Saturday, April 28, 2012

Memorable Books: The World of Psmith

Karthik from Random Thoughts is sharing his thoughts on one of my most favorite authors! Karthik presents the rare mix of intelligence, wittiness, idealism, and warm geniality! His excellent sense of humor, humane principles, and immense generosity make him a great friend. I value his views and I'm so glad he's contributing!
At the outset, let me thank Neeraja for her gracious acceptance of this post, and for including this post among the wonderfully perceptive writings from her pen.

Given that I had to finally pick one book, I mulled at length on various options. Finally, after pretending to think for about three milli-seconds, I settled on "The world of Psmith" by PG Wodehouse, perhaps my favourite book, which I first read in my impressionable teen years. Of course, I cheated cos this is really a 3 in 1 omnibus :-)

Psmith is quite the character - Impeccably dressed, polite to a fault, eccentric, monocle-sporting enterprising young man, with an upbeat, and sanguine approach to life. In his inimitable style, he embarks on several far-fetched schemes that land him in all kinds of curious situations, from which he eventually extricates himself; but not before causing much comic anxiety to his fellow comrades, primarily his good friend Mike.. As with all Wodehouse stories, the story lines are convoluted, and hard to compress into a few lines. It suffices to say that Psmith's adventurous streak leads him to explore several career paths that range from being a banker, and a journalist, to masquerading as a poet.

To me, Psmith represents the 'Don't despair ! Come ! let's figure out a way to solve this, and have fun along the way!' school of thought/action. Even on occasions when he does lose, for instance his job, he does so in style, resigning before being fired, offering words of consolation in a facetious manner causing further grief and embarrassment to his boss ! Pmisth's way of life convinces me that being goofy, and not taking life so seriously, could well be one path to wisdom :-)

The real world often pales in comparison to the wondrous possibilities that the Wodehousian one offers. However, having read this book at an impressionable age, Psmith's outlook continues to appeal to me, though it needs to be tempered with the necessary dose of authenticity and pragmatism for it to be even remotely applicable to the real world. On occasions when I have felt low, I have often turned to this book to raise my spirits, and it has never let me down. In fact, I know of at least one unconventional book on personal mastery that actually recommends reading Psmith, and observing the way he responds to the interesting questions that life throws at us now and then :-)

As with much of Wodehouse's writings, the quality of 'adult innocence' shines through. Having been exposed to Wodehouse's writings, classy and refined in all their silliness, I ended up developing an active dislike for the crude brand of double entendres that often pass off as humour these days.

I'm always amazed as to how little the world has changed in the 100 odd years since he wrote some of his books ! Would the world be a better place if they made Wodehouse mandatory reading in high school/college? Well, I certainly think so. Wodehouse packs in so much about real life in so subtle a way, that one could well call it 'deceptive silliness'. There is much wisdom, and understanding of human foibles behind his writings, cleverly hidden beneath all the humour, and they gently remind us to not take ourselves too seriously( Wouldn't the world be a better place if this notion alone had been drilled into everyone's heads? :).

Unlike other heroes who often disappoint us with the real life example they set, I had no such trouble with Wodehouse, with him coming across as a gentle, kind person by all accounts. If you enjoy reading Wodehouse, you will almost certainly enjoy this omnibus! Chemistry labs have been known to stock copies of this book in the event of them running out of nitrous oxide. And at the risk of facing stiff opposition, if there is just one work of fiction I could take away with me to a desert island, I have no hesitation in declaring that this would be it !
Karthik, my heart sings and dances reading each sentence! Awesome post! Psmith is one my favorite characters as well. As one Wodehousian to another, I can't say how thrilled I am to hear you capture the essence and brilliance of Wodehouse. "Deceptive silliness" - how true! The world would definitely be a better place if Wodehouse is made mandatory reading in schools :). Thanks again for the excellent post!

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Choosing

Life is often a stream of choices. The choices that we make - from the mundane ones to the course-altering ones - lead our journeys through beautiful vistas, shocking unexpected turns, rounding on smooth valleys, carrying us up to dizzying altitudes, dropping us down sudden pitfalls, and pushing us towards dark dead-ends. Choice is celebrated. The freedom, the power, the very right to be able to choose something is a fundamental necessity for most of us. We pity those with little or no choice, vociferously argue about one’s free-will, and regard our lives to be doomed and stripped of dignity without the ability to exercise our power to choose and decide.

