August 31, 2017
by Neelima

Oranges @ Link Wanderlust

In Following John McPhee to Florida, Wyatt Williams follows a  journalist at The New Yorker who knew how to write about the simple things in life quite extensively. John McPhee began his non-fiction journey with the story of the orange. How many of us really know the tales of the fruits that spring outside in the avenues before us or in our own backyards? I sure don’t. Mcphee dug into the stories of fruits and rocks and he cared about rendering their stories with sweet perfection.

McPhee had only to mention the word ‘Oranges’ to his editor to spark interest. He wrote extensively for the New Yorker from then on and also has written books about any subject under the sun. If you want to learn how to write non-fiction, it would be a good idea to read a book by him called Annals of the Former World.

Wyatt Williams is a writer about food himself and he follows in McPhee’s footsteps to understand how he created such an engaging narrative on not just oranges but the entire process of food manufacturing in America. What should a nonfiction writer then do? This passage on McPhee’s style might help:

McPhee moves from biological fact to globe-trotting observation to seventeenth-century poetry of the imagined tropics to the top of a snow-covered mountain to a present-day agricultural epicenter, before returning to his original line of inquiry with the lavish description of a single beautiful orange. 

The trick to writing good non-fiction is that there is no trick. All you need to do is write the truth, peel the orange rind and write about what you see. If you are in the mood for some enlightenment with a citrus flavor, or cliches apart, some good prose, read this essay.

P.S: Are you advised to write like John Mcphee in this century. Think again says Malcolm Harris in Who Can Afford to Write Like John McPhee?

Photo by Keilidh Ewan on Unsplash


August 29, 2017
by Neelima

Readers can’t Digest-Week 147 (23-Aug to 29-Aug)

1. RIP, science fiction legend Brian W Aldiss

2. Twitter will make children illiterate in 20 years, says novelist Howard Jacobson

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3. IPA urges China to ‘respect the decision’ of Cambridge University Press to restore articles

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4. Wattpad’s New Video App, Raccoon, Launches in the US

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5. Handbook for Mortals author fires back after publishing fiasco

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August 28, 2017
by Neelima

Zen and Nausea @ BYOB Party in July 2017 (Part 2)

Some not so light books were discussed at the BYOB Party in July 2017.

Vishesh has a penchant for spirituality and so he got a book called The Way of Zen by the philosopher Alan W. Watts. This lucidly written book provides a basic introduction to Zen, starting with Buddhist roots steeped in Chinese Orientalism and the Vedic religion of India. “It’s written for a western audience,” Vishesh said, “but we are Western enough now.”

The book begins with a detailed history of Zen. Then the cultural aspects of the religion are discussed and the paradoxes of the zen koans are presented. Reading Watt’s interpretation gives a different perspective on what it means to live meaningfully and he also mentions the constraints that language has in providing solutions. Sourajit added that Alan Watts was, in fact, a good friend of the myth writer Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

One more philosopher was discussed. Sartre was the winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature (he declined to accept it). His fiction on existentialism called Nausea is a difficult read, to put it mildly. So how did Pratyush manage to finish? “After ten pages, even if you are reading, you don’t understand. You have to read little by little and consistently and maybe then you will get an idea about what the writer is trying to say. And even that could be wrong.” Nausea is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a French writer who is horrified at his own existence. He journals his sensations regularly and Sartre conveys his existential philosophy through the conversations that the protagonist has with his alter-ego.

The conversation moved on to aspects of film noir in the book and this is possible as he wrote around this time. Sartre was the winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature (he declined to accept it). Here’s an excerpt that I found from the book, not the one that Pratyush mentioned but another passage:

“I looked anxiously around me: the present, nothing but the present. Furniture light and solid, rooted in its present, a table, a bed, a closet with a mirror-and me. The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was what exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist. Not at all. Not in things, not even in my thoughts. It is true that I had realized a long time ago that mine had escaped me. But until then I had believed that it had simply gone out of my range. For me the past was only a pensioning off: it was another way of existing, a state of vacation and inaction; each event, when it had played its part, put itself politely into a box and became an honorary event: we have so much difficulty imagining nothingness. Now I knew: things are entirely what they appear to be-and behind them… there is nothing.”

To understand philosophy a little better, Apurba recommended the School of Life Youtube channel and Sourajit supplemented that by mentioning Crash Course, a useful resource for students (co-created by John Green).

Another Nobel Prize winner’s work is discussed in Part 3.

August 24, 2017
by Neelima

Moths and Transience @ Link Wanderlust

I stumbled upon an essay called The Death of The Moth by Virginia Woolf. As the title of the essay suggests, she invokes the moth in its entirety- the color of its wings, the weather when it flutters, and the entire scene that the author sees before her. The moth symbolizes above all transience.

The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.

