Thursday, April 30, 2009

Monday, April 20, 2009

Starter for Ten

I'm reading a really nice book at the moment. (Well, OK, not at the moment, you nitpicking doof. At the moment, I'm typing out this blogpost. But you know what I mean.)

It's Starter for Ten, by David Nicholls. I picked this up at a bargain from a roadside second-hand pushcart, for the sole reason that the story is set around a guy who wants to qualify for University Challenge. I have very fond memories of my times on the show, and hence the book.

I haven't finished reading the book yet, but it's very funny and very well written. It manages to grab the reader and drag him through the tumultuous, chaotic, confused life of the protagonist. All with very sharp wit and crackling humour. Definitely a purchase I'm glad I made.

The reason I'm putting up this post is not really to review the book, but to call out two passages from it that I really liked. 

The first talks about the protagonist's expectations from University life - how he hopes it will help him grow as a person and a man, opening his mind, eyes and soul to a world of new experiences, fresh knowledge and elevated culture. And although this is in a very British context (and in the context of someone completing his A-levels and off do study Literature), it took me back to my thoughts and hopes when I stepped into the world of higher education (particularly IIMA). Here it is:

...on this clear late summer night, looking up at the stars, with my best mates either side of me, it feels as if real life is beginning at last, and that absolutely everything is possible. I want to be able to listen to recordings of piano sonatas and know who's playing. I want to go to classical concerts and know when you're meant to clap. I want to be able to 'get' modern jazz without it sounding like this terrible mistake, and I want to know who the Velvet Underground are exactly. I want to be fully engaged in the World of Ideas, I want to understand complex economics, and what people see in Bob Dylan. I want to possess radical but humane and well-informed political ideals, and I want to hold passionate but reasoned debates round wooden kitchen tables, saying things like 'define your terms!' and 'your premise is patently specious!' and then suddenly to discover that the sun's come up and we've been talking all night. I want to use words like 'eponymous' and 'solipsistic' and 'utilitarian' with confidence. I want to learn to appreciate fine wines, and exotic liqueurs, and fine single malts, and learn how to drink them without turning into a complete div, and to eat strange and exotic foods, plovers' eggs and lobster thermidor, things that sound barely edible, or that I can't pronounce. I want to make love to beautiful, sophisticated, intimidating women, during daylight or with the light on even, and sober, and without fear, and I want to be able to speak many languages fluently, and maybe even a dead language or two, and to carry a small leather-bound notebook in which I jot incisive thoughts and observations, and the occasional line of verse. Most of all I want to read books; books as thick as a brick, leather-bound books with incredibly thin paper and those purple ribbons to mark where you left off; cheap, dusty, second-hand books of collected verse, incredibly expensive, imported books of incomprehensible essays from foreign universities.

At some point, I'd like to have an original idea. And I'd like to be fancied, or maybe loved even, but I'll wait and see. And as for a job, I'm not sure exactly what I want yet, but something I don't despise, and that doesn't make me ill, and that means I don't have to worry about money all the time. And all of these are the things that a university education's going to give me.

The second passage deals with the author's impressions of the participants on University Challenge, when he watched the show as a child with his father. Not all of this is relevant to the Indian seasons of UC (because of the essential Britishness of it all and the timeframe), but there are pieces of it that remind me why I love quizzing, and how I've often been called upon to defend the awesomeness, the thrill, the sheer life-affirming beauty of trivia and arcane knowledge that seems so pointless (and, truth be told, hopelessly geeky) to some but worth so much for us quizzers. Here's a passage (I particularly like the latter half):

The thing that used to strike me most was their hair; great, improbable waves of brittle hair like parched wheat; swooping curtains of silky fringe; Sunday tea-time costume-drama mutton-chop sideburns... if you'd made it on to University Challenge, you'd earned the right to any damned hair-do you wanted. It was almost as if they couldn't help it, as if the crazy hair was just an outlet for all that incredible, uncontrollable excess mental energy. Like a mad scientist, you couldn't be that clever and still expect to have manageable hair, or decent eyesight, or the ability to wash and dress yourself.

And the clothes; the arcane, olde-English tradition of scarlet gowns combined with self-consciously wacky piano-keyboard-ties, the endless home-knitted scarves, the Afghan jerkins. Of course, when you're a kid watching telly, everyone seems old and retrospectively I suppose they must have been young, technically, in earth years, but if they really were twenty, then they were twenty going on sixty-two. Certainly there was nothing in the faces that suggested youth, or vigour, or good health. Instead they were tired, pasty, care-worn, as if struggling with the weight of all that information - the half-life of Tritium, the origins of the phrase 'eminence grise', the first twenty perfect numbers, the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet - had taken a terrible physical toll.

Of course, Dad and I rarely got any of the answers right, but that wasn't really the point. This wasn't trivia - it wasn't about feeling smug and complacent about all the things you knew, it was about feeling humbled by the whole, vast universe of things about which you had absolutely no idea; the point was to watch in awe, because it really did seem to me and Dad as if these strange creatures knew everything. Ask any question: what's the weight of the sun? Why are we here? Is the universe infinite? What's the secret of true happiness? - and even if they didn't know the answer immediately, they could at least confer, muttering to each other in low, lisping voices, and come up with something that, if not quite correct, still sounded like a fairly good guess.

And it didn't matter that the contestants were clearly social misfits, or a little grubby or spotty, or ageing virgins, or in some cases frankly strange, the point was that somewhere was a place where people actually knew all these things, and loved knowing them, and cared about that knowledge passionately, and thought it was important and worthwhile...

Lovely book, by the way. Do get yourself a copy if you can.