietor, Liesl Olivier, knows her books and gives you superb recommendations. Thanks, Liesl, for James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In nearby Leliegracht, walk into Architectura & Natura for a selection of titles on architecture, landscapes, gardens, and nature.
In California, around San Mateo, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Rockridge near Oakland, there are so many bookstores, and although I tried to visit as many as possible, I managed only a handful. The absolute best and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever visited is Mrs Dalloway’s at Rockridge. Named after a famous book by Virginia Woolf, whose book A Room of One’s Own was one of my 2013 top reads, this store also keeps a selection of Woolf titles, on a shelf rather quaintly named ‘A Shelf of Her Own’. As a double bonus, you can walk down the road to Pegasus Books, to whet your appetite even further. In San Francisco, you shouldn’t miss City Lights Bookstore, a large store where the hours spin away so fast that you end up missing your trains, or Green Apple Books, which is just packed with more books than I, unfortunately, had time to see.
If you are in London, I highly recommend a visit to Daunt Books, a short walk down the road from Baker Street or Bond Street tube stations. This store focuses on travel literature and is charmingly organised: the shelves for each region or country contain not just travelogues and guides, but fiction, poetry, and non-fiction titles written by authors from that country or region. On the Argentina shelf, I found Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, which I had searched for in vain in many other places, and from the Canada shelf, I picked up Nobel laureate Alice Munro’s Runaway. While visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, we stopped by the Kew Bookshop, a good place for books on all things green.
Larger bookshops and chains: The smaller bookstores are a greater pleasure to visit, but one is sometimes tempted to go book hunting in the labyrinths of larger stores. Crossword and Landmark in India have stores worth visiting, although their collections are not exceptional and I watch with trepidation as their space gets taken up more and more by ‘lifestyle’ products and toys and gaming consoles and CDs and DVDs. In Bangalore, Gangarams shut shop on M. G. Road and has moved to Church Street. Although the store looks like they have not really settled in, it is worth a visit. In London, there are monster stores, which you would need weeks to see in their entirety: particularly Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road, Waterstones, and Hatchards, the last priding itself as the oldest bookstore in London founded in 1797. Blackwell’s, also on Charing Cross Road, has an impressive array of academic titles. In Amsterdam, the Athenaeum is great for titles in all world languages, while the American Book Center across the road is the place to go for English titles. Another huge place to get lost in among books is the Polare store near the flower market, Bloemenmarkt.
Used Books: Roughly half the books we bought last year were from stores that sold used or second-hand (shouldn’t it be third-hand, assuming the first person may have held the book in both hands?) books. Top of the list is certainly BookBuyers at Mountain View, California, followed by Books Inc, just down Castro Street, and Bell’s Book Store in Palo Alto near Stanford.
Although these stores don’t have that new and spacious look that some of the larger bookstores have, they are absolute treasure chests. You can find an incredible diversity of books here, including old Penguin paperback editions, out-of-print titles, almost good-as-new books at less than half the price, or often available for as little as a dollar per book. I had to borrow an extra suitcase from my brother and sister-in-law in California to carry the books I picked up there back to India, leaving yet others behind in another bag for my cousin’s husband (bless his soul) to carry to India a few weeks later. I struck it rich again in Vermont, as the public library was having a dollar sale of old books, finding hardbacks in impeccable condition of Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. In London, I had little time to visit used book stores, but for a single Oxfam store. In Amsterdam, the Saturday street markets at Noordermarkt and the nearby Lindengracht has stalls with used books that are worth checking out, if you can overcome the temptations of the wonderful selection of local foods and other things also available in the dozens of other stalls down the street. Back in Bangalore, I never got a chance to beat time and traffic to revisit Blossom Book House in Church Street. Fortunately, one of our friends, who practically lives in this massive bookstore when he is not out in the field looking for otters and such, has been mining it for all kinds of interesting books and sharing some of those with us.
