All Booked Up!

kindred.jpgI’ve found my kindred spirit and I’ve never even met her. I’m sure many avid readers felt and would feel the same while reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, an enchanting collection of essays on the love of books. It is essentially a book about books and a treat for all bookworms. As a voracious reader myself, I could relate intimately to the experiences of Anne Fadiman, the author. A daughter of two well-known writers, she had an upbringing that revolved around reading books in a house spilling with books. She and her brother even used to build a playhouse out of their Dad’s twenty-two volume Trollope collection. Many of these essays were published separately in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress before being published collectively in this volume. The joy of reading permeates through the essays and I savored each and every one like a rare delicacy, lingering over every tidbit.

For Anne Fadiman books are more than paper and print; they are an integral part of life. The essays tackle topics as varied as the love of long words, proofreading, plagiarizing, the pleasure of reading aloud, shopping for used books, reading books in their actual setting, cherishing writing instruments with the preferred color of ink and the perfect quality of the nib and gastronomic references by famous writers. The essays are heartfelt and humorous. In “Marrying Libraries”, she narrates how she and her husband only considered themselves really married when her books and his books became “our books” occupying the same shelves.

They say that only a bibliophile can understand another bibliophile and Anne Fadiman is a woman after my own heart. I could recognize myself over and over again in her obsession with the written word. How do I relate? Let me count the ways:

She loves words so much that she pores over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, the only thing in the apartment she has not read at least twice. I could understand the frustration and restlessness of being without any reading material. I am the sort who would read anything and everything. I even read the dictionary to amuse myself just as Anne Fadiman reads mail order catalogues for fun. In a hotel room for want of a book, I have reached out in desperation to the Bible on the night- stand.

In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians”, Fadiman describes her family’s love for long words. The members of “Fadiman University” would spout sesquipedalians at the drop of a hat and watch quiz shows together, each member having his or her own area of expertise and often arriving at the correct response before any of the contestants. She could just as well be talking about my family watching Jeopardy together.

Every library has an odd shelf according to her containing books unrelated to the rest of the library. Her odd shelf houses books on polar exploration and expedition narratives. How odd that my odd shelf at home also has books on exploration, the only difference being that my adventures are about Jim Corbett’s thrilling hunting expeditions in tropical jungles!

Fadiman recounts the excitement of diving into the stash of adult books from our parents’  libraries! My uncle, a compulsive collector of books, had the habit of hoarding them everywhere in his apartment- pell-mell with no method to the madness ( although I’m sure that he knew exactly where each one was located.). His apartment was overflowing with books- on bookshelves, on the window sills, on tables and even on the floor. Books propositioned me from every corner and as a teenager I remember the thrill of furtively stumbling upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita in much the same way Fadiman came upon her father’s copy of Fanny Hill and learned about sex from it.

One of my favorite essays is “Inset a Carrot” in which she describes how her family members are compulsive proofreaders and check for spelling and grammatical errors on a restaurant menu. Her mother has an envelope of hundreds of clippings from the local newspaper containing errors. Anne Fadiman once made corrections to an edition of Speak, Memory and mailed it to Nabokov himself. I understand her pain and share her affliction. I remember being shocked to discover that Emily Dickinson confused “it’s” and “its” in many of her poems and wrote to the editor about it. The editors, I later discovered, were aware of the errors but wanted to leave her work untouched. I was equally disturbed to see a literary celebrity like Hemingway write ” I feel badly” in one of his major works. It was probably a case of hyper-correction not knowing that linking verbs are modified with adjectives and not adverbs. I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes. As Fadiman puts it “ I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!” I agree with her but I think for a true grammar nerd such errors are sacrilegious and you just can’t help the urge to fix them. And unfortunately, as Fadiman quips, there is no twelve-step program for this affliction.

Some readers may think she is pretentious and anything but a common reader. The title of the collection of essays is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays entitled The Common Reader, who in turn, borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray where he writes about the common reader who is different from the scholar and the critic and reads purely for pleasure. Anne Fadiman comes from a privileged background that was undoubtedly pivotal in fostering a deep love of books in her. To me she comes across as an intellectually curious and erudite person who loves learning for learning’s sake.

