Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dan Brown J.K.Rowling and Ponniyin Selvan

Dan Brown's latest book sold one million copies (hardcover+ ebook) in ONE DAY in US+UK+Canada. The publishers are rushing to print 600,000 more. After J.K.Rowling's last Harry Potter book this is the book that publishers and the world in large waited with bated breath for. Literary critics panned Brown's blockbuster "Da Vinci Code". Discerning readers considered it inferior to Umberto Eco's scholarly "Foucault's Pendulum". All that not withstanding Brown made history. Then Hollywood swept in.

J.K.Rowling has a more compelling story. A typical rags to riches story. Legend has it that with her personal life in shambles a penniless Rowling wrote her first installment of Potter sitting in Starbucks cafe. A publisher holidaying in England picks up her little noticed book and gets the rights for USA. The rest is history. But its not as simple as that. What she achieved is of gargantuan proportions. When the last Potter book released across continents and countries far removed from England, kids in Delhi, Chennai, China, Europe, Latin America thronged by the thousands to get their copy of a 800+ page book. If any author is said to have created a world and tapped into an universal conscience it was Rowling. Kids across cultures and worlds apart felt drawn to a wizarding boy battling an unimaginable evil. Eventually Rowling earned more than the Queen, importantly she 'earned' it and also paid taxes.

Hollywood came calling to Rowling too. The Potter films have so far garnered several billions. Here one has to pause and appreciate the vertically integrated model of Hollywood. A book gets published, a production company makes a movie, author's get millions in fees, screen play writers get royalty for DVD bought in addition to fees during the making of the movie, with Blu Ray many buy Potter movies all over again, so repeat consumers. Given the stature of Rowling and Brown they draw up contracts giving them portions of the movies revenues right up to DVD sales.

Before anybody trashes Hollywood for commercialisation and going for lightweight novels let it be noted that Hollywood also made a movie of Umberto Eco's symbolism laden "The name of the Rose", that too starring Sean Connery.

Brown and Rowling are phenomenons re-defining the idea of 'convergence'. There is news now of a Harry Potter theme park in Orlando. Tour operators are busy planning Dan Brown tours in Washington DC based on his latest book. Already Paris has a 'Da Vinci code' tour. If this is commercialisation lets have more of it. Brown's 'Da Vinci' may lack literary merit but he made millions look up "Da Vinci, Knights Templar, Medici, Bernini, etc" in search engines. Those topics became the widely searched ones in search engines. Theological debates on Christ and Church history abounded.

I am often accused of being unfair to Tamil heritage. Here is a thought to mull. Kalki's opus "Ponniyin Selvan" has literary merits far exceeding Dan Brown. For a minute lets close our eyes and see a Dan Brown like transformation for Ponniyin Selvan. A publisher comes out with a nice paperback, artfully illustrated. An offshooot publication for children as comics. A movie deal starring Kamal (its his passion) as Vandhiathevan. Ponniyin Selvan tours in and around Tanjore. Big Temple, Gangai konda chola puram all become hot spots. A corollary industry of books analysing the chola period. Documentaries (how many Da Vinci related documentaries sprouted recently), museums resurrected, cruises on Kaveri with stops along dramatic spots, tourists with multi-lingual head sets....Its a good dream.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Presidential reading list and Ben Stein on Evolution

I have huge differences with a certain personality in Tamil Nadu (DK, supporter of Eelam etc) and when he visited US he stayed with a cousin of mine. I requested my cousin to ask him just one question "What do you read beyond Tamil literature and local news papers?". The answer, as I guessed, was nothing. My cousin later took up with me asking "is that a relevant criterion to judge a person or his views". It is very much relevant. We are what we read, to a great extent.

A pivotal moment portrayed in the movie "Thirteen Days", about the Cuban missile crisis, is how JFK castigates Dean Acheson's fantasy ideas. When most suggest invading Cuba and characterise as if it would be smooth sailing, JFK demurs. He then cites Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer winning "Guns of August" as to how, in battle, well laid plans and optimistic projections crumble. His reading gave him a perspicacity to see through a smoke screen. Recently when Barack Obama vacationed his reading list made news. It was an ecletic collection that include fiction and as well Thomas Friedman's thought provoking "Hot, Flat and Crowded" about climate change. Bill Clinton before he came to India bought books on India. As incredulous as it may seem George Bush is a voracious reader. Karl Rove and he had a race to see who read more. Of course Rove, the prodigious reader, won but Rove cuts his boss some slack as his boss was "the leader of the free world".

When Rove wrote a column on Bush's reading habits a Washington Post columnist pointed out something important. As impressive as the list was it had books that only conformed to Bush's predisposition nothing that was in the least bit challenging to his outlook. A very good insight.

While not reading something that would challenge what we believe choosing to read from unauhoritative sources just because they pander to our beliefs is even worse. Many a Christian, especially in USA, struggles with accepting 'Theory of evolution'. When Ben Stein, an economist who writes for business magazines, came out with a scathing video ridiculing the academia for not teaching "Intelligent Design" (creationism that passes for science) many latched onto it. Nobody questioned his credentials. Many a conservative writer, Ann Coulter etc, have waded into this topic with no credentials whatsoever. Even Thomas Friedman is now falling under 'dubious authority'. Friedman started out as NYT's Foreign affairs correspondent earning Pulitzer for his stellar reporting from Lebanon. When there was no accessible book to understand globalisation his "Lexus and the Olive tree" was a god send. Then Friedman, who wrote that book based largely as a journalist with a keen eye witnessing a new phenomenon during his wide travels, began fancying himself as an economist+foreign affairs+globalisation+business expert. His subsquent book on India and globalisation, a bestseller, was rated poorly by critics and the knowledgeable.

Reading is important, choose to read variously and choose carefully. When somebody espouses an idea look for what he/she read, you may need not look further. Lets ask our leaders what they read.