To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do life experiences influence what we read?

[This is the abridged version of a comment I made on the post 'The joys of rereading' on Soumya Bhattachrya's 'Page Turner' in HTblogs]

I started reading War and Peace while in college, and it never could hold my interest then. Then I started re-reading it in my late thirties while on tours in different parts of the world. And Eureka, it started talking to me! While the story itself seemed engrossing enough, it told me so much about (a) human nature, timeless; (b) the ‘real’ history of French invasion of Russia; (c) the intrinsic unpredictability and lack of causal relation of events, quite (and surprisingly so) at variance with what history (either personal or national) may tend to portray (this is aligned to the theme of a new book called ‘Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

This last one I found to be theme of the tome, on which Tolstoy dwells time & again and most elaborately at the end with a philosophical chapter (I even wrote a piece for our Durga Puja souvenir on the parallels between the ‘War and Peace’ philosophy and our own Gita ‘Karmanyevadhikarastey…’). The point is, my life experiences of twenty years probably prepared the fertile ground for the understanding of the classic.

Apart from re-reading, I also find that even first time reading of classics like Mayor of Casterbridge & Far From the Madding Crowd hold much more meaning when you’ve gained the experience of real life. Ergo, I find it a fruitless exercise for college students to be taught these classics as part of their course (doubtless with the noble objective of imparting good values) when perhaps they don’t have the depth of thought to appreciate such learnings, which can perhaps be brought about only by first-hand experience of life.

Given the time, I’d love to take up again my unfinished reading of Freedom at Midnight, while re-reading the short story collections of O Henry (William Sidney Porter), Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and Maxim Gorky.

Oh, and I forgot to add the Bengali ones to my re-reading list: Abol Tabol & Hojoborolo (Sukumar Ray), Feluda & Professor Shanku (Satyajit Ray) and the Kiriti detective novels (Bibhitibhushan?) - sadly, I never read the perhaps more famous Byomkesh Bakshi in print, though I hugely enjoyed the TV serial. Which takes me to my all time favourite - Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) - that delectable amalgam of the cerebral and the active (I’ve so many collections of Holmes that sometimes I’m half way through one story before I realise I’ve already read it once!).

And talking of Mark Twain, why only the short stories. Besides the Tom Sawyer & Hucklebury Finn series (sadly not so enjoyable as movies as in the novels - another point for not all movies being able to bring out the real idiom) - which are not merely ‘children’s tales’ as many think - I would love to go back to ‘A Connecticut Yanky in King Arthur’s Court’.

Whew! Some list!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Appreciating everyday beauty

Got a forward from a former colleague this morning, which set me thinking. Here goes the story:

"A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. The only one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. However, his mother tagged him along. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In 45 minutes, the musician played but only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32.

When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it ! No one applauded! nor was there any recognition! No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people.

The outlines were:
In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

In our routine life, we are caught in so many daily mundane transactions that we do not have time to think about life goals, our beliefs, close relations and miss out on reaping benefits of valuable interactions & learning's!"

So true. In our rush to keep up with 'life', as we define it, we mostly forget to appreciate everyday beauty. Even I, who is pontificating on this topic, mostly forget the easily available beauties in life - my son riding horse on me, his face when asleep, a flower in our lawn, the movement of a clouds, or of the moon among them, a creature (e.g. a chameleon) in our yard (I've taken to photographing these - the last three I have).

Over-emotional as it may sound, life is too short and goes too fast for us to keep postponing our 'enjoyment' of it. Don't know when it may end, or suddenly lose charm (like when we suddenly realise we are 'old'). Better to smell the flowers whenever we can.