Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Sunday morning lit links!

January 6, 2008

Ravi Vyas in the Classics Revisited section of the Hindu Literary Review recommends C L R James’ Beyond a boundary in the strongest possible terms:

Great claims have been made for (Beyond a Boundary): that it is the greatest sports book ever written; that it brings the outsider a privileged insight into West Indian culture; that it is a severe examination of the colonial condition. All are true.

From the blurb of C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary

Someone who has written virtually hundreds of blurbs knows they are nothing more than self-serving hyperbole but in James’ Beyond a Boundary it cannot be dismissed as so much hot air. Two Nobel laureates have written about it: Derek Walcott called it “a noble book” and V.S. Naipaul rejoiced at “one of the finest and most finished books to come out of the West Indies”. But that too is not enough; and to say that it is pifflingly inadequate praise is also not enough because the book goes beyond the concrete details of the game into broader historical and philosophical issues. The themes of the book reach, as the title suggests, far beyond the boundaries of the cricket field and no detailed knowledge of the game is needed to appreciate its implications. (Though if you know the nuances of the game, so much the better.) It is a book that captured the interconnectedness of things and the integration of human experience. It expressed in a fundamental way the elements that constituted human existence, combining as it did spectacle, history, politics; “sequence/tableau, movement/stasis, individual/society.” Cricket was whole.

M S Nagarajan recommends Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare:

This brief and informative biography does contain some attention-grabbing details that satisfy our intellectual curiosity. In Elizabethan times, a box used to be kept in the office for the theatre goers to drop in their admission fee, a penny, which provided the cheapest seat in the theatre. Whence come the term box-office! Bryson’s Shakespeare is the outcome of serious research. He effectively debunks and explodes myths and theories unsupported by any viable evidence. The book is a welcome addition to Shakespearana!

Pradeep Sebastian ponders on the ritual of trimming one’s book collection:

This entire exercise of trimming one’s library now seems to me not about downsizing the books but really about getting to know them all over again. To pick one from the shelves, remember where and when you bought it, and recall the pleasure acquiring the book gave you is why a book collector gets all her books off and on the shelves ever year. Before you put them in a box to be given away, you are curious to flip the pages and see if you’ve stuck something in there — a note, a favourite bookmark, a photograph. At last I am done with sorting the books. And I’m happy to note the box of books leaving my library is really quite small — elegant in their economy even. It is not the end of my days as a bibliomane, after all. My philistine relatives will simply have to accept, as they skip and hop over them, that books will furnish my apartment.

Take a look!

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Jane Austen: an online resource site

December 17, 2007

LII points to a Jane Austen resource site:

Collection of links to material related to early 19th-century novelist Jane Austen and her life and times. Includes links to full text of her novels, material about film adaptations, culture and fashion of the Regency Era, and academic articles. Also includes links to blogs. From an enthusiast.

The site, called Jane Austen’s World does look like fun; take a look!

The electric effect of Shakespeare

December 11, 2007

Remember the Shakespearean functional shift that we discussed a while back?

Here is another piece on functional shifts, and what it does to our brains:

I took this hypothesis—about grammatical or linear shapes and their mapping onto shapes inside the brain—to a scientist, Professor Neil Roberts who heads MARIARC (the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre) at the University of Liverpool. In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as “functional shift” or “word class conversion”. It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in “Lear” for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: “He childed as I fathered” (nouns shifted to verbs); in “Troilus and Cressida”, “Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages” (noun converted to adjective); “Othello”, “To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!”‘ (noun “lip” to verb; adjective “wanton” to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare’s lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain. Could we make an experiment out of it?

We decided to try to see what happens inside us when the brain comes upon sentences like “The dancers foot it with grace”, or “We waited for disclose of news”, or “Strong wines thick my thoughts”, or “I could out-tongue your griefs” or “Fall down and knee/The way into his mercy”. For research suggests that there is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or verb?

The result?

Preliminary results suggest this:

(A) With the simple control sentence (“You said you would accompany me”), NO N400 or P600 effect because it is correct both semantically and syntactically.

(B) With “You said you would charcoal me”, BOTH N400 and P600 highs, because it violates both grammar and meaning.

(C) With “You said you would incubate me”, NO P600 (it makes grammatical sense) but HIGH N400 (it does not make semantic sense).

(D) With the Shakespearian “You said you would companion me”, HIGH P600 (because it feels like a grammatical anomaly) but NO N400 (the brain will tolerate it, almost straightaway, as making sense despite the grammatical difficulty). This is in marked contrast with B above.

So what? First, it was as Guillaume Thierry had predicted. It meant that “functional shift” was a robust phenomenon: that is to say, it had a distinct and unique effect on the brain. Instinctively Shakespeare was right to use it as one of his dramatic tools. Second the P600 surge means the brain was thus primed to look out for more difficulty, to work at a higher level, whilst still accepting that fundamental sense was being made.

