Sculpture and Literature

“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence”, said Pablo Picasso. Books lend themselves to more than just reading. The Walk of Ideas was conceptualized as part of a campaign called Deutschland – Land der Ideen (Welcome to Germany – the Land of Ideas). It comprised a set of six sculptures in Berlin, designed by Scholz & Friends, one of Europe’s largest advertising agencies, for the 2006 FIFA World Cup football event in Germany. The sculptures were  were put up between 10th March and 19th May 2006, and were on display until September 2006. They were placed on central squares in Berlin’s city center.

The six sculptures included Modern Book Printing, Milestones of Medicine, Masterpieces of Music, The Automobile, The Modern Football Boot, and The Theory of Relativity. The sculptures were built using neopor – a graphite polysterene foam for construction materials, and coated with a white varnish. The production time for each sculpture was about two months, with on-site assembly spanning three days. Plaques were created in both German and English, with details on the symbolism of each object.

Der Moderne Buchdruck (Modern Book Printing) was installed on 21st April 2006 at Bebelplatz, opposite the Humboldt University of Berlin. The 12.2 meter structure took three days to assemble on the Unter den Linden street. The steel structure held seventeen “book” segments of different sizes, each representing a different author’s name. Inclusive of the stabilizing ballast weight, the overall weight of the “book tower” amounted to thirty-five tons. The seventeen books were stacked, with their spines prominently displaying the names of German poets and writers. The sculpture was said to be erected in memory of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in Mainz around 1450 and introduced printing to Europe. Gutenberg had even created the first bestseller in history – the Gutenberg Bible – the first major book printed in Europe using mass-produced movable metal. It marked the age of the printed book in the West.

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Here are the author names displayed on the spines, starting from the topmost:

Günter Grass

Hannah Arendt

Heinrich Heine

Martin Luther

Immanuel Kant

Anna Seghers

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The Brothers Grimm

Karl Marx

Heinrich Böll

Friedrich Schiller

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Hermann Hesse

Theodor Fontane

Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann

Bertolt Brecht

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

I will be covering the remaining five sculptures in subsequent blog-posts.

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Bookworm Babies – Literary Choices For Children

“A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.”

Our monthly book club meet was held over the weekend. The debate segment for this month was titled “Freedom To Choose Books” . The floor was left open for discussion on the subject of whether parents should select books for children, or should kids be allowed to read what they want to read. As with any debate session, we were not looking for right or wrong answers, but a fair conversation that shed light on both hemispheres of the argument.

The points put forth regarding parents deciding what literature the child should avail of, cited reasons of children not knowing what to choose if left to their own devices. When it comes to very young kids, language learning with growth in vocabulary and improvement in grammar are of prime importance. At this age, the child is picking up new words, stringing them together into sentences, and learning how to make coherent conversation. Picture books were suggested as essential learning aids at this age of development, where the child associates a word/phrase with pictures, which helps in imprinting what is being read. A child left to pick whatever he/she wants at the bookstore might choose on the basis of bright colorful books with eye-catching covers that might not necessarily contribute much in terms of the text. When parents read to children, the latter learn to associate the words heard with those displayed in front of them.

Moving on to older kids, pre-teens or teenagers, the opinions were quite divided. If the parents, grandparents or other older family members are all avid readers and the child is born and brought up surrounded by books, they might try exploring on their own. A member cited an instance of her ten year old reaching for a Sidney Sheldon from the mother’s bookshelves. The latter offered an Enid Blyton instead as more age appropriate reading. When books are on full display, curious children will want to read them all, not knowing about genre or age-specific reading. The parents’ prudence comes into play here – in not only discouraging the child from picking up a book not meant for them, but also suggesting appropriate alternatives.

