A small note about completing War and Peace

Today, I’ve finished reading the epic tome, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I posted 20 days ago on social media that I was just three books away from the ending and I’ve given every moment of reading to this ridiculous (what’s another word for) epic.

Now that I’m done with the story, I will go back to the beginning and start again. I just want to go through all of the two thousand three hundred and twenty two notes and highlights that I’ve made across the book before I make them available publicly on my blog. It is a revision, yes, but this book deserves this second read.

There’s so much to say about this book but all of that will be said in my notes. Those notes will sit as a reference for me to come back to over time. I’ve realized the value of such notes sitting on my blog. I recently went back to my notes on A Room of One’s Own to figure out my thoughts on some related topics. I hope to use opportunities such as this to build a corpus of knowledge sitting publicly that I can always come back to and build on. If you find it interesting enough, you can refer to those notes too.

It has been an interesting and long journey. I’ve spent many hours peering through the lens of Tolstoy’s characters at an age gone by, and many of the questions Tolstoy raises are vital to understanding world history. All those topics too, will be reflected in my notes.

Relishing Failure

Last year, I read exactly one book. It took me three months to finish and I knew by the end of the year that this was a problem. So, I decided to give myself a goal for 2017 – read twenty books.

Of course, I failed. I read 13 books and 4 comics. Adding those comics brought my total to 17, bringing me closer to my goal, but that was such a shameful act that I didn’t add any other comics I read to my list. The goal, after all, was to read full-length books.

But it felt good. Not being able to beat the goal felt good for the first time, because it meant that I aspired to something, that I achieved something over what I had done last year. It took me about one month to read each book. I am a slow reader (basically because I’m a recovering one) and life, and other things often came in the way. ?

Somewhere on my blog is a draft of a list of all the books I’ve ever read. I keep it as a draft because it feels like something that should not be set in stone. It should be kept open, waiting to receive new names to grow the list. But for this post, I’d like to take the books I read and describe the books, or my thoughts around those books, in a few sentences. Bear with me…

