For the man who taught us to write better English

We had Samuel Johnson’s Preface to the English Dictionary as one of the prose lessons during our 11th grade. Now, once you come to high school (why tell only in 11th and 12th), language subjects don’t count.English classes become a free hour where most of the class will be finishing their assignments for the other subjects while somebody keeps reading out the passages beautifully  with intonation so that atleast a few might be able to appreciate the beauty of the poem/prose. But in a class where almost everybody is already in the rat race for getting into reputed engineering/medical colleges (with the slightest clue about the Engineering course they would take or the specialization after MBBS),all the mellifluous reading falls on deaf ears. Looking back, my respect for my high school/higher secondary English teachers has increased manifold and each one of them seem to personify an epitome of patience.

So, when we started out with the Preface prose, the teacher gave us a quick brief up about who is Samuel Johnson-the guy who pored over n number of books and spent every day to put out the correct usage/spelling of the most common words-is it ake/ache or fuel/fewel so that people get the word/spelling/phrase correct. If he had not started putting out the dictionary, I can very well imagine the sorry state of my emails/posts(which are very few and get published on blue moon days) if I get confused between X/Y or M/N. Now, we have spell check, auto-correct, grammar check etc and its easy to forget the humble forerunner for all these in this day and age.

I remember thinking to myself-“which guy starts a preface on such a grudging/pessimistic tone?” on seeing these words “It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries...”But as the lesson progressed, I had almost decided that the author wanted the world to know of his hardships in completing this “monumental” work but still I could not help admiring the way he had with words-shooting straight and getting the correct words so that nothing is left unsaid. Still, it seemed to be  too much of a rant and rave about his hardships and not in the tone of the regular prefaces in novels-Some authors thank their kids, grand-kids(probably for being well behaved children and not playing with their writing materials/drafts),pets. Although put in a lighter note, I had never come across such a preface during the entire reading years of my life.

But when we reached the end of the lesson, these words “I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds…”made me understand somewhat why the tone had been so embittered– and for the first time I could sympathize with him. And these words,” I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds…” touched a raw nerve as even a happy-go-lucky 17-year old could understand that he was referring to his wife.

On Sep 18th,this year,which happened to Johnson’s 308th birthday, Google had a regular super-creative doodle commemorating his birthday and by habit I fell to reading about the doodle. Seeing Johnson’s name, I was piqued and read the extensive but very informative Wikipedia article about Johnson. Johnson’s life loomed before my eyes and the words “…. the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow” also would not convey enough about the challenges and difficulties he had to face not only while working on the English dictionary but his whole life having to deal with Tourette’s syndrome,bouts of depression and a host of other illnesses and not-so-stable finances(to the point of getting arrested for an outstanding debt of  £5 18s). I could for the first time understand the complexity of the task he had undertaken after getting to read the historic context about how the  dictionary came about.And above all,he was a visionary  and of generous nature when he writes thus:

The chief glory of every people arises from its authours[…]but I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.

If there is a higher purpose then this says it all:tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language. 

But I can say that the most crushing blow for him was solitude after all his near and dear ones predeceased him.He puts it  forth very clearly when he wrote:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. The neighbourhood is impoverished. I had once Richardson and Lawrence in my reach. Mrs. Allen is dead. My house has lost Levet, a man who took interest in everything, and therefore ready at conversation. Mrs. Williams is so weak that she can be a companion no longer. When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, except that Dr. Brocklesby for a little keeps him at a distance. Dinner with a sick woman you may venture to suppose not much better than solitary. After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

And my next read was no doubt his Preface to the English Dictionary. And this time,the words were not only awe-inspiring for their sheer eloquence but also for putting forth the trials in as-is tone without meaning to evoke sympathy-his fighting spirit shone forth will superb brilliance when he elaborates his extensive research and the factors influencing his choices in spelling a word or usage of phrase despite knowing that the work he had undertaken was not a one-man-task and can never be immortal.For a person to sit at it for 9 years,day in and day out -it surely shows you the man’s dedication and above all the courage and determination.

Johnson writes  with a tinge of regret “…whether I shall add any thing by my own writings to the reputation of English literature, must be left to time: much of my life has been lost under the pressures of disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in provision for the day that was passing over me…..“.Be assured,Dr.Johnson,that having read only this preface to the dictionary was enough to see the writer in you.Not only the preface,the writings to friends,patrons have shown the eloquence of your language.

