a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: rainer maria rilke

You Haven’t Lived Until You’ve Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven’t lived until you’ve read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet… it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?
This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I’ve tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It’s been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I’ll write a Part 2. For now – 

1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It’s the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean… and, a tiger. A survival’s tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.


Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 
A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war – the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.
The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He’d sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else’s appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.


Which books would you qualify this way?

On comfort needs, comfort reads and reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

For an entire month, I’ve found myself writing posts and deleting them, because they did not sound right enough or because they revealed too much or too little. I have never suffered this kind of writer’s block in all these years, something that led me to avoid the blog not for lack of things to write, but just because of this nagging feeling that I wasn’t being honest to myself. Things are going all kinds of crazy this year, but that has never affected my blog before. The blog has always been a comfort zone; a safe place to turn to; somewhere I can be me. Maybe I’ve just lost my sense of me-ness.

It’s kind of weird that I should feel this way; much more so because I clearly seem unable to explain it. But I have been reading quite a bit. And I do have things to rant about. I went on an amazing trip to England in the beginning of May. And the month ended with me starting a book club here in Bangalore, which has been going adorably well also. So loaded with things to say and lacking the right way; here I am trying something out. I feel sort of like a little lamb lost in my own pen, but nevertheless, write I must. And I will write about comfort reads, in the effort to rekindle my blog love. 
Over the years I have noticed, whenever I have a bad spell for whatever reason, there are certain books I keep going back to. Comfort reads, fiction and non-fiction, and even short stories. The one to start this post-writing-spree with is (various translations of and the original) Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
A quick background. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who in a very intense, very mystical style. He was perhaps best known for his Book of Hours (Studenbuch) which was three volumes worth of religious poetry. After the publication of the Book of Hours, Rilke began to earn popularity as a poet, quite early on in his career. 
So there we have him: Rilke, a renowned poet who, once upon a time, received a request from an amateur poet to read and critique his writing. Rilke denied, replying in a letter that a real poet should not care for another’s opinion on his works and asked his amateur fan to be true to himself. Frank Kappus, the young poet who sent a letter to Rilke, received a lot more than literary critique, and ended up exchanging a number of letters with Rilke. Rilke wrote back giving Kappus advice on everything from love, sex, loss, art and beauty. These replies Kappus published under the title Letters to a Young Poet. 
There is nothing so beautiful and revealing as a well-written letter. It’s like a slice of someone’s soul. With every read, I’m stunned by how honest the letters are. The very idea that Rilke took out the time to write these is something to appreciate, but the sincerity of his writing is astonishing. Rilke and Kappus never met, their only correspondence was through these ten letters; and that further lends them this aura of historical fascination. To think that these words might never have been published, were never meant to be published, really makes me thank the stars that they were. What a loss it might have been. See for yourself –

If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. 
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You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
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If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.

Remember, it’s German. It is German that has been translated into English here. So it has long winding sentences, endless blocks of writing and a very strange formal Queen-sey tone. But if you let that slide, and turn down the scoff, there is a lot to learn from this man. Some of it will be things you already know; but at least for me, having someone tell me things I thought I knew but never could put into words is one of the great magics of reading. Letters to a Young Poet, the Stephen Mitchell translation, widely considered the best, is available to read online for free (not sure how trusted this site is.) Click away, you can read any or all of the letters on the site; though I have to say, the physical book is worth the buy.