What’s more to Choosing? Plenty more. In this excellent book, Dr. Iyengar presents decades of research (of hers and others) exploring Choice from multiple dimensions. How important is choice to our biological survival instincts, how do different people perceive choice from the complicated lens of religion and culture? How is choice connected to one’s identity? Is choice the medium through which we express our individuality? But then how much of our “independent” choices  are really that unique and independent, resisting social mores, economic influences, and factors of subtle manipulation? When do we make rational choices, and when do we make impulsive, intuitive ones? Is one better than the other? All the time? Can there ever be too much choice? Could choice be white noise, a distraction, a detractor, a burden to cloud our decisions? Can a plethora of choices always keep us happy and satisfied? And finally, my personal irony - choice as a tool for punishment - the dilemmas between equally unpleasant choices that paralyze and destroy one’s peace. Is choice really a blessing in such instances? So many questions, so many issues on Choice? Yes, Dr. Iyengar beautifully writes of the many facets of choice, its implications on our everyday life, and the policies that govern our Nations and Markets.

From beginning to end, this is a brilliantly engaging book. Dr. Iyengar is blind. So, she draws stories from her own life to explain the role of Choice. These sections were the most thought-provoking to me. I probably had goosebumps every few minutes. Every sentence is beautiful and insightful. The depth of research that fills the pages is so satisfying to the researcher in me. Since the areas of cognitive decision-making and information processing cross into my purview of study, I was very happy to see all the classic papers cited and talked about. Most of the book can be thought of as an exhaustive literature review in the fields of Choice & Decision-Making. But, it’s Dr. Iyengar’s talent to weave a compelling and readable book that makes all the difference between reading a bunch of journal abstracts and this one. She has a sure flair for telling stories in a simple and relatable manner that doesn’t compromise on the science, but still retains the reader’s fascination and understanding of the big picture of the findings. I loved her writing and narration, and can’t mention enough good things. She has become a mentor and an inspiration for me - as an impressive researcher, a great writer, and a hard-working human-being.

The rest of this long and hideous post is going to contain my reflections (not review) of the chapters of the book. I want to record these basic take-aways from the book for future reference. So, please ignore the following if you want to read this book ( I very highly recommend it) and find it for yourself.

Chapter 1: We perceive our ability and opportunity to make choices, only if we believe that we possess a measure of control over our lives. The one who believes that his/her life cannot be controlled or changed, will never exercise their freedom to choose. We berate such individuals, such fatalists. But, through chilling studies that were conducted on rats and dogs, it is found that even rats (the so-called animals with no sophisticated thoughts or beliefs) either choose to survive or choose to not. Even animals choose to survive only if they believe they can change the situation and have been rewarded in the past for trying to change. Animals that have been put in experiments (circumstances) wherein they have never “won” a way out or received any rewards, give up more easily, more frequently. Sound familiar? If someone’s life has been tough through and through, and they have never been able to change their trying circumstances, they are likely to not grab onto the choices that suddenly come their way, even if you teach them to.

This belief on the extent of control we have over our lives is crucial to our well-being, the optimism we learn to acquire, and the resilience to fight for survival. We give up choosing, we see no more choices when we’ve been beaten down every time. 

Chapter 2: A favorite chapter. Individualism vs. Collectivism. The individualists want to choose, and choose for themselves, while the collectivists are trained to let others choose for them. Is one way better than the other? Not necessarily, and surely not all the time. But, choice is viewed differently by different cultures. The East’s view of arranged marriages is born from the collectivists’ strategy. The family shall choose for the betterment of both families, the individual’s duty is to obey. The individual in these cultures often doesn’t seem stifled by the lack of (or limited) choice, but conforms to it to in the name of duty and trust. And such behavior and adherence to duty is celebrated and rewarded. Duty vs. self-interest - another favorite topic of mine. But this system works (or used to work) because the communities are dependent on each other much more than in the individualistic society. There is a greater expectation of reciprocity, and hence the necessity to follow certain duties for the betterment of the entire community and oneself.

But what is fascinating is how this view of choice affects children and adults from these different cultures. Interesting studies show that Asian kids are more at ease and more successful when their mothers choose certain things for them, whereas their American counterparts feel infuriated and perform poorly. Understandably.

