August 20, 2018
by Neelima

Poison, Embryos and Polyphony @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 3)

If you found all the conversation about philosophy interesting but you are hesitant to read the great minds, maybe pop philosophy would be a good place to turn to. Abhaya suggested that we read Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel who engages the reader with contemporary issues including same-sex marriages, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, PTSD-related perception, etc.  His arguments help the reader understand more about the dynamics involved in decisionmaking when it comes to politics, ethics, morality and day to day living.

Image result for The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint EditionMugdha brought along an interesting book called The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint Edition by Deborah Blum. She’s also the author of another equally fascinating book called Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death which is the story of William James and his fascination for the occult. The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fascinating story of chemistry, poison and the bedrock of forensics. Back in the early 1900s and prior to that, murdering someone using poison could hardly be proved. The coroner’s office was chaotic and it was Charles Norris, a wealthy medical examiner, and a toxicologist called Alexander Gettler who created the field of forensic chemistry and changed the way crime was investigated by providing a proper framework to build investigation upon. “So many things can kill us,” Mugdha said, “So there needed to be some kind of yardstick. These were some questions that needed answering. How much arsenic led to poisoning? What alcohol level in the blood could be surmised as legal?” Many ideas sprang up about the way gas lamps killed people by causing carbon monoxide poisoning, how the Russians were experts when it came to all matters toxic, the death of Napolean by arsenic, the suspicious deaths of well-known celebrities and exogamy in the Indus Valley.

Image result for sing you home jodi amazonPrerna spoke about a book that carried forward the theme of ethical dilemmas that ran throughout the BYOB Party. Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult tells the story of three characters who have trouble conceiving. Zoe, the principle character, is a music therapist. She moves on to a same-sex relationship while her husband moves in with his picture-perfect brother and wife. A legal battle over the existing embryos leads to fundamental questions being raised. Who exactly constitutes a family? Is one kind of family superior to another?

Homosexuality, the concept of deviants, the rights of embryos, egg-freezing employee benefits and surrogacy were discussed. Also since the book is told in multiple voices, there was a long aside on the merits of this kind of storytelling as compared to the less democratic first person point of view.

Literature assists in seeing the other side or all sides by using multiple points of view. Indira mentioned a book by Barbara Kingsolver called The Poisonwood Bible. We’ve talked about this book in a previous BYOB Party too. You also have books by George R. R Martin and Dostoevsky. A famous example of one of the first polyphonous novels is Dangerous Liaisons or Les Liaisons dangereuse by French writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel tells the story of the moral decadence of aristocrats and ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont who embark on a game of seduction and manipulation for which they face unintended consequences.

More books in Part 4.

Visual Friday: Five Must-Read Books About Freedom

August 17, 2018 by Neelima | 0 comments

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August 16, 2018
by Neelima

Ulysses @ Link Wanderlust

I haven’t been brave enough to even attempt reading Ulysses as I know that it will be impossible to negotiate the enigmatic terrain that this famous book presents. Here is the story of a man who did.

John Kidd was one of the most celebrated Ulysses scholars alive.

“Kidd had been the director of the James Joyce Research Center, a suite of offices on the campus of Boston University dedicated to the study of “Ulysses,” arguably the greatest and definitely the most-obsessed-over novel of the 20th century. Armed with generous endowments and cutting-edge technology, he led a team dedicated to a single goal: producing a perfect edition of the text.”

Kidd was enamored by Ulysses right from his teenage years- he had read the book in three days flat(!) He visited Joyce’s tomb in Zurich and began collecting every edition of the book that he could lay his hands on. And there were many editions as each version of the book had tiny changes, enough to outrage a true-blue Joyce fanatic. There has been speculation that toward the end of his life, Kidd was heavily in debt and suffered from mental health issues, spending his last days in conversation with pigeons and squirrels.

What really happened to the Joycean scholar? Read The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar by Jack Hitt.

If you want to learn more about James Joyce watch this too. If you dare, here is a link to his book. 

Might as well try reading the book some day!

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August 14, 2018
by Neelima

Readers can’t Digest-Week 194 (8-Aug to 14-Aug)

1. Poet Matthew Sweeney dies at 66 of motor neuron disease

2. V.S. Naipaul, Who Explored Colonialism Through Unsparing Books, Dies at 85


3. New York ‘Fearless Girl’ co-creator wins First Novel Prize

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4. ‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany

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5. After the Bookshop ‘Ambush’ in London, Supporters Rally, Worry

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August 13, 2018
by Neelima

Caring @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral EducationImagine a world where Care is the guiding principle and Compassion the moral compass?

This is what Indira spoke about and this set the tone of the entire BYOB Party. She chose a non-fiction that she considers to be her Bible- a book called Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education by Nel Noddings. It’s a difficult book if you don’t understand philosophy. The book talks about the basis of moral action, how altruism can be acquired and how when it comes to caring, the act of caring and the memory of being cared for is crucial. This book is important as it emphasizes the importance of moral sensitivity- an ethics based only on rationale is not the need of the hour.

