My 2017 in Books

2017 was a year full of changes for me. I yo-yoed back to a career I was convinced I’d never pursue, I moved back to a city I wasn’t fond of, and I had to re-think things that were fundamental to who I thought I was. It was a year where I mostly felt unmoored.

It was also a year where I found solace, and a semblance of certainty while inching towards my reading goal, and tracking this closely using Goodreads.

What was most rewarding though, was the books I’d discovered and read for a reading challenge I’d adapted off Instagram.

For the last 18 months or so, I had studiously avoided consuming media that was difficult or painful, especially if it had to do with illness. It was to get through this that my choice for the challenge“Read a book about a difficult topic” was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.

“Read a book about food” led me to Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. It was powerful, visceral, and in turn led me to Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (“Read a book mentioned in another book”). I delighted in how savage and pretty Shonagon was in her observations of life around her. Written between 990–1000 A.D., it is a collection of musings by the author, who was a court lady serving the Empress of Japan.

Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of not Giving a Fuck was my pick for “Read a best-seller from a genre you don’t like” since I don’t like self-help books, and well, it turns out I am not going to change my mind on that any time soon.

Among the other things I read, Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chyewas one of my favourites of the year. I haven’t read anything else quite like it in a graphic novel. It was clever, subvervise, a history-within-a-history and heartbreaking too.

I picked up This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian just before going on a trip to Sri Lanka as I realised I didn’t know much about the civil war there. Subramanian wrote masterfully, weaving in and out of the facts of the war to the lived experiences of people across the spectrum.

Other books I really liked were — Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, Prayaag Akbar’s LeilaJarett Kobeck’s I hate the Internet, Keigo Higashino’s A Midsummer Night’s Equation, and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot.

I have to acknowledge where I miserably failed — in reading more books in Telugu, and in completing Infinite Jest, but a new year beckons, one in which I hope to remedy these, and read harder. 

What will the algorithms think?

A big portion of my job when I worked as a start-up reporter was researching companies in-depth. This extensive research meant that Google one day thought I was a sales professional, one day someone really really interested in ERP systems, a renewable energy expert the next, and made me recall the character Violet from M.T. Anderson’s cyberpunk dystopian novel called Feed.

Feed is set in a future America where corporations rule the roost, kids only go to School™ to learn how to get better bargains online, everyone is outfitted with a micro-chip, and the internet, featuring real-time ads based on their thoughts, is beamed directly into their heads. Violet’s subversion in this world comes in the form of talking in the air unlike others her age who use chat, and going to a mall and asking for all sorts of things she has no intention of buying so that an accurate profile of hers can’t be formed.

The other day, as I unconsciously opened the incognito tab when I wanted to search for something, it struck me that, in an age where we’re increasingly aware of the data that we’re putting out there and how big tech firms are using (or misusing) this, we’re all becoming a little bit like Violet.

Without really being aware of it, I found that the question of “What will the algorithms make of this?” is always present in my mind.

It should be interesting to see how the dynamics of the largely ad-based tech world would change if we all start self-censoring ourselves and interact with the net differently. I guess the rise of voice-assistants and the chase by tech firms for a new dimension to control are partly an answer to this change.

By the way, with the help of this tool, I figured out what Facebook thinks I am interested in. Facebook thinks I am a crazy cat lady.

Somewhere I Belonged

It was a week or so before Teacher’s Day at St. Ann’s High School, the catholic convent school for girls I attended. The students had to pitch their ideas for the programme to the principal, Sister Tresa, and so I found myself awkwardly standing before the usually stern Sister, who was seated on a metal chair in her perfectly pleated beige sari, her hair tied in a severe bun. I rubbed one damp-chalk whitened Bata canvas shoe against the other. I don’t remember what we, my friend Aparna and I, told her about my idea. But I remember what the idea was. To perform In the End by Linkin Park for the teachers. Both the Chester and Mike bits. By myself.

Looking back, what was most surprising wasn’t that I thought this would be a good idea (a year earlier I made my friend perform stand-up bits of what we’d later learn was stoner comedy in front of the whole school), but that Sister Tresa listened to the entire song and nodded her head in approval. It was listed as a “special performance” on the programme itinerary, but there was no special performance that day. I chickened out at the last minute thinking of rapping in front of my Telugu teacher Mrs. Mangatayee.

That was how dedicated I was to Linkin Park. It was the first band I was a “fan” of. Their albums were the first ones I’d bought with money I’d saved up and listened to obsessively. Mum berated for listening to “yelly” music, but in my pre-teen angst, listening to A Place for My Head at near-full volume on the portable stereo was catharsis.

I had stopped listening to them by the time I went to junior college. Perhaps it was because my taste in music changed, perhaps it was because I’d been saturated with the two albums. But they’d slipped out of my mind, and even though years later I heard that they’d got a few new songs and albums out I didn’t make the effort to listen to them.

Today, I woke up to the message that Chester Bennington, the lead vocalist, had died. I was aghast, but it didn’t really register. But now, at 10:04 p.m. as I press play on the first title of Hybrid Theory, I know instinctively the words that will come next, the hooks that will come next, how the songs segue into each other, the lurid neon greens in the video of Papercut, and the icy blues in Crawling. I remember I liked the B side of Meteora more, and the frayed edges of the lyrics sheets that came with the cassettes.

I just wish I were remembering all this under different circumstances. Thanks Linkin Park for making 12 year-old-me somewhere she could belong.