There is a good discussion of communism vs. capitalism in the context of choice, and how even people from ex-communist countries who waited to be liberated, no longer rejoice and celebrate their freedom to choose. They feel burdened, dissatisfied and unhappy with too many choices and not being able to use them all. Orthodox, religious individuals with rules and constraining choices on how to live, rate themselves as happier and more satisfied than individuals who are not religious and have endless choices. Why?

Freedom to choose also hands us the responsibility to chart our own course. There are no signs, omens, signals, rules, duties, faith, prayers to guide us. If we choose wrongly, we have nothing to fall back on to assuage our confusion and fear.

Sometimes, we like things to be more structured. Sometimes, we like rules. And sometimes, we like fewer choices. A revelation? Perceptions on choice, freedom, and opportunity are more complex and layered than we think.

Chapter 3: Self-expression is accomplished through the choices we make to present ourselves. The clothes we choose to wear, the things we buy, the car we ride, the interior of our homes, the opinions we hold, the decisions we stand by - make a statement, paint a picture, a unique picture (we like to believe) of our identity. Who we are, affect our choices, and our choices consequently affect who we become. There is this obsession to be unique, to be different, to choose differently. And yet, how similar are we! Are we more similar to each other than we want to believe? We don’t want to be too different and unique, for after all, we want to fit-in. But we don’t want to follow the herd either. We keep looking for that elusive balance - the “optimum level of uniqueness” that doesn’t socially isolate us, and yet, just makes us step out a little, just a hint.

We will all buy Iphones and Ipads, but we will still vehemently believe to be unique in our decisions. “The reason why I bought it is different from hers.” “I don’t want to buy this color - everyone seems to carry it.” Ah, the clever trap laid by the marketing geniuses! Nobody is free from social pressures. No identity is perhaps supremely authentic, as much as we strive to believe. We constantly align our perceptions to others’ perceptions of us. I buy something not just for myself and to assert my individuality, but also with the understanding of how it will be perceived. We can’t live with people making wrong assumptions and holding incorrect perceptions of our identity! If so, we have to rush to rectify their perception.

So, choosing is not such a private activity after all. It’s more of a social one.

Chapter 4: Rationally derived choices, and rationally chosen decisions are not always sensible. Sometimes, heuristics and intuition (or informed intuition) is better. Emotions cannot be quantified and fit into rational models of effective decision-making. Intuition isn’t necessarily irrational. We have evolved to be sensitive to many subtle cues around us to help us understand our environment better. It’s because our great-great-great-grand ancestor sprinted to safety when he heard the subtle movements of far-away rustling leaves which intuited to him of an approaching predator, you and me are alive. He didn’t do math or wait for a solid indication, he went with his gut. But his “gut” was informed by very very subtle, nuanced cues that are sometimes hard and impossible to verbalize, understand, or quantify. This book gives astounding examples of intuitive decision-making by doctors, rescue-workers, and even pilots.

But heuristic decision-making can also be terribly flawed and riddled with biases. We might choose to never ever EVER buy a certain brand of TV again, even if statistically speaking, your bad experience was only one of several million positive ones. Math doesn’t come into the picture. Logic flies out the window. Your 1 bad experience will lead you away from it. You will “rationally” choose to do so.

So, how rationally informed are our choices, if we talk of freedom and responsibility of decision-making?

Chapter 5: So, the things that we buy have little to do with personality, authenticity of individuality, and more to do with social forces. What about market forces? I have always wondered about the fashion industry. Are these fashion choices shaped by trend? Who decides the trend? You? The fashion diva? Or the fashion retailer?

This is a chapter that marketing professionals and students would love (and I guess, they would already know). Packaging, color and so many other little tricks influence YOU, the informed, rational, unique, individualistic, responsible customer, in ways that make you seem like a brainwashed automaton.There is illusion of variety, illusion of choice, and illusion of self-expression. You are manipulated to pick up even a boring sweater, because of the clever deviousness of marketing geniuses and fashion retailers who read you and your personality 2 years ahead of time. They expose you to fashion choices that make you believe that you are setting the trend than the other way around. Due to the necessity to fit in, you would rationally choose to follow the trend, albeit in your own slightly specialized way, thanks to the clever little variations you are provided with at the stores!

In psychological terms, you are primed to choose in a certain way, and select certain things. Your subconscious is manipulated and influenced in subtle and harmless ways (after all, fashion doesn’t hurt) to choose the “right” things. This is harmless enough, but what if the consequences to the manipulation are high and significant?