In “Never do that to a Book”, she recounts how her brother Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table in a hotel in Copenhagen and found a note from the chambermaid: “Sir you must never do that to a book.” Fadiman makes a distinction between the courtly and the carnal reader. A carnal book lover will scribble notes in the margins, dog- ear the corners, fold and crease the papers and even break the spines. In this aspect I differ from Fadiman and belong to the courtly lover category as in India we were taught never to deface a book. If you accidentally stepped on one, you would touch it and put your fingers over your eyes as an apologetic gesture.

Along with the bliss of reading, the essays are suffused with a zest for life and the warmth of a loving family. In the essay, “Scorn Not the Sonnet”, she narrates how her father on losing a considerable amount of his vision, laments the fact that he will no longer be able to read or write as before. She gently reminds him that Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he became blind and the father-daughter duo reconstruct, in a heartwarming moment, as much as they can, the sonnet “On his Blindness” from memory in the hospital and she reads the rest to him later over the phone. She and her husband who, needless to say, is a bibliophile too, read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to each other as a bedtime ritual. The essays also have interesting snippets about other authors and famous people and their relationship with books.

It’s always reassuring to know that there are many other crazy book addicts in the world and that you are not alone. I enjoyed reading these charming essays and the icing on the cake was a final section with a recommended reading list of books about books. As if my list were not long enough already! One lifetime will not be enough for all the books I want to read. I really hope that there is an afterlife and that there is a library in heaven or hell or even better that the theory of re-incarnation is true and that we will be able to enjoy many reading avatars.

P.S. What is your relationship with books? Are you a courtly or a carnal reader? Do share your experiences in the comments. 

 

In Other Words: A Love Affair With A Language

Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone from the British Museum
By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every immigrant’s story is a story of exile. Many works of fiction and non–fiction have explored the alienation of the diaspora in many forms. Along with the change in customs, cultural and religious practices, economic status and dietary habits, there is also a linguistic estrangement which inevitably accompanies spatial displacement. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words (In Altre Parole), poetically addresses the exile of language which leaves you with an inexplicable vulnerability along with a keen sense of loss. As someone who loves learning languages and who inhabits a world of multiple languages, I found the concept of the memoir captivating even before I plunged into the reading. I could relate to many aspects of the linguistic expatriation and right away Lahiri’s story became personal and my own.

The memoir is a paen to language, specifically to the Italian language. For some unexplained reason, Lahiri develops a fascination for learning Italian from the time of her first visit to Florence with her sister where with the aid of a pocket dictionary, she navigates her way through the city. It’s love at first sight with the language. On her return to the US, she learns Italian under various tutors. She later returns to Italy many times to promote her books and finally decides to move to Rome for a couple of years with her family. The memoir describes the agony and ecstasy of learning Italian and is presented in a dual language format: Italian on the left page and English on the right. The Italian is written by Lahiri who wants to find a new voice in her writing through another language and it is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, the famous translator of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books. Lahiri makes a conscious decision to stay away from English and to write exclusively in Italian and therefore refrains from translating the work herself. She feels a profound connection with the Italian language but at the same time is also detached from it. These ambivalent feelings make up her memoir which is essentially about writing in a language she is in the process of learning.

To complicate matters, there is a third language in the picture which incidentally happens to be the first language she spoke, raised in the US to immigrant parents from Calcutta, India. Bengali is her mother tongue but she feels distanced from it as she doesn’t know the language perfectly. She bemoans the fact that her mother tongue is “paradoxically, a foreign language, too.” I can relate to the estrangement from the mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil but as I spent my entire childhood in northern India, I was more fluent in Hindi than I ever was in Tamil. People would marvel at my impeccable Hindi but I was still the outsider defined by my name. I never learned Tamil formally. I could understand and speak the Tamil spoken by my parents but I could not read and write in it. I was more comfortable with Hindi but it was English, the language of colonial imposition that became by default the language I became most proficient in. As Lahiri laments, what relationship can you establish with a language that is not part of your blood and bones? She makes a distinction between inherited and adopted languages. Bengali is the mother who died and English is the stepmother who has arrived.