In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole. Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence—at the neural level—of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

Take a look!

Hat tip: Jonah Lehrer for the link.

That surpasseth all my understanding!

December 9, 2007

Baroque in Hackney finds Lessing’s Nobel lecture

… incredibly moving. In some ways it reminded me of my own desperation for books when I was growing up; it also made me grateful for my riches, reading about the man in Zimbabwe who, trying to start a library and sent a box of books from America, put them away wrapped in plastic saying, “but if they get dirty where will I get more?” whilst facing my own wall of books. It also shamed me as a parent. When did I get so lazy? I suddenly think I should put a password lock on the computer and ration out the MSN on the basis of chapters read. After all, her shelves are groaning with Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird, I Capture the Castle, A Wrinkle in Time. Is it an insane idea?

Take a look!

Now, the rant: As I noted in this blog a couple of times earlier, I love Ms. Baroque’s writing style a lot; and hence, this footnote in her blog post was not only off-putting for me but a bit painful too:

“Shanti” means “the peace that surpasseth all understanding.” Call me a Westerner, but the older I get the more I think that “the peace that surpasseth all understanding” can only usefully be applied as a definition of death – and thus, in my book, is something I’m not very interested in. At the least it sounds pretty damn boring. In any case, there was no peace at all in that place, not even the kind most people would be able to understand, and even appreciate. But that too is another story… and it was the first time we ever heard Mama Baroque say the F word!

First thing: I do not know where from Ms. Baroque gets that meaning for that word. Wiki, for example says it can mean inner peace (among other things); and here is the Sanskrit dictionary entry for the word:

zAnti: f. tranquillity , peace , quiet , peace or calmness of mind , absence of passion , averting of pain (%{zAnti}! %{zAnti}! %{zAnti}! may the three kinds of pain be averted!) , indifference to objects of pleasure or pain Kat2hUp. MBh. &c. ; alleviation (of evil or pain) , cessation , abatement , extinction (of fire &c.) AV. &c. &c. ; a pause , breach , interruption Hcat. ; any expiatory or propitiatory rite for averting evil or calamity Br. &c. (cf. RTL. 346) ; peace , welfare , prosperity , good fortune , ease , comfort , happiness , bliss MBh. R. &c. ; destruction , end , eternal rest , death Ka1v. Katha1s. BhP. ; = %{zAnti-kalpa} BhP. ; Tranquillity &c. personified (as a daughter of S3raddha1 , as the wife of Atharvan , as the daughter of Daksha and wife of Dharma) Hariv. Prab. Pur. ; m. N. of a son of Indra MBh. ; of Indra in the tenth Manv-antara Pur. ; of a Tushita (son of Vishn2u and Dakshin2a1) ib. ; of a son of Kr2ishn2a and Ka1lindi1 ib. ; of a R2ishi MBh. ; of a son of An3giras ib. ; of a disciple of Bhu1ti Ma1rkP. ; of a son of Ni1la and father of Su-s3a1nti VP. ; (with Jainas) of an Arhat and Cakra-vartin L. ; of a teacher (also called %{ratnA7kara-z-}) Buddh.

What is more painful for me is Ms. Baroques invocation of “Westerner”, implying that “Easterners” are the ones who are interested in such boring things. So, here is a classic example of defining “the other” first the way you want or think or imagine the other to be, and then railing against them! To be fair to Ms. Baroque, may be that is what she was told — that Shanti means “the peace that surpasseth all understanding”; however, I would have been happier if she took the time to check before accepting the translation blindly.

The requirements for writing and writers

December 8, 2007

From the Nobel lecture of Doris Lessing:

Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

There is the gap. There is the difficulty.

I have been looking at the speeches by some of your recent prizewinners. Take the magnificent Pamuk. He said his father had 1 500 books. His talent did not come out of the air, he was connected with the great tradition.

Take V.S. Naipaul. He mentions that the Indian Vedas were close behind the memory of his family. His father encouraged him to write. And when he got to England by right he used the British Library. So he was close to the great tradition.

Let us take John Coetzee. He was not only close to the great tradition, he was the tradition: he taught literature in Cape Town. And how sorry I am that I was never in one of his classes: taught by that wonderfully brave bold mind.

In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the Tradition.

Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.

If this writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

When writers talk to each other, what they ask each other is always to do with this space, this other time. “Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?”

Take a look!

A tribute to Tillie and Grace

November 26, 2007

To lose Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley in one year is a bad year, even if a lot of people didn’t know it at the time, Tillie Olsen would have said, and she would have been right. To have had them both for so long was a privilege, even if a lot of people didn’t know it, Grace Paley would have said. And she would have been right.