Thanks Google for that bang-on doodle on Dr.Johnson.

I just got to see the bigger picture about Johnson.My English teachers tried their best for making the English classes count.I guess that they succeeded with atleast a few of us..

Just wondering how Johnson would feel if he gets to see some of our chats or social media hashtags/posts where we take spelling to a whole new level.Now,now,I don’t want to start sounding like Spelling Martinet….Maybe we are  moving towards the place where we started out from.Most importantly,from where  Dr.Johnson and scores of other lexicographers had brought us to where the English language is today and just telling ourselves that we sound cool.A huge relief is that thankfully people have some sense to keep it only with the social media.

P.S:This is probably a very late post(almost a month late).Thankfully,it has not become an idea that did not get time to become a full fledged post.And like every other post,let me remind you to share your thoughts about the post.And don’t stop with only the post-Give me some good book recommendations.Finally could spare some quality time for Option B.Thanks Accidental Iowan.Just hoping that the next blue moon comes sooner 😛


How reviewing my reading list changed my reading

A few months back I discovered Quora while looking to kill time productively while in office. Though not very active, I took to answering literature recommendations questions and often I receive A2A from some Quora freshers-to recommend one book, 12 books (one quite-an-ambitious guy actually asked for 30 books and that question is still in my Answer Later list. You’ll soon find out why.)

To answer this 30-books-question, I was trying to recall last year’s reads but all I could come up was either a Grisham or Christie. So I decided to list out the books thinking that would help me recall some forgettable reads (Not that I was planning to put those in that 30 books list but it would help me track my reads). So this was what I came up with

Remember Me-Mary Higgins Clark

The Mystery of the Blue Train-Agatha Christie

The Last Juror-John Grisham

Rogue Lawyer– John Grisham

Middlemarch-George Elliot

Silkworm-Robert Galbraith

Sad Cypress– Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair @ Styles-Agatha Christie

A Walk to Remember-Nicholas Sparks

Love Story-Erich Siegel

The Painted House– John Grisham

As you can see from this list, except for the last 3, the others are all whodunits. What was merely a suspicion was now a solid fact-that my reading was becoming too narrowed in terms of genres. I started writing down 2K15’s reads. Nothing different there too. It seemed that 2K15 was The Year of Suspense/Thriller Fiction-at least for me.In fact almost all my reads, except for 2 or 3 everything was from the suspense genre. I know that we read for ourselves and being too much into a particular genre is no sin but you tend to stagnate.

That question was a timely wake-up call. I remember that I started binge-reading suspense fiction when I started college. I was already a huge fan of Sherlock and Christie’s works. A chance pick from the school library –On the Street Where You Live introduced me to the Queen of Suspense –Mary Higgins Clark. That started out binge-reading Clark almost close to 11 titles. The same story with Grisham too-legal thrillers were much more pulsating reads.

So, 2K17 called for somewhat new resolution- to look farther than the whodunits. It’s not about the numbers but about the variety. So far I have managed to stick on to my plan. I am still reading whodunits but there are other genre books too. Also, the experience was much more satisfactory-something like trying out a buffet lunch after the routine hostel food. I know, a foodie drives every discussion to food. But that would be a pretty good analogy. The 2K17 reads so far:

The Help-Kathryn Stockett

The Miniaturist-Jessie Burton

A Thousand Splendid Suns-Khaled Hosseini

The Alchemist-Paulo Coelho

Each of these books was by a different author on different eras (except for the last) and gave a striking picture of the society of those times. In fact #1 showed me how stories of a bygone era can be told so wittily -the author tells the story of her characters such that you get a superb picture of the society and political climate. You get to know the lives of the commons when history is being made during the 1960’s Civil Movement in America.

#1 made me pick up #2 on the list. Watch out for the review in my next post. In India, doubtless there is no end to stories about the British colonial era.But, this is my first book capturing the Dutch in colonial times. The story takes place in Amsterdam, (not in the colonies). Let me save the rest for the review post.

#3 gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of the people (especially the restricted lives of the women) in a country whose turbulent history has not garnered much attention as did its neighbour’s. This book is on its way to becoming another To Kill A Mockingbird-there has never been something like this documenting that country’s history so well and I doubt if we will have another that can give us a much more stark portrayal.