  1. Slaughterhouse-Five – This is what I spent January with. It’s a sad tale of how absurd wars are and how oddly they affect people. As I was reading it, I kept remembering Catch-22 and how it too showed the absurdity of war. When SLF merged the war and it’s post-war abducted-by-aliens narrative, things went for a toss, but in a seamless way, because if you believe in war, it’s not going to take you a giant leap to believe in aliens.
  2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Ah, Bernadette! This was one of the most exciting novels I’ve ever read! The characters are crazy and the storyline is just brilliantly absurd. Recently, when I was in a bookshop, I told the owner, Dion, that I’d read this book and marveled at the beautiful way Seattle is portrayed in it. If you want to know Seattle from the eyes of Maria Semple, read this book. If you want to laugh at the absurd life of one Bernadette Fox, read this book!
  3. The Golden Compass – I’ve wanted to read this book since a long time, ever since I saw the movie. From what I remember, the movie was only half the book and reading this completed the story for me to a certain level. Perhaps I’ll go back some day and finish the series.
  4. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – This book has been sitting on my shelf since a long time and I really just wanted to read something of GRRM and this was perfect. The stories are nice and tie into the main storyline very well. There’s just so much in this world to explore!
  5. Prisoners of Geography – This is only one of two non-fiction books I’ve read all year and I’m okay with that. It’s a great book, with loads of amazing stories and insight into why countries act the way they do with their neighbors. But reading it, I also realized that I’m not a non-fiction reader. I prefer fiction, even fictionalized accounts of events such as James Michener’s Poland and the book my wife is reading right now – The Other Einstein.
  6. Marvel 1602 – I mentioned before that I won’t include 4 comics in the list. Those comics are Archies rebooted with new style of artwork and a more mature theme. Even so, they’re still my childhood Archie comics. Marvel 1602 is the brainchild of Neil Gaiman and he is one of the most fantastical authors I’ve read in a while. His ability to create strangeness out of the ordinary is almost infinite! Then, give him the Marvel universe and let his mind run wild and this is the result. It’s more story than comic (so I guess it’s a graphic novel?) and well deserving to sit here on this list, even though it got a little tiresome and predictable in some areas.
  7. We have no idea – When Jorge Cham (from the famous PhD comics) said that his new book was coming out, I knew I had to have it. It took me a while to get around to this book, but it was a delight. It gets a little tiresome towards the end simply because there are so many amazing questions that get asked in every single page that one can spend an eternity trying to answer them! In some sections, I sat with a notebook and just kept writing down ideas that poured in. If you ever want to write science fiction, read this book and let your imagination run wild on it!
  8. The Unknown Errors of our Lives – This collection of short stories is one of the saddest I’ve ever read. Right from the first one, Chitra paints this picture of life in the US that’s shiny, repugnant, restrictive, celebratory, and very, very dark. There’s sadness in almost every page. It took me a while to recover from this book. But would I recommend it? Absolutely. If you want to know the struggles of Indians in the US, or are going through those yourself and want to read some foresight, some hindsight, and something that you can relate to, read this book. Borrow it from me! I’d love to get it off my shelves for a while so it can’t haunt me!
  9. Origin – Oh yes, Dan Brown came out with a novel and I read it and it’s awesome! I love Brown for his unabashed self-promotion. It’s very clear that he’s the hero of his novels and his character has a style that will sometimes make you want to throw the book away! But once you get past the first few chapters, you stop bothering with the absurd brand references (I don’t even know these brands!) and focus on the one burning question – what the heck was the discovery?!
  10. Why you will marry the wrong person – I’m being cheeky by adding this book to this list. It’s more of an article, extended into a book. I paid good money for the article and for good reason – other than telling us all off for marrying people so blindly (“so you dated for a few years? Do you know why and how your other half is mad? Is their madness compatible with your madness?”), this book also introduces this amazing idea that we should submit to extensive and rigorous psychological testing to help us find the right person to marry. I guess Tinder doesn’t cut it for the authors of this book.
  11. Embers – Gimme a book about the Old World and I’ll enjoy it like a well aged piece of cheese. Embers is poignant and beautiful. I discovered it from a Stanford book club RSS feed and Sandor Marai’s turn-of-the-century Hungarian world is bleak and colorful at the same time. It has layers upon layers and as the story unfolds in to the night, it opens up into this wonderful life lived by these two old men and asks the one important question we will all ask in our old age – “was it worth it?”
  12. The Shape of Ideas –  Grant Snider is one of my favorite web comic authors and his book is fun and inspiring and a great way to pull oneself out of a fug! I read this book once but whenever I’m feeling down or have writer’s block, I’ll read one odd page from this book and it’ll help me get right back on track!
  13. Dandelions – Finally. This book was an excellent way to end the year, simply because it is an unfinished book. The author, Yasunari Kawabata, committed suicide before he completed this book. I really enjoyed the characters’ constant back and forth, almost a bickering, which leads them to reveal the story to us in peels of an onion, slowly, and surprisingly. One of the things I loved was that the story had no preface, but a postface, explaining some things about the book. When I was younger, my Dad once told me how he’s read every book in his studies from end to end, including all prefaces and notes from the editors, authors, etc. and he recommended that I do that. Well, Dad, I find that to be very wearisome because most of these authors just drone on about random things unrelating to the concepts or the stories I’m trying to read! When I read Plato’s Apology a few years ago, it was a forty page book with a fourteen page introduction! That was horrifying to me! Two pages in, I abandoned the droning of the translators and commentators and went straight to the text! It felt so gratifying to be reading the actual words I came to read instead of reading some random person’s boring analyses of the life and times of Plato.

There you have it. These are the books I read and these are my thoughts on them. If you want to look at my Goodreads year in review, here it is. It’s a nice feature Goodreads has. It tells me that I read a total of 3,644 pages. Those were some good pages!

If you’ve made it so far, I’d like to talk about something. Over the last two years, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s epic tome, War and Peace. I started some time last year and this year, I’ve moved the needle from 50% 0f the book to 77%. It’s really not one book. It’s fifteen books and two epilogues, each with twenty to twenty-five chapters of ridiculous length. If I listen to my wife, I should be able to introduce these sub-books to the Goodreads listing, immediately putting me over my stated goal of twenty books, and then some. But I won’t do that. This book is more of a research project and relaxation system rolled into one. Whenever I’ve had a long day at work, I uncurl with a few pages of War and Peace and love how I’m transported to this amazing world where Napoleon has invaded Russia and hopes to conquer and get out. God only help these buffoons. If only they had “Prisoners of Geography”, they’d understand that Russia is not a simple thing to be quickly run over and forgotten. Russia is a crazy world, with one foot firmly in Asia and the other well in Europe. Russia is Old World and New. Russia is a sleeping dragon better left undisturbed. I read and laugh with the characters, cry with them, get surprised when they die or turn up alive. I am living this book out over the years and when I do finish it, which I am slated to in 2018, I’ll mark it as completed and either start on some other similarly long story, or restart this book, so I can once again live this beautiful book through.

That was my 2017 in review. I truly enjoyed failing at my reading challenge. It was a pleasure to read so many amazing books and feel this immense sense of achievement at having read so much, even if it’s a drop in the bucket of how many books get published every year!