Indira laid out the basic tenant of Western philosophy that Kant had arrived at, a reasonable stand at the time, that Reason was Supreme and Emotion only clouded one’s Logic. Women were hardly ever given the benefit of the doubt and were seen as creatures who could hardly behave dispassionately. The question is how one can respond to a child without basing her response on the immediacy of the environment. Noddings doesn’t advocate moral relativism; she builds her theory entirely based on care.

“This commitment to care and to define oneself in terms of the capacity to care represent a feminine alternative to Kohlberg’s “stage six” morality. At stage six, the moral thinker transcends particular moral principles by appealing to the highest principle – one that allows a rearrangement of the hierarchy in order to give proper place-value to human love, relief and suffering. But women, as ones-caring, are not so much concerned with the rearrangement of priorities among principles; they are concerned, rather, with maintaining and enhancing caring.”

To explain the idea, Indira mentioned the biblical sacrifice of Abraham, a moral and ethical dilemma. There are many such examples across religions, but could a woman ever hold her child hostage to some supra-ethical maxim? Even if she did, it would be the exception more than the rule.

However, Nodding is by no means denouncing Kant as his theory of ethics stands on solid ground. The conversation moved in various directions. Take the case of mothers who confronted the demons of their terrorist children, the Eichman trial, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism and the killing fields of Cambodia. Phew!

Watch this to understand more about Kant and his categorical imperative. If you want a more humane response to ethics, you may like to read a bit about Martha Nussbaum, also known as the philosopher of feelings.

This quote by Kurt Vonnegut is a great way of summarizing this session:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

More books in Part 3.


August 9, 2018
by Neelima

Doing Away With Italics and Semicolons @Link Wanderlust

Usually, in books, non-English words are italicized but this practice is being questioned more rigorously. When the book is in English, a foreign spelling seems jarring, almost like a typo. But now more and more authors are questioning the wisdom of this font choice as it reflects monolinguistic bias and goes against the current trend of respecting diverse voices. This politics of italics changes the game for writers who are multilingual and want to use italics to emphasize certain situations rather than making italics appear as awkward interruptions to a fully English palate.

Read Bilingual Authors are Challenging the Practice of Italicizing Non-English words by Thu-Huong Ha.

If we can do away with italics, can we do away with semicolons too? That already seems to be happening as the semicolon was a very Victorian punctuation suited for the lugubrious sentences of the industrial age. Adam O’Fallon Price doesn’t buy Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘anti-semicolonism’. He cites examples of instances where the semicolon only adds to the texture and meaning of the sentence and greatly improves the character’s expression. There are no definite rules about this punctuation even though many have been prescribed. Although semicolons are absurd in this age of brevity and incessant tweeting, they still do serve a purpose if you know where to use them.

Read On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing by Adam O’Fallon Price.


August 7, 2018
by Neelima

Readers can’t Digest-Week 193 (1-Aug to 7-Aug)

1. Two Men Allegedly Stole $8 Million Worth of Rare Books, Including Newton’s ‘Principia’

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2. The writer whose book became ‘The Social Network’ just sold another book about the Winklevoss twins

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3. Haruki Murakami’s new novel declared ‘indecent’ by Hong Kong censors

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4. Trinidadian Creole tale wins 2018 Commonwealth short story prize

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5. Reprogrammable braille could be the future of e-readers for the blind

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August 6, 2018
by Neelima

Ten thousand Hour Rule and Hot Streak @ BYOB Party at JustBooks, Sahakarnagar in July 2018 (Part 1)

This time we hosted the BYOB Party with JustBooks at the cosy JustBooks library, Sahakarnagar. It was an extraordinarily intense set of discussions that we had.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting and indoor

Image result for outliersSrikanth talked about a book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  It’s the age of the non-fiction book, isn’t it? Lots of non-fic books were discussed in this session. Everyone wanted to know how to be successful, a question that Gladwell could provide no self-help magic potion for. He gives you the facts, tells stories and deconstructs myths of success, e.g., people with a high IQ are not necessarily successful. The question came up about what success really can be defined as and what contributed to success.  One theory attributes success to the environment. There are also periods and places in history where success was common, take the 1950’s baby boomer generation. Gladwell lays out the controversial 10,000 hour rule, easier to illustrate with skill-based success stories, e.g, violinists, chess players and plumbers who spend 10,000 hours on their craft are bound to succeed.

We learnt many new things. Conversation threw up the broken windows model of policing, first described in 1982 in a seminal article by Wilson and Kelling. Then the Black Swan Theory was discussed.  Watch this one-minute video. Another idea was the Hot streak, a period in a professional’s life that is markedly improved over others. Watch this interesting video analyzing data collected about thousands of professionals’ winning streak moments.  If you trace the large-scale career histories of individual artists, film directors and scientists, you can identify the success from the cost of their paintings, the success of their movies and the number of citations they have received, respectively. One interesting fact that emerges from this analysis is that you can nail the hot streak regardless of age or career, thus drilling a hole in the theory that musicians and mathematicians must be young. Success among scientists also depends on the ‘hotness’ of the field itself.

A book that elicited a great deal of discussion was a non-fiction book about Caring. Let’s talk about this book in the next post.