Online: Then, of course, were the books downloaded online: e-books from the invaluable Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or purchased from Amazon for Kindle. From Valparai, we also ordered many printed books online, from Amazon or its Indian wannabe equivalent, Flipkart. Last year will perhaps be the last year of reading books on e-readers for me. In October, while reading Richard Jefferies’ post-apocalyptic novel After London, my e-reader, a Kindle 3 keyboard model, suddenly turned hot in my hands, almost burning my fingertips, forcing me to shut it down. After it cooled, I booted back up to find that images were no longer displayed, but I could still read texts. But not for long. After three years of regular use, on 29 December 2013, minutes after I clicked past the last page of the hundredth book of the year, my Kindle froze, gave up its ghost, and died. Amazon, of course, refused any replacement as it was past warranty, and offered at reduced price newer machines with back-lit or paper-white touch screens and other completely unnecessary embellishments that somehow were not as attractive as the older reader. Besides, they should make things that last, shouldn’t they? Like books.
So what were these 101 books that I read: the trophies? Why do I call them trophies? Only because I am displaying them here, like the books in our wooden, glass-fronted shelves at home are displayed. In Mizoram, I remember visiting two decades ago, the home of a Mizo tribal, Liando, whose walls were adorned with hundreds of skulls of animals that he had hunted in the past. It was a display that signified prowess, that symbolised his prestige within the community. My trophies signify neither prowess nor prestige, they are merely the documentation of an accomplishment of reading about fifty pages a day, for a year—of these 101 books.
My 2013 bookshelf:
I could go on about these books, but I am no critic, only a reader, so it is difficult to give you further insight into these books or the kind of incisive comments about them that you might want. All I can tell you is that I wish you a good year of reading ahead and hope you find the time to visit those independent bookstores and libraries and bookshops of your choice. You will find that, if you can put aside those two hours every day for reading, it will be two hours well spent. You will find that something miraculous happens, as if the author who is not there physically is speaking to you, the reader, or through you, by your presence and your reading, to the world, like a bubble that expands from your hand to enfold the universe. In 2013, a hundred years after Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I read his rhapsodic poetry in The Gardener. How strange, then, to discover that the poem ends with this final stanza!
Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence? I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds. Open your doors and look abroad. From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before. In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.
Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Gardener’
It is time I wound up this essay. And besides: the new year is already here, the hours rush on, and in the bedroom, J. M. Coetzee is waiting.
There are times in your life, when, in an unexpected moment, you come face to face with yourself. It could happen anytime, to anyone. It could happen over your breakfast as aroma and sound—hot coffee swirling in your cup and a dosa sizzling on the stove—suddenly release a sensory cascade of recollections as history intersects happenstance. It could happen in a memory or a dream, where past and present merge into a fused and frozen time indistinct, even, from the future. It could happen while you walk down a street and momentarily catch your own full-length reflection in a shining, shop-front glass. In that moment, the person who you were confronts the one who you have become. Chances are, it might catch you unawares.
There is a little gem of a poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets. Its a poem about books, perhaps just one of a handful she wrote on books and reading.
There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away, Nor any coursers like a page Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of toll; How frugal is the chariot That bears a human soul!
In the year gone by the frugal chariot had beckoned, and I’d set sail on the frigates across a sea of words.
The year 2011 thus began for me with a peculiar challenge to myself to read one hundred books before the year was out. I would read any book that seemed worthwhile. The list would naturally, so to speak, include a staple of nature writing and wildlife books. But I would read more. I would plunge into other non-fiction, history, and economics, read a smattering of poetry and philosophy, and a generous dose of fiction, especially good literature and science fiction, and finally, not less than and not more than ten comic books. I opened an account in Goodreads, where I could maintain a book catalogue online and track my progress. I was all set.
I quickly realised that in the last few years I had neglected reading fiction, and had barely glanced at a few pages of poetry, and that if it inadvertently caught my eye. In the bustle of work, in a world that seemed to value the words ‘pragmatism’ and ‘practicality’ as more weighty than ‘poetry’ or ‘prose’, it had seemed that only reading work-related non-fiction was a justified way to spend reading time. There was so much to learn, to read, just to keep abreast of the changing times, the open floodgates of world knowledge. Far more important, surely, than the humdrum drama of real life and tales spun by the story tellers, the literary word-smiths. After all, they were only stories, right? How wrong I was!
