Ujjwal Prasai: Time to Read More, Think Hard

- Ujjwal Prasai | 2024-05-05

Ujjwal Prasai, a writer and educator based in Kathmandu, has written a biography, translated two books, including fiction, and contributed hundreds of articles to Kathmandu-based newspapers and magazines. As an avid reader with eclectic interests, he has navigated several worlds of academic and literary inquiries with the help of the books he has read. Here, ApEx presents an edited version of our conversation with Prasai on books.  

What book are you currently reading, and what was your last book? 

I usually start reading two to three books at a time; some I race-read and finish, others I go slow and take some time to complete. The last few books I completed reading are Environmentalism from Below: How Global People’s Movements are Leading the Flight for Our Climate by Ashley Dawson; Salman Rushdie's Knife: Meditations after an Attempted Murder; and The Cooking of Books: A Literary Memoir by Ramachandra Guha. I took considerably longer to finish the first one by Dawson as I took copious notes from the book; it did not take much time to finish the other two memoirs written in a lucid flow. I am currently rereading Annie Proulx’s novel Barkskins, and the other book I have just started reading is Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein. 

How often do you switch genres or mostly stick to one kind of writing and accidentally read other genres? 

Genre-wise, I am very eclectic. I read as much fiction as I read academic and literary non-fiction. However, I always look for exciting blends like rigorously researched but written with the style of literary fiction or adopting the approach of popular writing, hardcore political writings written with poetic flair, and historical details written in very lucid prose like the writings of Ranajit Guha. After reading many academic, jargon-laden, or challenging writings, I pull poetry anthologies from my shelf. I have collected a few dozen of them in several languages: English, Hindi, Nepali, and some Urdu. 

Though a colossal number of academic writings continue getting published, it is said that very few people read them. Do you love reading academic stuff, or is it the compulsion driven by your academic job?  

I don’t judge a book based on its pages, number of footnotes or endnotes, bibliography or mechanics, etc. There are lovely books that are thick, and there are others that look like pamphlets but are fascinating and significant. For example, Paulo Freire's ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ cannot be dismissed just because it is relatively thin, or maybe Simon De Beauvoir's ‘The Second Sex’ cannot be discarded for not having pages of references at the back. Again, how can you say people don't read thick books like ‘Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover’, a biography of the writer Agyeya written by Akshaya Mukul, for being dense, having a lot of references, and hundreds of endnotes? Indeed, some books have specific audiences trained in certain areas of scientific inquiry, and they understand those books more than others. The books written by anthropologist Mark Liechty, like ‘Suitably Modern’ or ‘Far Out’, tell fascinating stories of Nepal and have all the required academic paraphernalia, including some jargon and technical terms. These books are being read by many who want to know Nepal better. Since I have learned a lot from academic books, I read them with admiration and respect. 

How often do you rely on reviews published in the popular press or the bestseller lists they publish weekly or monthly? 

I always scroll the news and magazine outlets for book reviews, and even in academic journals, I read book reviews first, and then I go to other articles. They help me a lot in deciding which books to pick and which not to prioritize. However, I am cautious about literary and academic echo chamber reviews. Reviews published as promotional materials don’t help much. I usually don't read bestseller lists, and they are not the guides I rely on. I typically list readings from the titles I collect as I read well-written and researched books; for example, I have prepared a long list of readings from the references of the books and articles I read in the last few months. The first one from the list I am starting in a few days is ‘The Value of a Whale’ by Adrienne Buller. 

It is often said that people are not reading much with the proliferation of digital media and social media platforms. Is it true? 

I have not read any properly done survey or robust research making this kind of claim. Well, this could be based on how people perceive the proliferation and impact of digital media, and maybe there are people who have started devoting more time to scrolling X or Facebook than to reading lengthy stuff. But I don't think reading will cease or dwindle to become negligible in the near future. Instead, digital platforms have added some advantages for the readers; people find several ways to get hold of e-books. I have seen many people reading many books in Epub and PDF formats on their electronic devices. Since we face many crises, including climate change, it is becoming increasingly important to read, think and interact more. I believe that, pushed by the crises, people will read more and think hard; some digital platforms may aid this process. 

Can you recommend some works of contemporary fiction for our young readers? 

I can give you a list of some of the interesting novels I have read in the last few months. Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Sakina’s Kiss’, written originally in the Kannada language, tells a story of a complex (a reviewer called it dated) masculinity that represents a considerably large number of South Asian men. Another fiction that I recently read was ‘Chinatown Days’ by Rita Chowdhury; I picked this name from Amitav Ghosh’s recent book ‘Smoke and Ashes’. This novel tells the story of the uprooting of a small community of Chinese living in Assam during the war of 1962. Another fascinating work of fiction I read was Teju Cole’s third novel, ‘Tremor’; I call it a rich tapestry of ruminations on art, literature, colonialism and different yet interrelated human experiences. Those interested in thinking about the climate crisis may pick up ‘The History of Bees’ by Maja Lunde; the collage of a dystopian future with enough elements of historical fiction makes us think about the declining population of bees and its causes and alerts us to the alarming impacts it may have on the climate. 

Published: May 5, 2024
Source: https://theannapurnaexpress.com/story/48685/

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