Sunday, December 18, 2016

Going to '17: Reading Serendipity

I started 2016 with a surprise discovery: That Bill Gates reads a book a week! I love reading books, yes, the old fashioned paper books, and spend most of my time and money on books. And, yet, I struggle to read as much as I would like to, as life intervenes. The work, the chores, the celebrations and the worries, moments social and the solitary, all present their different challenges inbetween me and an undivided and unwavering commitment to my books. And, yet, here is the man, who earns about $150 every second - if that's one benchmark how valuable his time must be - and who, as Michael Sandel explained, may find stopping and picking up a $50 bill if he spots one lying on the pavement a waste of his time, claiming that he accords highest priority to reading, and even sets aside time when life gets too busy!

I know the usual explanation: We are not Bill Gates. Yes, when you earn $150 a second, you do not drive your own car. You can choose who you socialise with. And, indeed, if you play Chess with Warren Buffet, that is a different life altogether compared with drinking with friends. But, never did such explanations - excuses, shall we say - deterred me from trying. One way of looking at it is that Bill Gates can read more because he has achieved everything one could dream for in life, and the other way is to think that I should read more because I have not yet. The latter argument is the one for me, as that is the one which argues in favour of doing something, rather than making the case for changing nothing.

So, I did go into 2016 with a modest commitment of reading 52 books from cover to cover. And, as the year draws to a close, I failed - by a margin! I completed only 27, cover to cover, and will perhaps do a couple more in the Holiday season. So, about half of what I wanted to do, an insignificant number compared to the total 302 books I bought during the year, in addition of borrowing a total of 223 books from the five libraries that I regularly visit. In fact, the borrowing figure itself shows my lack of progress in the reading enterprise - I am entitled to borrow 67 books at one time and the lowly aggregate actually suggests that I rolled over a lot of them as I could not finish them! Indeed, there are 148 books which I abandoned after working through it almost towards the end, and another 102 which I abandoned less than half-way through, in addition to 6 that I could claim to be currently reading. And, I must also add to this figure about 37 that I used only for specific purposes, reading a chapter or so, because they were needed for my studies in the History of Ideas (it is fair to count them as I counted the Library borrowings on the other side of the equation). So, I had a total of 525 new books, bought or borrowed, this year, and I managed to use 212 as intended (and there may be 6 more) and abandoning 102 altogether. This is indeed not the full picture as all the books I read are not the ones I bought during 2016, but I can live with this data at the time.

Looking back at this data now, my big problem in book reading is definitely fragmentation. This shows up even in the small number that I managed to finish reading. There are several threads I followed during the year. I followed up on my general interest in the American War of Independence and its Founding Fathers (I read the biographies of Franklin and Adams last year, as well as a number of books on the years between 1776 and 1789) and completed an interesting biography of Jefferson and a fascinating book on American Constitution, Unruly Americans, which basically argued that the American Constitution itself was conceived as an instrument to preserve the credit status of the young republic, rather than any of the lofty purposes that we ascribe to it. Despite reading these, there are several I could not pursue yet: I started reading a biography of Washington and abandoned half way, and a couple of books by Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis also remained untouched. Towards the middle of the year, I was interested in Hamilton, no doubt by the success of the musical, but I drifted so far away in my interests by then that I did not buy Ron Chernow's book, which remains on my Wish List.

The other theme that I started the year with was Money and Banking. One of the books I read early in the year was a story of Central Bankers, The Lords of Finance, which, despite its balk and vast scope of the story, was fascinating to me. I started and not completed several other books on the subject during the year, Philipsen's Little Big Number on GDP and Angus Deaton's The Great Escape being the most notable. This is one thing that I am perhaps going back to in the remaining weeks of this year, as books such as these definitely interest me. I have on my list, something that I would perhaps follow up on in 2017, the fascinating The End of Alchemy, by Lord Mervyn King (which I have two copies of, one bought in India at a cheap price and another, bought on impulse, as I was at an event where Lord King was speaking and I could get it signed by him), and Robert Gordon's the Rise and Fall of American Growth

When I started 2016, I wanted to do a serious writing project. I chose, at that point, to explore Cities of Ideas, the cities that flourished, at points of time in history, as places of Creative Ideas and Enterprises. I read the journalistic Geography of Genius early in the year, not least because it did talk about the mini-enlightenment of Kolkata, and established in my mind, a link between Scottish Enlightenment in Kolkata. I did also read a bit about Vienna, completing The Nervous Splendour and working half-way through to Thunder At Twilight, and Paris, particularly the fantastic The Existentialist Cafe, before being waylaid into reading about Camus, in the brilliant A Life Worth Living. I also started reading Joseph Roth and finished his The Radetzky March, but not, as I started doing, Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, or Roth's The String of Pearls, which I borrowed from the libraries.

If a reason is to be given for my abandonment of the creative cities project, though I am sure I would eventually come back to this in 2017, it is that I developed a new interest - in the phenomenon of Enlightenment itself. So I did read Anthony Pagden's The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters cover to cover, perhaps twice if I count the number of times I had to stop and re-read, and Frank Turner's European Intellectual History From Rousseau to Nietzsche. This, to be combined with a number of shorter studies, on Heidegger, for example, dominated the summer months for me: I was forever talking about technological attitude and attitude of care and was trying to understand everything through that lens. This also led to my enrolment, finally and courageously, at Birkbeck College to study History of Ideas, though, as I must admit, it turned out to be a different thing that 'Intellectual History' that I was looking to study.

Much of my later readings this year was strategic, as someone coming to studying history formally late in life must do, or to catch up on the basics: This accounts for my reading the history of French Annales school, or the gripping narrative presented by Henry Ashby Turner, in very House of Cards style, of Hitler's ascension to power in January 1933. Then, there is this whole enterprise on studying on Nationalism, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and its criticism, and the history of Italian Risorgimento, which dominated my book-buying, library borrowing and reading in the last three months, without a corresponding impact on my finished books list, at least yet.

So, to '17: It is funny that I must come back to where I started, Gates' commitment to read a book a week! This is perhaps my character - I take the motto "Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better" too seriously - and I am going to try again. Indeed, as I intend to continue my studies through 2017, this should become easier, more so as I move to doing research projects defined by me rather than trying to complete a curricula of some kind, as I had to do in the Autumn term this year. I know what's coming up early in 2017, a few weeks of intensive work on Nationalism and Nation States and then a few more weeks of studying Darwin, but I intend to return to my Creative Cities project as an aside when I get to breathe again. I do expect to return to travelling by summer months - I have not been travelling for last 12 months and while that may have helped me recover my sleep and health, that reduced my reading time - and hopefully this will allow me to pursue my own reading agenda again.





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