As I read and read and read, I was sucked into the worlds of words, into lives of people who never existed except in and around human imagination, into an ambiance, an intangible aura of the mind, carrying the thoughts of many familiar strangers, the authors. Works of fiction, good literature in particular, made by far the best reads. For the duration of the book and in that delicious wake that follows when a good book is done, when one lives the ebb of thoughts, the retreating wave leaving its wavy line on the sand, when the book is closed, placed away, then you sense that your world has strangely expanded. You now carry with you the voice of the author, an unobtrusive but intimate voice, arguing, chiding, shouting, laughing, or just whispering gently in your ear. The voice of a friend by your side, a palpable presence, telling you a story, not telling you what to think, but leading you to think, even what seemed unthinkable, unknowable, eventually to set you free on your own voyage, your own story. Emily Dickinson says it better, as always.
He ate and drank the precious words, His spirit grew robust; He knew no more that he was poor, Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days, And this bequest of wings Was but a book. What liberty A loosened spirit brings!
As the year dawned, I also had a new gadget in hand, a Kindle e-book reader, which I instantly liked for its simple look and feel and the easy-on-the-eye, e-ink reading screen. It looked like a page of printed text and mercifully was not a back-lit screen like those on computers and iPads and such devices. Reading on the computer and back-lit screens, although inevitable at times, is ultimately annoying or at best a highly unsatisfying reading experience. Yet, I did not abandon the book. How could I? Can one replace the feel of a book in the hand, the imprint of ink on paper, the smell of books new and old, the sturdiness of a hardbound volume, the ease of a paperback, the look of its cover? In 2011, I read 36 e-books on the Kindle, 49 paperbacks, 15 hardbound books. For the e-books, I dug into the riches of Project Gutenberg and Amazon‘s online bookstore. I dug into our bookshelf to read books lying there for years, perhaps waiting for this year to arrive, walked and surfed bookstores to buy many others.
And at midnight of 30 December 2011, with one day still left in the year, I closed Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, book #100 for the year, with a satisfied smile and went to sleep. One hundred books, 23,901 pages, over eight million words: I had sailed on a sea of words.
Turgenev, who I was reading for the first time, was preceded by an array of wonderful writers. Booker-prize winning authors such as Julian Barnes, Iris Murdoch, and John Banville, Nobel literature laureates such as J. M. Coetzee, Yasunari Kawabata, José Saramago, John Steinbeck, and Nadine Gordimer, and other award-winning writers of fiction including Cormac McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, and Peter Matthiessen. I read Jonathan Swift and Gustave Flaubert, Lewis Carroll and Herman Melville, Chinua Achebe and Virginia Woolf, and Franz Kafka. A priceless experience, reading wonderful books by great writers. I read a generous dose of nature writing, ranging from the beautiful, almost lyrical work of Loren Eiseley, J. A. Baker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to more forthright books on environmental history, conservation of elephants and other wildlife with authors ranging from Aldo Leopold, E. H. Aitken, Martin Meredith, Gay Bradshaw, Bernd Heinrich, and others. I managed a generous dose of science fiction, another favourite genre. I had scarcely read a decent science fiction book in years. Now I read and enjoyed Frank Herbert (Dune), Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), Connie Willis (To Say Nothing of the Dog), Kurt Vonnegut (The Sirens of Titan, Timequake), Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves), Ursula le Guin (The Wild Girls), Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl), H. G. Wells (The Time Machine), and Philip K Dick (We Can Build You). The ten comic books were all from an old favourite: Lucky Luke! Emily Dickinson’s poetry is what I read most, from her collected works, although this is on an “forever-reading” shelf, and can scarcely be counted as ‘read’ in one year. I read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali) and I even read the Bhagavad Gita.
The books ranged from a few that were a little more than long essays (Swift’s A Modest Proposal) to Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, his epic 912 pager, condensing his Watson trilogy, a brilliantly written book that was one of the five books of 2011 that I gave a five-star rating. The four others were Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer & Diaries, and the incredibly good J. M. Coetzee’s incredibly good The Lives of Animals which I have written about elsewhere. It was also fun to compare and discuss books with Divya, Daktre, and others on Goodreads.
And if you’ve read this far and are curious to see all the books of 2011, here they are.
This post first appeared on the Rainforest Revival blog on 31 December 2011.