Now, I’m off. Time to start the next book. I’m going to begin 2018 reading Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, which I picked up from the Bellevue Amazon bookstore, after overhearing someone talk about what an interesting book it is! After that, it’s on to a few books I acquired at a charming little bookstore in an magical place called Sunriver over in Oregon. But that’s a story for another time. ?

Photo by Kilkennycat

Thoughts on a required reading page for blogs

I’ve been following Colin Walker’s thoughts on a ‘required reading’ page since Monday and have been thinking about it myself. His own thoughts were based on Dave Winer talking about the idea.

What is a required reading page to me?

Dave Winer seems to suggest a page which would link to articles that deeply affect the blogger, or explain their motivations and give context. Colin took the idea further and talked about old posts which the blogger would want to highlight. There could be external links which the blogger would want the reader to get acquainted with before weighing in on the subject the blogger talks about.

Why are we talking about it?

Two years ago, Derek Sivers and party introduced the idea of the /now page. It’s an easy way for bloggers to talk about what they’re doing right now. There was a marked effort to explain that this page would not be automated, so that the blogger frequently updates it and nurtures the page as a window into their lives. You can read my /now page here.

These ideas – a now page, and a required reading page, are extensions of a blog and a way to empower bloggers to build a blog as an extension of their lives. Sure, you can post what you’re working on on Instagram, and rant about it on twitter. But when it lives on your blog, you care about it more, and so does your reader.

When I was thinking about it, I felt that the required reading page is better implemented by the blogger simply choosing to write about the topic they care about. If you want people to notice a certain article, just blog about it, quote it, and explain your take on it. Ask the reader for their takeaway too. Perhaps, in that sense, a required reading page is every page on your blog. If you care about it enough to write about it, I’ll know that you recommend that I read it too. That is how it works right now, and that’s why I read Dave Winer’s post – because Colin Walker was talking about it.

But when you look at the way people blog now, a lot of bloggers have, since a long time, maintained a page of reading which they want to highlight. Famous bloggers often have a page which lists their most popular blog posts (a great example is this page by Leo Babauta) and others often point to external reading that they value. It’s time this too is formalized into a format and a ‘named’ page, so as to guide future bloggers (and current bloggers) and help leapfrog the blog from a stream of thoughts and articles to a centerpiece of activity and a deeper reflection of the blogger’s life.

p.s. Named pages are useful in both kickstarting a blog and maintaining it for your readers. Examples are the About page, the /now page, the Colophon page (which talks about your tools, your blog’s history; sort of an extended About page; here’s an example), and now, hopefully, the required reading page. As Colin says in his post about the Required Reading page –

I’m going to spend some time considering what I might have on mine.

How to read today

I just read Lipi Mehta’s article on TheReader about her habit of reading and how it disappeared.

I faced a similar situation at one point in my life when I realized that I’ve stopped reading. I used to read a few books a year, at least but of late I’d struggled with even one. This is the advice I gave to myself and to Lipi as a comment on the site –

So many of us began our lives as readers and then slowed or stopped. I got the mantle of “William Shakespeare III” in 9th class for my habit of writing, which to me is nothing more than an extension of my habit of reading. The phrase, “you read a lot”, has stuck with me throughout my life.

But just like you, I don’t read as much any more. I moved on to the Internet a long time ago and things just seem to go along. Here and there, I’d read a book. Then I was gifted an iPad and I thought, “this is it; now I’ll read a lot!” That didn’t happen.

Of late, I’ve discovered something – if I can pick up a book with a good font and just devote every evening to it, I’ll get through it. I read James Michener’s Poland like that recently. It was just me and the book every evening after work. It irritated everyone around me, but I stuck to it and did finish it. I tried to do the same for “Bullet or the Ballot Box”, a book about the recent history of Nepal. But I had to return the library copy. I then realized that I must move on to eBooks. I found the ebook and did the same thing I did for Poland, this time on my phone. I got through the book and made extensive notes too.

Now, I’ve decided to tackle “War and Peace”. It’s a massive book. I know this not by the size of the book in my hand, but the number of chapters iBooks lists in the index. But I’m toiling through it, one line at a time. I read whenever I get the chance – travelling in the bus, waiting for someone or something, a few pages before I sleep.

I know I’ll get through this book too. It’ll be disjointed and broken. The experience will not be as character-building as the books in our childhood were – we used to read voraciously, swallowing ideas and notions whole. Now, it’ll be a miracle to just get through the book.

But here’s my suggestion to you – load up a book on your phone. Find eBooks or borrow them. Just don’t make the mistake of loading up a library. Make it one book at a time and read as much as you can, as often as you can. Suddenly, you’ll realize that you’d have gone through most of the book and the plot will be able to climax. That’s when you’ll thank yourself for taking this advice!

Cheers!
Nitin