The five books I am reading simultaneously…and failing to grasp any
I am reading five books simultaneously, four of them generously gifted by Dr. Charles Langs, a New York nephrologist with whom I struck up what now seems like an inevitable and charming friendship during a flight from Chicago to New York.
I do not know of anyone other than Charles who reads with such ferocious commitment over an astonishingly wide range with such impressive comprehension. The only other name that comes to mind is the late Christopher Hitchens, who also happened to be Charles’ friend and who too used to applaud the nephrologist’s extraordinary range of reading and ability to offer instant references.
The books are the much celebrated ‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers, ‘The Emigrants’ and ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W G Sebald, ‘Speak, Memory’ by Vladimir Nabokov’ and ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia*” by Pankaj Mishra.
This is indeed a very heavy literary burden to carry. It is not surprising that I ended up with three days of a severe backache recently. It caused me to walk at a weird angle from the right side of my torso. I looked as if I had been refracted mid-body. I doubt if physics had accounted for such an angle for a body in motion because I kept falling down.
It was not my plan to go genre/author/theme/period hopping. It just turned out that way and now it has become a personal experiment about how much cerebral bandwidth I really have to absorb such diversity of writing. I don’t think it is going well.
The biggest problem is that I mostly do not understand what I am reading. At the superficial level I understand the words that I am reading, but for some reason I have just not been able to get into the spirit of any of the books. That prompts me to say it again how little I grasp the human experience. It turns out that I understand it even less than I had suspected. Also, that I am intellectually even shallower than what I had originally assessed, which was not very much to begin with.
Those of you who follow this blog from time to time would agree that this is in no way an exercise in humility or modesty. I genuinely do not comprehend most things that one comes across during the course of living one’s life. One way to explain this is to argue that somewhere along the line I suffered from a stunted intellectual growth. I like to believe that I reached the natural limits of my growth in my early teens and everything I have done since I have done so by stretching that miniscule ability. After three and a half decades of living past its expiry I think my brain is no longer able to fool my mind.
I can only go by the popular critical opinion that these are all terrific books written by authors of great depth. Charles had asked me to tell him what I thought of ‘The Yellow Birds’ in particular. While I will send him a more detailed feedback in a personal email, for the purposes of this blog I would simply cite my natural lack of comprehension to offer a cogent critique. Of the five books, I have so far found Mishra’s the most accessible simply because I am somewhat familiar with the milieu and the context within which he writes. That’s the best I can say about my ability to understand anything these days.
It is possible that some of my friends find this post rather strange and perhaps even mildly disturbing if they discern in it some sort of confession of my intellectual decline. To them I can only say this: There is no intellectual decline here because it never rose to any discernibly higher level ever. Perhaps the only worthwhile result from reading these five books at once is that I have rediscovered how shallow and insubstantial I am.
* The subhead of Mishra’s book in non-US edition is ‘The Revolt Against the West and Remaking of Asia’ which has been amusingly changed to the less insurrectionist “The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”