When it comes to age appropriate books, there is, however, a wide discrepancy in what is available in the market. Most kids love comics – they are fun, quick reads and help pass the time if the child is left unattended and needs to be kept busy. They might not, however, build vocabulary or sentence structure, and do not teach paragraph formation or changing between direct and indirect speech in a longer text. Translated books (or just about any book for that matter) might have grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or any editorial inaccuracies that the parents need to check for, since the child is at an impressionable age and might assume what they are reading to be absolutely correct.

An observation was cited about pre-teens/teens who access Kindles and other e-readers, wherein parents are unaware of the kinds of e-books being downloaded. A helpful aid here is to encourage the child to analyse and share their thoughts on what has been read. Three children at the book meet reviewed books they had read – Anne Frank’s “The Diary Of A Young Girl”, Ashwin Sanghi’s “The Krishna Key”, and John Green’s “Paper Towns”. These happened to be all paperbacks. But even when it comes to e-books, initiating a literary discussion enables parents to know what books are being read, and at the same time respecting their kids’ literary choices. Some might prefer to write down their thoughts, reflect on the story in case of fiction, or on world events in case of non-fiction, or draw comparisons with what they have just read and other books by the same author, or books on similar themes. Children who prefer being vocal can be led into a conversation on the same lines – would they recommend the book to others, any quotes or phrases that stood out, any new words they learnt, their reasons for liking/not liking the book or parts of it. An added benefit of vocalizing one’s thoughts is that parents can check for pronunciations, and correct any discrepancies in the written word versus spoken word. Very often even avid readers mispronounce words because they have never heard them and only read about them.

A point was also made of the role of siblings in reading choices. When it comes to new writers in the market, parents might not be aware of current works of literature. Rather than pushing one’s own childhood reads onto one’s child, elder siblings or cousins who have read newer books might be a good lead in what they would recommend to their younger selves. Children being curious also like to see the books their siblings are reading and this offers an opportunity to diversify reading habits, and have an engaging book discussion with someone from a similar age group.

The presence of children at the meet ensured a well-rounded discourse by receiving their perspectives as well. The session came to an end with the youngest participant expressing her views that she would prefer having her parents select books for her to read, because she trusts them in making better choices.

At the end, there is no right or wrong between who selects the books. The emphasis is on the context of reading in children. The age of the child, external influences from schools and peer groups, presence or absence of older/younger siblings, the child’s grasp over the language of reading, reasons for reading (pass the time or improve vocabulary) – many factors play a role in whether children should pick their own books or parents need to intervene in their literary choices.

 

Under The Jaguar Sun – Book Review

Title – Under The Jaguar Sun

Author – Italo Calvino (translation by William Weaver)

Genre – Fiction

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“I climbed into the light of the jaguar sun – into the sea of the green sap of the leaves.”

Under The Jaguar Sun” is a collection of intoxicating stories revolving around the senses, with Italo Calvino attempting to create a story for each sense organ. We begin with “taste” amid the flavors of Mexico’s fiery spices in the titular story, as a couple embarks on a holiday to experience the food and culture of a new country. From one locality to the next, the self-proclaimed “somnambulists in the dining room”  find themselves in varying gastronomic lexicon – new terms to be recorded, new sensations to be defined. “Guacamole to be scooped with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream” – the couple imagines entire lives devoted to the search for new blends of ingredients, new variations in measurements, alert and patient mixing, and handing down of intricate and precise lore. What starts off as a gustatory exploration, takes on darker hues as the narrator ponders, “The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh” , and the reader is questioned what exactly comprises “food”? Archaeological wanderings raise many queries by the couple, which their guide seems unable to satisfactorily answer – Who are the messenger of the gods? Are they demons sent to earth by the gods to collect the sacrificial offerings? Or do emissaries from human beings take the food to the gods? When vultures clear the altars, do they physically carry the offerings to the heavens?” A thought-provoking take on how “taste” comes to define the couple’s relationship.