Chapter 6: Too much choice - how can it ever be bad? Well, our brain has its limitations, no matter how distasteful it is for us to hear. We can only process limited amounts of information (5,7,or 9 chunks of information), so hundreds of choices will overwhelm us, confuse us, and contribute to bad decisions more often. And, it leaves us less-satisfied and exhausted all the time. If there are 900 choices of shoes, how long will it take you to find the one you like and that suits you? Especially if you want to try everything and not miss out on something better? If you narrow them down to 100 similar shoes after hours of trials, what next? You tear your hair out, finally pick the blue one and come home and wonder, maybe the green looks better? You return the blue, get the green one and soon wonder about another color, another design that your friend raves about. When will it ever end?! And the more effort you expend to choose the perfect pair, the more you seem tired and the more you seem to compromise on quality, eventually. Or not buy anything at all.

Ok, that’s just about shoes. Thanks to the internet and the review system, we can live with such annoyances of capitalistic excess. But what if you had 250 medical insurance policies, 550 investment options, 700 retirement plans? How will you wade through so many choices when the outcome is pivotal to your life and well-being? And most importantly, why should there be so many choices on something so basic and essential to all of us? And besides, our goals are essentially the same - save as much money as possible, in the end.

I once saw a two year old at a fare, wailing and rolling on the floor, throwing a tantrum of her life. Her mom guessed she was hungry. So, she started, “Honey, would you like a banana?” “Nooooooooooooooo”, shrieked the toddler. “Would you like apple sauce?...Would you like to have some cheese...maybe some yogurt.... how about some grapes... would you like to have some milk? Some pasta? Some french-fries? Mac and Cheese? A smoothie? A pretzel? That ice-cream over there?A nice sandwich? Some gummy bears”....
And all the while, the toddler wailed and screamed and kicked and consistently shrieked, “NOOOOOO!”

I wanted to intervene very badly, and tell the mom - Lady, she is two! She is hungry, she is tired. Just give her something to eat! Put something in front of her, feed her if need be. Stop asking these annoying questions. You are not giving her the exalted freedom to choose, you are just irritating and confusing her. Besides, she is not in a position to choose for herself. It’s okay, you don’t have to read the entire menu to a 2 year old. It’s okay, you’re not depriving her or controlling her by making a simple choice for her as her mother in her hungry state!! And she is two!!

I am not kidding when I say this. Some time later, the same lady and the kid walks into the restroom with me. And the lady goes, “Honey, would you like to go in here, or here, or here.... or here”.... If I hadn’t bit myself, I would have slapped her.

Sometimes, we don’t know where to draw the line. Sometimes too many choices are ridiculous and contribute to very little. Sometimes, it’s okay to rely on others to choose for us. Sometimes, it’s okay to not have an array of choices that confuse and interfere with your ability to make an informed, wise decision. Sometimes, too many choices are unnecessary and just plain white-noise.

Chapter 7: The final and my personal favorite. Remember Sophie’s choice? A sadistic Nazi gives the terrorized Sophie two choices as she enters the concentration camp with her two children - either you choose which child should live and which should die, or both die. Choose. The choice is all yours.

Such choices are cruel punishments. It’s empty and even more meaningless when you hear others say - “Well, you always have a choice!” Such choices break you forever with the burden of carrying the guilt for the rest of your lives.

Patients and adults in the U.S have a say in all their medical procedures. Adults and patients in France, don’t have much of a say. The doctors decide what to do and when to pull the plug. Dr. Iyengar conducted a series of studies with parents from the U.S and France who had lost their newborn babies. If a newborn is critically ill with 50% chance of death, and 50% chance of surviving in a vegetative state for the rest of its life, the decision that confronts the parents is pure torture. Parents in the U.S get to decide whether or not to pull the plug on their child. They make the tough decision. They get to choose, for the medical policies are rightfully amended in this country to always let the patient/loved-ones choose. The French parents don’t get to decide. The doctors decide. Which set of parents is better-off now?

Very interestingly, after a year or two of such a painful experience, it’s been found that the French parents were able to move on and cope with the loss much better than their American counterparts. The American parents fell into depression because they took the brunt of making the painful decision, even if they believed it was the rational one. They were still haunted by the “what if’s”, whereas the French parents could console themselves by saying, “it wasn’t up to me”.... the doctor’s decision absolved them, saved them. The American parents resented the choice, the decision. They blamed the system, and were unhappy and guilt-ridden.

