I Love You, Samuel Johnson

Featured Image Credits - http://www.bbc.co.uk

Featured Image Credits – http://www.bbc.co.uk

In one of my journals that I wrote as a student at Jain College – I remember recording an entry about how guilty I felt one morning for having asked amma some money to pay the college fee. She directed me towards the drawer and I took 18,000 from it. I must repay her, I’d written.

I have been reading The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Through last week and this – it’s all I’ve been reading. There is a chapter on Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson and how he spent nine years writing it. The man, like so many other authors from that time, had to discontinue his studies because his parents couldn’t afford it. Just like James Augustus Murray – the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Just like Shakespeare, and just like Dickens. And just like so many other men and women who wanted to study but couldn’t.

What happens to young people with an immense appetite for learning when they are pulled away from schools? I asked in a class, earlier this week.

“They become desperate to learn”, said someone. I couldn’t have looked for a better word myself. This BBC documentary explains Johnson’s desperation to work through the hard years to produce the damn dictionary. He had Tourette syndrome and was often the butt of many jokes – some really offensive even. At one point, when the dictionary work was almost dying – he overheard his assistants ridiculing him. He didn’t say anything. He just turned around and walked away.

The next morning, he showed up for work as if nothing had happened. What else did I expect him to do? He just wanted to work.

You would not deny me a place among the most faithful votaries of idleness, if you knew how often I have recollected my engagement, and contented myself to delay the performance for some reason which I durst not examine because I knew it to be false; how often I have sitten down to write, and rejoiced at interruption; and how often I have praised the dignity of resolution, determined at night to write in the morning, and deferred it in the morning to the quiet hours of the night.
~Samuel Johnson: Idler #83 (November 17, 1759), from “Robin Spritely,” a fictional correspondent.

When the dictionary was finally ready for print, he would still not send it to the publishers because he was waiting to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University (an M.A.), which later appeared on the title page of his Dictionary.

He waited. The way only a hungry man can wait. The desperation of a man who was hellbent on making sure that his poverty didn’t cost him what was taken away from him as a young boy – the appetite to learn, to achieve.

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Image credits – Wikimedia Commons | David Levy

W.C Minor – a major collaborator of the OED, did something similar when he was holed up in an asylum. Clearly he had more comforts here- a cell turned library, a writing desk, attenders on call, food and booze. His demons were however, larger. The man had been torn apart by war which had led him to murder someone. On grounds of lunacy, he managed to escape imprisonment but in his mind, he was perpetually imprisoned – by monomania, by fear, by the want to be productive which his restlessness wouldn’t grant.

James Augustus Murray too had the same fate, perhaps worse. He left school too because there was no money. But his curiosities got the better of him and the man taught himself to apply, to develop a nose for details. What happened at this spot in this city 200 years ago? He did well without school. He became assistant headmaster at 17 and headmaster at 20.

And then tragedy struck – he fell in love.

I wish I could go back in time – partly to live history as it happened and to see the events unfold before my eyes- the wars, the black & white London, the great fire, and most importantly – writers at work. Partly also because I am curious – would I have taught myself to read and write if I couldn’t afford 18,000 for an education?

Years ago, I found a diary while cleaning the department. It belonged to AM. It had a list of books he had purchased and read as a student in his early 20s. After each book he had also recorded the amount spent on it. I felt gravely insulted by his diary. He had read about 200 books in a year. Money was tight so much of his reading happened by borrowing books.

Some say that it was easier to commit oneself to reading back then because there were no distractions. Even so. It must have taken some sort of odd courage to chop yourself off from everyone else in order to learn, to apply yourself to something – anything.

And as if silence isn’t distracting enough. Every time I crave silence, I am rewarded by it but within minutes, it has the capacity to become a punishment. Nothing in the world is as menacing as silence when you first want it, and then don’t want it.

Even so – this has been the most inspiring week. Even if I am fucking 29 Olay years old, even if I have started only now. My only comfort is that I can never be too old to feel inspired. Again and again.

Read his very stylish Letter to Lord Chesterfield here. The man knew how to laugh.

Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

Featured Image Credits – http://www.bbc.co.uk

Albert Einstein

After class today, I sat and watched a documentary on Albert Einstein. To begin with, I still mumble when I pronounce his last name. I have never been much of a learner of physics matlab, I have never shown interest in understanding the workings of matter, mind or body. Whatever little I remember of the man is because of the English text book from my 9th std where we learnt about the genius and the eccentricity of Einstein. I remember the jokes he made, his smile and his hair. Basically I remember one picture. This picture:

Image Credits: googglet.com

Image Credits: googglet.com

In college last year, there was a one man play on the life and work of Albert Einstein. The stage was set with a black board, a table and a chair. I was a little curious here and enjoyed the performance a lot. Also, in many ways, the play broke down the many theories of Albert Einstein in simple English.

Ever since women beat the shit out of themselves in Olympics last year, I have grown to become very fascinated by what and how people dedicate their lives to and how they sustain this dedication through practice and discipline.

The BBC documentaries are always fun to watch. They humanize their subjects by taking us into their very lives – their rooms, work tables, documents. This makes them come alive and away from solid and unfeeling textbooks. So I watched today, an Albert Einstein poring over equations in his notebook and then another conducting his many thought experiments. For the first time, it feels like I have missed out on something valuable for not having paid attention in science classes. For two reasons:

  1. This Theory of Relativity thing is damn cool. I kept rewinding and forwarding at various points today to make sure I got it right. And at the end, even though it feels like I have learnt something, I won’t be able to explain it very well. I am still learning. But I know now that the reason Einstein is a genius is not only because he discovered/invented theories to understand the universe. But because he was able to explain these theories with working examples.
  2. What did Einstein and people like him have to work through their lifetime? He is passionately curious, is what he said. But how is one able to sustain this curiosity in the midst of all the other shit that life throws – love, money, power, jealousy, fame, career. Einstein had a lot of personal problems. He was married more than once, and these marriages were unhappy marriages, his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he was a physicist occupying a prestigious office in 1939 Germany. Clearly the world was collapsing and being born all around him. How did he work through it all?

I am fascinated by the way people remove themselves from people-emotions-feelings related problems and just set to work, like nothing else matters.

This documentary on Shakespeare reintroduced me to Shakespeare’s world and I remember reading Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Wives of Windsor and wondering why I ever thought he was unreadable.

Good, good Friday today!