Woolf empathizes for the little life and a surge of pity fills her at the story of its death and the immense effort the creature makes to preserve itself. Her essays are filled with detail and meander into life’s philosophy, slowing you down in this information age. That is a good thing. Have you read Woolf’s prose? Tell us about it.



August 22, 2017
by Neelima

Readers can’t Digest-Week 146 (16-Aug to 22-Aug)

1. Kakutani’s signs a multiple-book deal with Crown’s Tim Duggan Books

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2. Hugo awards 2017: NK Jemisin wins best novel for second year in a row

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3. The DSC Prize For South Asian Literature’s Longlist

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4. ‘Bigger, Broader’: The German Book Prize Releases Its 2017 Longlist

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5. Authors voice fury at Russian publisher cutting gay scene from novel

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August 21, 2017
by Neelima

Self-Help or Not? @ BYOB Party in July 2017 (Part 1)

The BYOB Party in July kickstarted with a discussion on self-help books. We’ve worked on a self-help book infographic which you may want to look at and also published a story on self-help vs helplessness on the blog. In one of our earlier BYOB Parties, Abhaya mentioned a book called Wrong: Why experts keep failing us–and how to know when not to trust them. So we are familiar with the quandaries of self-help literature.

Nadeem is a big fan of motivational books. The book he spoke about was The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. As the title implies, the one thing is what you need to focus on and that can lead to mastery. The book has helped him to achieve his own design-related goals. He also recommends books by Robert Greene including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War.


Suprith followed in the self-help trail with a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. Cal was a grad student at MIT doing his Ph.D. in computer science when the economic crises hit. This compelled him to research on how to make a great career. His research led him to address a fundamental question. Is passion really the bedrock of a great professional life? He mentions Steve Job’s Stanford lecture where passion is mentioned as an essential requisite and this led to a tangential conversation about Steve Job’s own passions from calligraphy to entrepreneurship and Zen. Newport spoke to experts in their fields from organic farmers, venture capitalists, screenwriters, freelance computer programmers to musicians and went on to discover that passion was rare and not a prerequisite for success. The book is not just about debunking the passion hypothesis; it also talks about the craftsman mindset which usually involves a more output-centered approach, which jargon aside simply means that a skilled craftsman keeps working on the craft. It’s not pure passion but lots of hard work that gets you from point A to B. So where did the title come from? Turns out it’s a Steve Martin quote.

Pratibha spoke about the captivating book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. She mused on the problem that the middle-class people face; they are continuously in the rat race and remain middle class. Kiyosaki addresses problems like these by focusing on the importance of tax management and not getting into debt. On the flip side, Jaya warns that as compelling as this bestseller may be, the book is not reliable when it comes to setting your own finances in order. Some of the readers in the group were also concerned about the author himself having had to declare bankruptcy.

Another book that provides unconventional solutions is The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris where he writes about how one can leave a 9-5 job and earn the same amount of money and then there is the book Secret by Rhonda Byrne that talks about how we can use the law of attraction to attract good things into our lives.

While there was a hum of assent for Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, considering how you could go back to the book at varying points in your life and dig out fresh meaning, many readers spoke against the merits of self-help literature in general. After all,  was there any book after reading which you become rich? You may want to listen to the comedian George Carlin making a dig at self-help books. This is a debate that has no clear-cut answers.

Abhaya added that a self-help book that would be useful to readers was How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. Some readers in the group were skeptical about whether a book could teach you how to read, but Abhaya went on to describe how this book offers a practical approach to reading difficulties that could crop up depending on genre, length and level of difficulty. For instance, gaining from reading history would require the reading of two or more history books based in the same place. In case of a play, unless it is a closet play that is meant to be read silently, the best way to read it would be aloud.

You may want to go through these book reviews at our Review and a Half segment where we featured this book:

How to Read a Book- Part 1

How to Read a Book- Part 2

More books in Part 2.

August 16, 2017
by Neelima

Hieroglyphics and Facebook Robot Language @ Link Wanderlust

In light of the recent news of Facebook’s robots having created their own language, Candida Moss goes back to the story of decipherment in her story Inside the Deadly Pursuit of Unsolved Languages. It was almost 218 years ago, she says, that the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and with that the deciphering of hieroglyphics. The author traces the reasons that the stone was understood at all as a combination of Napolean’s ambition and the genius of a child prodigy called Francois Champollion.

Another indeciherable script that remains so is the language used in the Indus Valley in 2600-199 BCE. It never had a Rosetta Stone equivalent(which had three languages imprinted on it, owing to which there was a breakthrough in understanding the script). Rongorongo, the script used at Easter Island; Cretan hieroglyphics; Proto-Elamite, a 5000-year-old ancient Iranian writing system, and markings used by Bulgarian woodcutters continue to surprise and even led to a tragic death in recent times
during the Cold War. To know more about this, read the essay.

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