Something to think about. It’s merciful if painful choices are removed from you. Coping with loss is easier than coping with guilt.

My fingers ache, so I should stop now. But this was a great book and a great exercise to write down my thoughts on all the chapters. The one thing that I wished Dr. Iyengar talked about a little more is Choice in the light of prediction and astrology. She touches on it in the epilogue, but I would have liked a chapter. But such discussions enter the realm of mysticism and philosophy, and as a scientist she probably didn’t want to speculate, and decided to leave a few mysteries for the reader to figure out.

An excellent book of insights into you and your life as shaped and seen through Choice. It’s a real art to choose. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Memorable Books: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Aparna from Musings, has decided to share her thoughts on another memorable book that she happened to read recently. Thanks Aparna!
On a saturday afternoon, after my son (3 year old that he is) decided that he wanted to hop along to his cousin sister's house to stay overnight, and, (to my dismay!!!) hubby dear wanted to choose this exact day to go on a Tirupati trip, instead of brooding over the fact that they had happily left me to pursue their interests, I decided to visit the library and get some interesting books. I had an entire day all to myself, and what more could I ask for! All these days, catering to the little fellow took up most of my time, the rest of which I was at work or sleeping; I couldn't have got a better opportunity than this. 

This day was when I chanced upon the novel called "The Particular sadness of a lemon cake". Usually on my library trips, I pick books recommended by friends or cousins.  But the title of this one caught my attention, and I read the prologue. It sounded so intriguing and different from the usual, that I decided to pick it. And true to the name and prologue, what a wonderful read this turned out to be.

The very idea of having the capability to discern the feelings of the person preparing a dish was what captured my attention here. I mean, imagine having the ability to do this. And imagine having to live through it knowing about the person's innermost thoughts, desires, and whatever not.  

This little girl, Rose, is bouncing along through her life, till it takes a nightmarish turn on the week of her 9th birthday. Oblivious of what was in store, she is thrilled to sink her teeth into the soft and gooey chocolate-lemon cake that her mother has lovingly baked for her. And to her shock, though she is able to feel the taste of the cake, which is mind-blowing and close to being the best cake in the world, the feelings she can gather in those bites is so overwhelming, that she just cannot seem to enjoy the cake. She attempts in vain, to get the feeling out of her system. Starting with this experience, in every other meal that her mother prepares for her, she cannot seem to enjoy the meal, as she is able to feel the emotions of her mother; the emotions which her mother successfully conceals and puts up a smiling and "all is hunky dory" look on her face. The mother, though, is not so successful in doing that with her daughter. Rose knows her mothers innermost thoughts. It's like the dishes speak to her. They linger over her tongue and pass through her throat engulfing her in the sadness, desires and feelings. Over various days, with the help of experiments with a friend who believes in her capability, she comes to terms with the fact that this is what she has to live through the rest of her life. 

This novel goes on to talk about Rose, her struggle to live through life with this new found ability of hers, her mother's secret, her brother's in-explainable behavioral traits, her father and his distance from the family, her little trysts with so-called friends, and finally, her attempt to using this unique ability of hers to actually be able to enjoy the rest of her life. 

Aimee has captured the whole idea in a wonderful, thought provoking manner. Makes for an interesting read. 
Sounds interesting! Aparna is a wonderful cook, so I understand why this book intrigued her so much! I remember making a mental note of reading this book a while back. It's definitely a unique gift to "taste" the cook's deepest feelings. I think most Eastern traditions believe that the things one creates (or cooks) carry a part of the creator with them. They even say cooking with negative thoughts ruins the dish. I am curious to know how Rose uses her gift in ways that are helpful to her and those around her!

Aparna's thoughts on another memorable book can be read here.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Reflections: The Night Circus

The Night Circus is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. I was drawn to it because of the magical and mysterious synopsis. I was quite curious and excited to delve into some magic (or magical realism), but I am left confused (confusion being my predominant state of mind these days).