If there were ever two people, and not coincidentally at all, two women, who epitomized PEN’s goals: advancing literature, defending free speech and fostering connections betweens writers everywhere, Tillie and Grace were it.

That is Amy Bloom paying her tributes to two writers who passed away this year; via Maud.

RKN’s “blogpost” about Nobel for himself

November 25, 2007

Raj at Plus Ultra has the details.

Story of a self-publishing house

October 27, 2007

Sheela Reddy at Outlook recounts the story of RKN’s Indian Thought Publications:

Narayan finally decided to take matters into his own hands. Using the experience and contacts he gained through editing a short-lived literary magazine called Indian Thought (one of the founding fathers suggested it be called Indian Thoughtless; another suggested Indian Thought “because it’s the same thing”), Narayan decided to become his own publisher. He was reasonably confident about an Indian readership (“There was a certain amount of recognition and a little demand for my writing,” as he later told his biographer, N. Ram) but the headaches of printing, distribution and accounts were another matter altogether.

Literary Saloon, from whom I got the link, seems to be surprised that RKN ran his own publishing house; but, I think that was common knowledge among his Indian fans. Take a look!

Nobel 2007: Literature and Physics

October 24, 2007

Uma Mahadevan-DasGupta writes about Dorris Lessing, the 2007 Literature Nobel prize winner:

… even as Harold Bloom derides Lessing’s selection for the Nobel as nothing more than “pure political correctness” and describes her recent work as “fourth-rate science fiction”, Lessing’s latest novel, The Cleft (2007), depicts women as lazy and men as adventurous – to the great irritation of literal-minded feminists. Clearly, her irreverence and creativity (“Laughter is by definition healthy,” she has said famously) continue to explore new frontiers, forcing her readers to think things through for themselves. Typical for a writer whose enduring plea to her readers has always been: “Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.”

In another piece in the same issue of Frontline,  R Ramachandran explains how giant magnetoresistance (which won the 2007 Physics Nobel) is exploited in hard disk technologies:

Consider the simplest three-layer structure, consisting of a layer of non-magnetic metal sandwiched between two layers of magnetic metal, in which GMR can arise. The current-carrying electrons with different spins experience different resistances within the first magnetic material and at the first interface (between the magnetic and the non-magnetic metals), with larger resistance for electrons that are not aligned in the direction of magnetisation of the metal. As the current enters the non-magnetic material, the resistance is the same for both types, which is generally negligibly lower than that in the magnetic layer. At the second interface and in the second magnetic material too, electrons that are not aligned will experience more resistance than those that are aligned.

In the case where both magnetic metals are magnetised in the same direction (as would be the case in the presence of an applied external magnetic field), the spins of most electrons will be aligned with the direction of magnetisation and the electrons will, therefore, pass through the entire structure without facing much resistance. However, if the magnetisation of the two magnetic layers is opposed (as can be the case in the absence of an external magnetic field), all the electrons will be oppositely aligned in one of the two layers. This means that no electrons will be able to pass through easily and the electric resistance will be at a maximum. An analogy with polaroids may be helpful in understanding this effect. A pair of crossed polaroids shuts off light completely. Similarly, a pair of magnetic layers with crossed magnetic polarities (or magnetisation) offers high resistance to the flow of electric current.

A structure as described above works as follows in a read-out device of an HDD. The magnetisation of the first layer is held fixed, or “pinned”, and the magnetisation of the third layer is free to move. When a weak magnetic field, such as that from a bit on a hard disk, comes under the structure, the magnetisation of the unpinned layer rotates relative to the pinned layer and because of the GMR effect causes a significant change in the electrical resistance and hence in the current signal leaving the read-out head. A high current may represent a binary “1” and a low current a binary “0”.

An important reason why this discovery would not have been possible before techniques to grow nanoscale layers were known is the following. In order to exhibit the GMR effect, the mean free path length of the conduction electrons – the average distance that an electron traverses before it is scattered – has to exceed greatly the interlayer separation so that the electrons can travel through the magnetic layers and pick up the GMR effect. Without the new techniques, it would not have been possible to meet this requirement, and GMR would not have revealed itself. In this context, it may be pointed out that before the work of Fert and Grünberg, there were experimental observations of enhanced MR (of about a few per cent) but none was recognised as a new effect. Nanometre separation between magnetic layers is also important for an effective mutual magnetic coupling between them via the electrons of the non-magnetic layer so that their relative magnetisation is maintained in the absence of an external field.

The pun fun!

October 21, 2007

Baroque in Hackney says “The pun is mighter than the sword“:

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I think puns are pretty much the highest form of humour – using the most parts of the brain to the most effect …

The occasion? Edmund Wilson’s advice to Nabokov that Maud referred to:

… do please refrain from puns, to which I see you have a slight propensity. They are pretty much excluded from serious journalism here.