Used-bookstore and Hedonic Treadmill

When I am away from family for work and miss my family, I try to spend some time at the place I love the second most, after family. A used bookstore. Unfortunately, there are not many used bookstores left in our cities and they are increasingly difficult to locate.

Accidentally today I just happened to spot a book store in Lugano. It’s called Punto e Virgola, situated on Via Giuseppe Bagutti. Bookstores are magical places. So much imagination, hard work, struggle and dreams, bound between covers and spread across pages, at one place! If bookstores are magical, used bookstores are nostalgic, romantic and magical. Every book in a used bookstore is a character in itself. Every book carries a hidden story. Every book is a clue to someone’s life. There was this book by a Nobel laureate physicist. I opened it and there was a postcard somebody had sent from Guadalupe to Nice in 1992. Who were those people? Why this postcard was in this book? How this book traveled from France to Italian speaking region of Switzerland? Then there was another book of Bernard Shaw’s lesser known one-act plays. It was the first edition, printed in 1958, owned and read by one “L. L.” Who would that person be? Must be a playwright, because pages where plays were explained were significantly much worn out than the plays themselves. Or probably an actor who wanted to study Bernard Shaw. Or a PhD student working on Bernard Shaw. The book is an American edition. Was “L.L.” an American? Then how did that person end up in this part of Europe?  Then there was this book titled “First Five Pages”. A book for writers. The book claimed to save budding writers from rejections.  Someone had read the whole book with great attention. Every advice-like sentence was highlighted. Some of them were also underlined by a pencil. Maybe two readers had read it. What happened to them? Did they become writers? Did they publish their books? Were they writers? Or just teachers who wanted to teach how to write? Maybe they were frustrated writers who ended up becoming teachers, trying to fulfill their dreams through their students! I don’t want answers to these questions. But each book that I looked at stimulated my mind. Each book threw me further down in a sea of stories. It was like listening to a beautiful song in a language you don’t know. You enjoy every bit of it but you never know what it wants to convey. For a moment it was like getting off the hedonic treadmill.

What is that? We all work hard, set objectives, set targets, and when we achieve them, our emotions turn out to be underwhelming. We are not as happy as we had thought we would be. It’s like being on a treadmill. You walk a lot and still you never move forward. Happiness is like that. You keep working, achieving and still you are as happy (or unhappy) as you were before. You think when you have more money saved you will be happier, or when you buy a house you’ll be happier, or when you work in a better company you’ll be happier. Despite all of this happening, that moment of utmost happiness that you were waiting doesn’t arrive. When we borrow objectives and targets from others, it’s difficult to get off that hedonic treadmill. But when we do something that truly makes us happy, we get off that treadmill and actually move forward. A used bookstore takes me a couple of steps further. Well, if you have reached till this sentence that means you have already figured out what will take you off that hedonic treadmill. So stop reading this now, do what makes you really happy!


Creative process – Through lens of Improvisation

annbeattieEngaging in a creative process is difficult. One has to bear the pressure of being original and constantly fight the fear of being repetitive or being ‘over-inspired’ by somebody else. Ann Beattie, has been one of the few gifted stalwarts who managed this tension effectively. I came across this very interesting interview of her in the Paris Review (TPR). Generally it’s difficult to appreciate the interviews from TPR unless you know almost entire body of work of the author (Which . However, there are some interesting insights about the process of writing which I personally find quite stimulating.

What Ann describes is an almost improvised process of creation. She says that she doesn’t start writing with a definite outline in mind. That makes her writing more challenging and interesting.

Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock. In the context of a story, a fairly boring thought in a character’s head can work better than a brilliant one, and a brilliantly laid out structure can be so much worse for a story than one that is more haphazard.

A fascinating imagery. It’s interesting how she thinks of rocks in a stream. : Different and distant rocks, of characters, events, images, words and underneath a constant stream of emotions – inspiration! It also reads like a beautiful description of improvisation in any form of art. Combining different elements, jumping from one onto the other, as a part of one journey, in a constantly flowing stream of emotions, weaving a story!

What’s wrong with ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

mittyI recently watched Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘. After I read on IMDB that it’s a re-make of an old movie with the same title, I managed to see the old one as well.

Well, to call it a remake is unfair. Except the name of the protagonist and his habit of daydreaming, nothing is common between these two movies. However, what I wish to talk about is the underlying message that Ben Stiller’s movie gives and my problem with that message.

(Spoiler ahead ****) The basic difference between the original 1947 movie and Ben Stiller’s movie is the conceptual treatment of daydreaming and hallucinations. In Stiller’s movie Walter Mitty is a a ‘negative asset manager’ at Life magazine. Life magazine gets sold and its new owners decide to close it. Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) has to provide the negative for the photograph to be used as cover for the final print issue of the magazine. He needs to use a particular negative sent by a famous freelance journalist Sean O’Conell (played by Sean Penn) but somehow he isn’t able to locate it. To save his job Walter has to get the negative. In order to achieve that he embarks on an amazing journey to catch the eccentric photographer himself. The journey takes him to places as different and exotic as Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. However when his life takes this unexpected turn and becomes extremely exciting and adventurous, his hallucinations and daydreams take a backseat. In fact they disappear after a while.