Prospero, the famous illusionist and a mysterious man in a grey suit arrange for a Game. A game of magical prowess and endurance. A game that has been played for centuries. A game wherein each of them pit their students against each other like pawns in a board game. But this time, Prospero selects his own daughter, Celia, as a contestant in the magical and grueling game. The bewitching and talented Celia has no idea what she (and her contestant) are in for. And then, as if the stars had always charted this out, the Night Circus comes into being. It’s the most enchanting Circus the world has ever seen. It opens at midnight and closes at dawn. It has limitless breadth and depth within its tents, making people wonder at the limits of possibility. While the audiences imagine the Circus to be brimming with unusually brilliant illusion and magic tricks, only those inside of it know how their lives have changed forever, suspended in a magical bubble that can burst at any time. They too, are now smaller pawns in the Game that unfolds itself inside the tents. What is this Game, what is to come of the Circus and its eclectic and mysterious stakeholders? Only time will tell. Time is the only thing that even Magic cannot truly escape? Isn’t it?

Have you made you a tad bit curious? No? Oh, well. Then this book is surely not for you! I want to keep most of the elements of the story under wraps as much as possible, for the mystery drives the first half of the book forward. I will just say that this book is not a magical replica of the Hunger Games! Yes, there is a similar game, but no, they are not alike in any other way.

The prose is gorgeous! Oh so luscious and enticing! It almost hypnotizes the reader with vivid imagery. That’s the best part of the book; the element which kept me hooked. The prose beautifully recreates every scene, every sensation, every visual perception in the mind’s eye. This is a delightful treat, especially to those who like fantasy and magic. Real magic! Managing this visual delight through words is a feat. Combined with this visual delight and the mysterious beginning, the book built up a grand expectation of what was to come. But, anti-climatically, the story itself fizzled out in about 2/3rds of the way. It was such a let down. Was there character development? Some yes, but not much.

The author tries to be very mysterious of everything, but in the end, you realize there wasn’t really much of a mystery. And those things that were really enigmatic (like the spells and charms) remain an enigma. There were no complex plots, nothing that intriguing or elaborate to warrant such a hefty premise. The ending seemed amateurish to me. It doesn’t befit the first half of the book. And truth be told, I don’t really understand the point of the story. Yes, not all stories on magic need to be allegorical and loaded with symbolism, but I felt the author was trying to put across a statement, but it never came through. It seemed like she was attempting to mix the metaphysical with the physical in some philosophical sense. Free-will in the context of controlling the elements and foreseeing the future? Was she trying to say that Magic is real and possible, but people just choose to ignore it and resist it because it requires self-awareness and uncomfortable control and confrontations within the mind? That Magic can be taught? Or that the boundary between reality and fantasy/magic is too thin and subject to perception and interpretation? Or that it’s not necessary for every story to have a meaning, a structure, a point to convey?

So, yes, the story itself fell flat for me. But, I loved the atmosphere that is created in the book. I soaked and savored the words as my mind’s eye feasted on the grandeur and deceptive simplicity of the beguiling Circus. And oh, there is also some fairy-tale romance that sparks up the atmosphere. And I’m a sucker for that  as well. But then again, can a book be truly enjoyed solely for such sensory/sensual experiences?

You see why I’m confused. I don’t know how to rate this book. So, I’m not going to. It is surely a very interesting and captivating book that your senses will revel in, but your intellect will scoff at. There is so much momentum in the first part of the book, but the story huffs and puffs and falls short in the end. Or, as is always the possibility, I just missed something! But I will surely remember this book for a long time! It has bewitched a portion of my brain. That's the spell this book casts, despite the lack of a strong story.

Someone compared this to Harry Potter apparently. Ha! No, this is nothing like Harry Potter. But, if Rowling and Erin Morgenstern were to team up, I’m confident that the result will be nothing short of magical!

If you’ve read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reflections: Flowers for Algernon

Such a classic book. It’s a shame I took so long to read it. Thanks to my good friend for recommending it for so many years! Upon reading, I understand how well she knows me :).

Charlie Gordon is a young man with an IQ of 68. Classified as mentally retarded, he is cast away by his parents. A kind gesture gets him a job at a bakery where he does a few menial jobs. Every evening he attends a special school for mentally challenged adults, where he tries really really hard to become smart. His motivation to learn catches the interest of a psychology professor and neurosurgeon who needs an experimental human-subject to test a new groundbreaking technique that can artificially induce intelligence by changing the biochemistry of parts of the brain. Having tested this procedure on numerous animals (lab mice), they are bristling to try it on a human being. Charlie eagerly consents, for becoming smart is his ultimate goal and yearning in life. What follows is Charlie’s recounts of the changes that push and pull his identity as his intelligence explodes. This is an enormously powerful (if a little disturbing) book on the power and fragility of the human mind. It’s a brilliant and extremely moving read.