From here, we move on to “sound” with “A King Listens” – bringing attention to the menacing echoes within us and outside ourselves. The gripping portrait of a king’s thoughts, as he believes a coup is being planned to destroy him, just as he had done to his predecessor, resulting in a frenzied mind trying to salvage the throne by being acutely aware of every single sound inside the palace walls and outside in the city. He pursues every breath, rustle, grumble and gurgle, moves through clangs and curses, and is guided by echoes and creaks – the palace is a construction of sounds expanding and contracting. Distinct or imperceptible, he can distinguish them all as they reach his tympanum – the palace itself being his ear and the walls listening for him. Where does one draw the line between alertness and paranoia? A city awakens with a slamming, a hammering, a creaking, a rumble, a roar. Every space is occupied, all sighs absorbed. Listen to the breathing of a city – it can be labored and gasping or calm and deep. If you listen to the whorls of a shell, how do you know what is ocean, ear, shell? Where is the sound? What significance does sound play in our lives? “Are your ears deafened by unusual sounds? Are you no longer able to tell the uproar outside from that inside? Perhaps there is no longer an inside and an outside” , the author seemingly questioning the king, provides food for thought for the reader as well. There is a wondrous segment on “voice” as an entity. A voice is not a person, though it comes from a person. It is suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things. Voice and person are different from each other, but a voice means there is a person, with his throat, chest, feelings, very much alive, who sends into the air this voice unlike voices emanating from other persons. Does this mean you and your voice are one? Or two separate entities?

We then move on to “smell” with “The Name, The Nose” on the streets of Paris – a network of assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas. Musk from verbena, amber and mignonette, bergamot and bitter almond – the olfactory alphabet is made up of so many words in a precious lexicon, without which perfumes would be speechless, inarticulate, illegible. Monsieur de Saint-Caliste visits a parfumerie not to buy perfume for a person, but seeking their help in identifying an unknown woman from her perfume. “Martine was tickling the tip of my ear with patchouli, Charlotte was extending her arm perfumed with orris for me to sniff, Sidonie put a drop of eglantine on my hand” – the staff try to help him out in various ways. Madame Odile, the owner of the parfumerie, is much sought after  for her experience is “giving a name to an olfactory sensation”. The reader is led through enchanting aromas  across space and time. “There is no information more precise than what the nose receives.” We are taken through prehistoric times when man relied on the nose rather than the eyes – the mammoth, drought, rain, food, cave, danger, the world was perceived through the nose. Will Monsieur Caliste ever identify his elusive scents?

Under The Jaguar Sun” was written over a period of time. Calvino started in 1972 with “The Name, The Nose” , followed by “Under The Jaguar Sun” in 1982 – both written in Paris, and wrote “A King Listens” in 1984 in Rome. The author sadly passed away in 1985 when only the three stories on “taste”, “hearing” and “smell” were completed – “touch” and “sight” never got written. Calvino was working on a frame to connect the senses in a way that would amount to another novel – kind of like a book within a book. His wife Esther decided to salvage the ones written from being lost in literary oblivion by releasing the trio of senses in 1986, and Weaver’s English translation came out in 1988.

The beauty of Calvino’s writing is his ability to make the reader think. His books are not quick or light reads; every sentence needs to be absorbed and savored. On it’s surface, this is a simple collection of three stories, but the lines take you beyond the senses as we know them. “There is no night darker than a night of fires. There is no man more alone than one running in the midst of a howling mob.” Do not look at “Under The Jaguar Sun” as an unfinished work of literature. Readers familiar with Calvino’s masterpieces like “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” , “Cosmicomics” and other works will no doubt be disappointed about missing out on where he might have taken this book had he lived long enough to complete the remaining two senses. Use this, however, as an opportunity to marvel at some more of his pieces. As his wife Esther writes in the epilogue, “We consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.” Read this off-beat trio of tales for what they are, and still bask in awe of the brilliance of this writer. And maybe you will find yourself questioning the way your sense organs work. That is the effect of Calvino’s writing – makes one ponder while reading and long after one is done.

My rating – 5/5