In the older version (which was based directly on the short story wmitty oldritten by James Thurber) the daydreams stay very much a part of the protagonist’s life. In fact the whole idea of the story was that when life of Walter Mitty takes a mysterious turn he himself gets confused whether all that’s happening to him is real or a mere hallucination! Needless to say, till the end, the viewer is also intrigued whether all that’s going on the screen is real or is just another hallucination of the protagonist.

This is not the case with Stiller’s movie. Ben Stiller’s movie has over-philosophized the simple story-line and hence committed a serious mistake. The underlying message of the movie is that if you daydream a lot maybe your life lacks excitement, and so by making your life more exciting you can cure yourself of daydreaming. However there are two basic problems here. First, not everyone who does a mundane monotonous job (and that’s about several billion men and women on this planet) necessarily feels devoid of excitement in life. Second, not every daydreamer needs to be ‘cured’. In fact some daydreaming is rather good for creative thoughts. Research in psychology has suggested that ‘Positive Constructive Daydreaming’ plays an essential role in a healthy and fulfilling mental life. Here is a link to an excellent piece on Mind-Wandering by Maria Popova. Anyway, that’s a different issue altogether!

What promises to be a funny story about a daydreamer turns out to be a story of discovery of self. That’s the problem with the movie. The story and it’s treatment are not bad, in fact some sequences are truly breathtaking in visual sense. However, the script doesn’t remain loyal to it’s original premise and that’s where the movie falters.

Birth of a Masterpiece – A Case of Animal Farm

George Orwell - Courtsey :

Sometime ago I came across an interesting essay by self-anointed provocateur Christopher Hitchens about Animal Farm, an evergreen masterpiece by George Orwell.  The essay talks about the book’s birth, teething problems and everlasting relevance. However, what caught my attention was this paragraph taken from Orwell’s own introduction to the book.

” . . for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement. On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone . . . However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.”

This is a very interesting example. An acute need to express something – continuous search for a medium to do it – and a situation providing the ultimate ‘illumination’. Wolfgang Kohler, a Gestalt Psychologist, pointed out that an insight is the result of a dynamic interaction between the person and the situation. Many of us nurture similar desires to express several ideas, opinions etc. However, the reason why many of us cannot convert a ‘raw’ idea into a ‘product’, is because of this lack of ‘dynamic interaction’. We fail to interact with our situation. We fail to read our surroundings. So many stories, poems, novels, haikus, dramas are floating all around us. George Orwell can read it. I can’t. Do you?

How can we learn to interact with our situations? Certain mental habits may facilitate this. A persistent quest – ‘Prichchha’ – a persistent habit of questioning – a persistent habit of noting down details could help. Many studies in Psychology have found that a dialectical mind – a questioning mind – an observing mind – brings out better insights. Albert Rothenberg studied 22 Nobel Laureates, and found that the common differentiating factor among them was a dialectical mind – constantly looking for gaps, the unexplained, the contradictory, the anomalous, the odd.

Maybe we should also develop this quality – who knows – our masterpiece might just be lying next to us.


Khandwalla, Pradip (2003). Lifelong Creativity. Chapter 6. Pages 90-92. Tata McGraw-Hill, India.

Kohler, Wolfang (1947). Gestalt Psychology

Rothenberg, Albert (1996). “The Janusian process in scientific creativity”, Creativity Research Journal. Vol.9(2&3), pp. 207-231

How to write a novel

In Haruki Murakami‘s Sputnik Sweetheart, I came across a very interesting passage, where one character ‘K’, explains his opinion on writing a novel metaphorically to his friend Sumire. The author uses the metaphor only to describe the process of writing a novel. But I feel this metaphor could be very well applied to any creative pursuit.

"Sputnik Sweetheart" was published in Japanese in 1999, and in English in 2001.

"Sputnik Sweetheart" was published in Japanese in 1999, and in English in 2001.

Here, I am producing the same passage as it is. . . (All rights reserved by Haruki Murakami and Random House)


After a while I started to speak, “A long time ago in China there were cities with high walls around them, with huge, magnificent gates. The gates weren’t just doors for letting people in or out, they had greater significance. People believed the city’s soul resided in the gates. Or at least that it should reside there. It’s like in Europe in the Middle Ages when people felt a city’s heart lay in its cathedral and central square. Which is why even today in China there are lots of wonderful gates still standing. Do you know how the Chinese built these gates?”

“I have no idea,” Sumire answered.

“People would take carts out to old battlefields and gather about. China’s a pretty ancient country – lots of old battlegrounds – so they never had to search far. At the entrance to the city they’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones up inside. They hoped that by commemorating the dead soldiers in this way they would continue to guard their town. There’s more. When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinke their blood on the gate. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried-out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive. At least that was the idea.”

Sumire waited in silence for me to go on.

Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.”


Isn’t it interesting? What do you say?