Although I didn’t know anything much of the story or the ending, I could predict the path this book would take from the very first chapter. But despite knowing the course and eventuality of the overall story, the book couldn’t have been more gripping. Since the book is framed as a collection of Charlie’s journal entries, it is extremely personal, direct, and honest. The ascent, descent, and changes in Charlie’s personality, or rather identity, is realistically written with clarity and psychological acuity.

The question of what constitutes intelligence is one of the underlying themes. Intelligence is tricky to define and measure. As one’s intellect grows, how does their identity change? Are you the same person if you can approach calculus like it’s child’s play today, and then completely lose the ability to even count properly, the day after? As Charlie’s intellect shoots rapidly, he grapples with his emotional growth (or lack thereof) and battles with some basic psychological dissonance. Is there an old Charlie and a new Charlie now? Is he the same Charlie? Can he be both Charlies? What does it mean to know and have such competing identities within you. It’s one thing to lose your mind and memories completely (such as with amnesia or Alzheimer's), but it’s another to live within two different and conflicting worlds and identities. Charlie’s story unearths all of the basic philosophical questions on identity and “self”. It’s heart-wrenching to witness the transformations within him that drive him to the edge. His nightmares leap from the pages and hold you down with the same terror as Charlie faces.

Identity is usually defined as continuity of consciousness along time. It is so intriguing that one’s consciousness is nothing but a result of one’s neural activity in the brain. As this neural firing changes, consciousness changes, and identity morphs as well. Does it mean the “self” is  also different? Then, isn’t there anything of permanence within a human-being to make him/ his self, consistent? Maybe there isn’t. And that’s the most disturbing aspect. 

The question that bugs the reader is - Was the procedure worthwhile to Charlie, in any sense? Was he better in his shroud of ignorance than in his torturous but enlightening state of intelligence? Was the fleeting, if painful, process of self-awareness worth it? Reminds me of a psychiatrist's quote from some book I read a long time ago. The patient was a woman who was seriously delusional. She had lost her entire family in an accident and was living in an institution. But in her delusional state, she was extremely happy. She wore a big smile every morning and told everyone that she had just sent her kids to school and that she and her husband were planning an exotic vacation, etc. The psychiatrist says to people who ask him why he hadn't "cured" her - "Even if I could magically touch  her head to "cure" her, I wouldn't. She is happiest in her state, and it's a punishment to return her to reality." I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I often think of this quote.

The other overarching theme of the book is the morality and philosophical ethics behind inflicting such drastic procedures on humans and animals when the risks and consequences are high. This was the era during which the Milgram experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment and other disturbing and cruel psychological and physical experiments were conducted in the name of science. Things have changed dramatically (or rather, over-dramatically) today. Now, even a simple experiment or research study involving human subjects needs to pass through a tight and merciless review board. We jump through multiple hoops before we can ask people to estimate colors and play simple video games. I guess it’s better to err on the side of safety. Participant rights, safety and well-being are given wholesome consideration before even a simple research experiment can be put into place. Although human-subjects are treated with more respect and consideration, I can’t say the same thing about animal experimentation. But things are probably a little more humane than they used to be. At the very least, there is awareness.

I could relate to Charlie’s frustrations and complete eagerness to be smart so that he is loved and accepted in society. The world is doubly cruel to a challenged person. At least the physically challenged have their mind as a tool. The mentally challenged are bereft of the one tool that is inimitably essential for survival. Charlie's story is an example of the callousness of earlier generations that didn't even regard the mentally-challenged as human beings, or even beings worth existing.

Charlie’s story also brings to light the intimidation that intelligence brings with it. It’s ironic that people move away from him because of their feelings of inferiority. I have never considered this aspect of human psychology - that people could (and would) scorn and move away from those who are more intelligent than them. I have always been in awe of people with high intelligence and try to be around them like a puppy, hoping their intellect would rub a little on me. Another aspect that comes from this story is the apparent disproportion between intelligence and compassion. The higher the intelligence, the more self-absorbed one is likely to be in their quest for knowledge and self-awareness, and the more compassion and humanness one potentially loses. I guess it’s rare for high intelligence and compassion to exist in equal measures in a human-being; another ironical and unsettling observation.
Intelligence without compassion is dangerous. But I have definitely had the privilege to know and interact with many who break this stereotype. 
Finally, all the characters are sharply and accurately portrayed. Charlie’s memories and relationships with his parents are terribly moving and realistic.  Charlie’s mom is probably the most intense character in this book. And as flawed as she is, one can still sympathize with her motives and perspectives. Parents have no idea how much power they possess to break and damage their children for life.