Lahiri uses a lot of metaphors to describe the painstaking endeavor of learning a new language. . Learning a language is like learning to swim across the shore, it’s like climbing a mountain, it’s like pulling weeds in a garden. It indicates a perpetual state of growth and possibility. It’s almost a Sisyphean task. Italian is the newborn demanding full attention and English is the older sibling left to his own devices. The Italian verb ‘sondare’ meaning to explore or to examine encapsulates her project. She is researching something that will forever remain out of reach. She compares writing in Italian to a bridge in Venice; it’s fragile and on the verge of collapsing but it also serves as a passage into another world. She also compares her writing to Daphne’s flight and transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her journey of learning a foreign language is imperfect as the imperfect tense she confuses with the simple past. “ I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.”, she declares. I found the memoir tedious and repetitive in parts drilling the same point with countless metaphors. Lahiri comes across as a perfectionist who holds herself up to an unattainable ideal instead of just experiencing with abandon the joy of learning a new language. And somewhere between all the metaphors, she has squeezed in two short stories. Lahiri seems to take no more than a pedantic interest in learning Italian. I would have enjoyed reading stories about her family life in Rome, about her interactions with neighbors and friends, about the food, the culture and the people of the glorious city of Rome. Language is after all about connecting with others and is inextricably linked with culture. She also tends to take herself a little too seriously. The memoir could have benefited from some humor. Learning a language lends itself to humorous situations. One has to just think of the faux pas, the double entendre, the malapropos remarks and the miscommunications that can leave any student or teacher in splits.

One interesting point Lahiri makes is that her physical appearance often comes in the way of her immersion. How much ever she masters a language, she is, and will always be viewed as a foreigner. She speaks fluently in Italian to a saleswoman in Salerno but the lady assumes, solely based on looks, that her husband who barely knows a few lines is the one who is Italian and speaks perfectly.  On a trip to Quebec, I recall speaking in perfect French to a shopkeeper, but to my surprise he replied in English. It’s hard for people to shed the stereotypical image they have in their minds of a nation or its people. Many people in the United States are surprised by how well I speak English and I have to constantly explain that India was a former colony of the British and that I went to a school where English was the main medium of instruction. In fact, I speak English better than any other language. I could venture to say that English is my first language but would anyone believe it based on my appearance or my name? People are even more shocked when they find out that I’m fluent in French. There is a French word called’ dépaysement’ which has no English equivalent but literally means ‘uncountried’. Lahiri lyrically evokes this feeling of being stripped off your country :

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

I understand her exhilaration. I understand her frustration. It’s a love affair but a one- sided one. It’s unrequited. She needs the language but the language does not need her. I belong to Hindi. I belong to Tamil. I belong to English. I belong to French. But they do not belong to me. I know her pain and I can relate to the sense of alienation she experiences but I don’t despair and I don’t share her pessimism. I also know that my life is richer and more expansive because I know so many languages. Gaining proficiency in a language opens up a window or rather many windows into different worlds. Instead of feeling excluded from many cultures, you could revel in the rich plurality of your experiences. In Other Words, is, in other words, a love affair with no passion. Though this book struck a chord with me, I don’t see it appealing to anyone who has not learned a foreign language. As I’m proficient in French, it was exciting for me to try and decipher the Italian, a fellow Romance language, on the left side of the page.

I respect the fact that Lahiri seeks the literary freedom to write in a language of her choice. The memoir is about being vulnerable as a writer and looking at your work from a fresh angle. Every writer deserves a room of her own. Heck, she deserves a country of her own. But I hope Lahiri will return to English and that this self-imposed linguistic exile will remain temporary. Nabokov, whom Lahiri brings up in the memoir as an example of a writer writing in a different language, himself said that a writer’s nationality is of secondary importance and a writer’s art is his real passport. Indeed, writing, like any other art, transcends all languages and barriers.