#4- The first thought that I had after finishing this book was ‘How on earth had I missed this?’-This book gave me a much-needed shot-in-the-arm about getting to work on this blog-whose groundwork (signing up for a WordPress account) had been done about 8 months before. From then, it had been waiting for this superb post that would have the likes and comments pouring in until April 1st 2017. For once, during the Fool’s Day I did something wise.

Currently reading: The Kite Runner

Here’s a great article about cross-genre reading benefits…

I have given the link because people love anything that comes with facts rather than stories (for some intellectual topics at least).

So, have a look at your reading list today…

P.S : If you think some book should not be missed, please mention it in the comments below. And don’t forget to comment on the post as well.

Of chance encounters….

The other day when I was arranging my book shelf I came upon the long lost yellowish dog-eared copy of Little  Women-my first ever classic read on love,heartbreaks and such stuff.As I turned over the yellow pages of the book,there was a rush of memories-of the numerous times  I had sneaked this book into my study room and read it instead of studying for tomorrow’s exams,how it landed in my bookshelf,of times when my mom had tried to keep it out of my hands during my exams in my middle school days( but with limited success).

I picked up this book from the book fair that comes to the city every year when I was in the 7th grade.Picking up this book was something like the hero-falls-for-heroine-@-first-sight scene .Just  a small correction here-it was not love @ first sight here.That happened much later.I had not the least idea about this book the day I went to the book fair.I was looking for books to add to my sizeable Agatha Christie and Doyle collection-I was a huge fan of the suspense/detective fiction.I  still am….I had picked up the books which I wanted to and as I was roaming among the stalls reading the plot-summary of some random book that looks somewhat interesting(not that I had any idea of buying the book-probably it would land in my list-of-books-to-read till I get to go to another book fair-my budget ) the cover of Little Women caught my attention.Reading the first 3 pages,I had to admit the story was pretty interesting plus the price was reasonable.(I had already finished my budget on Christie Books that day.)That’s how it got to my bookshelf.

“Chance encounters with people have an everlasting impact in our lives.They give us lessons,new ideas,new insights,new learnings,new experiences-the same holds true for books.”

I still remember my 12 year old self laughing herself silly/getting a lump in the throat and trying not to cry(but not managing it really) over something in this book This was the book that had me laughing out loud @ Jo’s gaffes and skirmishes with the dashing guy-next-door Laurie.(Not that Jo had any idea about such things).It had me in tears when Beth finally loses the battle with her illness.It had me feeling sorry for Laurie over Jo’s refusal(I so wanted the two of them to end up together)..A tomboy who fervently hates anything remotely girlish,a Miss.Malaprop in social scenarios,an outspoken person sometimes to the point of being too blunt,the bookworm who prefers the Romeos from her books while turning a blind eye to the loving glances and a deaf ear to the subtle hints of the next-door-Romeo-I loved Jo March and could identify myself with her big time(only there was no dashing next-door-neighbour :p…Peace!!)

Prior to Little Women,with the books in the suspense genre,there had  been simply the narration of a case- solid facts with insights into workings of the human mind-the emotions were mostly anger,fear,guilt and others in the same line.If there was love,the author gets maybe one or two pairs married for a happily-ever-after ending in the last page.In suspense genre the emphasis had always been on the actions of the character and their outcomes but not the underlying influences like the emotions.Louisa May Alcott’s book showed me the power of words in vividly picturing a scenario.The words were not simply telling a story .They were able to beautifully bring before the eyes of the reader the dreams,the passion/the hopes/the angst/the heartbreaks of the characters so well  that the reader laughed/cried/sympathized with them.

I have since then read several other books where the narrative is at a whole new level in terms of making the reader visualize what he/she reads.But Little Women will always have a special place on my bookshelf-because it introduced me to new ideas and motivated me to try out new things and helped me to grow as a reader.And it gave me one important lesson which I have come to realize in retrospect-Chance encounters with people have an everlasting impact in our lives.They give us lessons,new ideas,new insights,new learnings,new experiences-the same holds true for books.I don’t know how it would have been if I had not been open to trying out something new -probably,I would have found another book that would have shown me those things ,maybe a bit later.But now,I remember this everytime I when I go to the bookstore-I keep my eyes open for some new author/new genre that I have not tried and trust me-it has opened up my horizons to the extent that even I was not aware of in passing but have come to appreciate now.

So,planning a visit to the bookstore this weekend??Or ordering some book online??Or downloading any audio-books??Or just trying out some cool apps out there?Whatever,it is,go for something that you have not tried before-it may be a new genre/new author…You never know what you might find out there…..