I will end with the quote that the book begins with. It says it all.

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other...” Plato’s, The Republic

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Reflections: The Irresistible Henry House

It is 1946. Martha Gaines is reappointed as the head of the Practice House at Wilton College. She teaches young girls that flock to enroll in the program (due to very few career choices), the skills and techniques of good housekeeping and child rearing. Every year or so, the local orphanage provides the House with a “practice baby”. A healthy infant that is abandoned at the orphanage gets to be the hands-on training material for the young girls. Every week, the baby gets handled by a different cooing girl who learns how to bathe, change diapers, dress, prepare the formula, feed, play, and put the baby to sleep, among other parenting techniques such as training the baby not to suck its thumb, disciplining the baby to sleep alone, etc. Basically,  a crash-course on early motherhood for the girls. The young girls then graduate, formally certified and trained to be mothers and housekeepers. When the adorable baby turns one or two years old, s/he is put up for adoption, and eventually leaves the House with a loving family. Sounds like a fantastic idea, right? The babies get cared by so many enthusiastic and loving ladies, ever so warm and pampering, and in turn the babies help teach the ladies some smart skills to prepare for the future. What could possibly be wrong with this win-win situation? That’s the question that intrigues one to read this book.

The book follows the life of Henry, a practice baby, to address the question - how could such a program affect the babies and even possibly, scar them for life. Needless to say, I found it to be a fascinating book. Child psychology and parenting are close to my heart, and I have often wondered if it would be beneficial to for mothers-to-be to attend psychological training sessions, so that they pick up some vital parenting techniques before they fumble with their child. Although I never imagined using an “experimental” baby, it didn’t sound like a terrible idea when I read the preface of this book. Apparently, this story was inspired from the picture of a “practice baby” at Cornell! So, the story is drawn from real, historical evidence from schools in the US.

This book is more than a novel. It is a psychological sketch of Henry starting from his early years. The author brilliantly builds Henry’s psyche and personality, matching every experience he goes through to the ways in which his behavior and thoughts get altered. Poor Henry also has other complications to add to his baggage - he was the only practice baby to never leave the House. The matron of the house, Martha, vows to not get attached to any baby, but she falls for Henry and clings onto him as her last straw of emotional fulfillment. On one side is this suffocating and controlling love, and on the other is a painful void as Henry yearns for his biological mother. Enough to complicate the life of a young man.

The story reiterates the fact that the first 5 years of a child’s life is incredibly sensitive. Mishandling of these years results in lasting scars and psychological issues. Due to being shifted between dozens of caregivers, practice babies never learned to attach to a single caregiver. It is apparently extremely important for infants to feel consistently secure and loved by at least one parent/caregiver. The bond of love and trust that they build in their first year is vital to their emotional development. When handled by so many temporary caregivers, it’s traumatic for the babies to feel betrayed over and over again, every time their caregiver changed. They are eventually unsure of whom to trust, whom to cry for, whom to feel safe with, and grow up with attachment-issues and struggle to commit to any one thing - be it people, places, career, etc. This might seem like an extreme developmental issue, for there are millions of babies that are handled by several temporary caregivers at orphanages, out of no other choice. Are they all doomed for life? Henry's story shows that while attachment-issues can be alleviated later in life, they only worsen so much more if there are more rejections and other issues that aggravate things.

Other interesting themes are part of this story as there is plenty of social documentary in the background. The parenting principles of the 40’s and 50’s are critiqued, and the rise of women’s empowerment in the U.S is traced. I personally appreciated the author conveying the message that there is more to raising a baby or child, than feeding, diapering, and disciplining based on text-book prescribed rules. Parenting is much much bigger than that. And, too much love is not always a good thing, especially if it is misdirected.

The characters are very real - developed with precise psychological sensitivity. The reader can see past their flaws and readily sympathize with them. However, I couldn’t sympathize with Henry’s biological mother - I tried to, but I failed later on in the book.

A very interesting book - but perhaps only to those who are interested in psychological case studies. That is not to say the language is heavy or boring. The writing is simple, yet smart, and there is more to the story than a series of psychological accounts. I recommend it (if it’s worth anything)!