DrScrabblette is such a phenomenal woman. She is the first academic I taught for at university and she has since become a dear, dear friend. We talk about everything from reading and culture and information and life and il/literacies and her dog whispering skills and just her incredible ability to connect with every one she meets. Her students love her, and I have to say that this love is highly deserved as she knocks herself out for them. Through DrScrabblette, I have met DrFriendless a few times, and he too is an open and giving person who, despite his chosen pseudonym, is very friendly and always interesting.
DrScrabblette and DrFriendless
University academic and computer wizard, sharing a celebrity dog named Samantha.
Can you describe yourself?
We started sharing bookshelves in 2006. She didn’t know how to read at all until she was ten. Homeschooled until ten on her Indian grandmother’s fantastic stories, myths, and legends, she has a lifelong obsession with fairytales and retellings. Once she learned to read, she consumed a lot of beautifully illustrated Russian Fairy Tales from Soviet bookstores, Tinkle magazine, Archie comics, Amar Chitra Katha stories, and Mad magazine, alongside tons of pulp fiction and cartoons in Tamil magazines. After completely skipping several phases of reading “chapter books” and YA fiction etc., she read Future Shock at fifteen, and has never stopped reading since.
He misspent his youth reading Enid Blyton, then heroic fantasy, then classics and literary fiction. Then he learnt French and read French classics and “polars” – noir detective stories. He read “The Hobbit” and the first couple of volumes of Harry Potter to his son when he was young, and the son grew up to read Chuck Palahniuk. These days he just reads computer texts, but has aspirations to write when he grows up.
She introduced him to Robert Coover, Indian mythology, and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, and the son to Ryu Murakami. Both are avid players of tabletop board games, and he loves reading the rules diligently whereas she just likes breaking them.
What is your main reading medium (books, blogs, games, news, etc) and how much time do you spend reading a week?
DrFriendless: Well, it’s the web of course, for as long as I can keep my eyes open. Lots of computer code, the StackExchange help forums, cloud service documentation, programming language documentation, email, news, and so on. Sometimes I rebel against the machines and pick up a book instead, but usually I fall asleep very shortly thereafter. I do buy some computer books in hard copy because I can leave them lying around where they remind me that I should be reading them. My Kindles tend to get lost for months at a time, and the books on them only get read if I’m on holidays.
DrScrabblette: I reckon I spend every waking minute reading something: email, blogs, social media, online newspapers and magazines, academic articles, books, and a lot of student work. I also read a lot of book reviews from Publishers’ Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, LRB, and NYRB, a habit from decades spent as a bookseller before I became an editor, publisher, librarian, and then academic. I can only sleep six hours a night, so my poor eyes are a bit tired at the end of the day. Since the movies I watch are mostly subtitled from languages other than English, I end up ‘reading’ movies too. Being a very text-oriented person, I turn on subtitles even for languages I’m fluent in. I even prefer reading a play before watching it on the stage. I listen to a lot of public radio and podcasts, although it’s been awhile since I ‘read’ an audiobook. There was a time when I did a lot of that, while I did a lot more driving than I do now. I always dread the day when I might lose my eyesight, so I try to keep an eye on audiobook technologies, and still prefer devices with a tactile QWERTY keyboard to touchscreen. I have a lot of books and audiobooks on my Kindle, but when I pick it up, I end up just obsessively playing Scrabble against the computer.
What or who is your joyful reading (guilty or otherwise) pleasure?
DrFriendless: Since I taught myself to read French, I really love reading French novels or history. I tried “Swann’s Way” (the first volume of “A la Recherche de Temps Perdu”) but that was too hard for me at the time. “Le Comte de Monte Cristo” was great. Sadly it takes concentration to read French, and a Leo Malet novel has been sitting untouched by my bed for months. If the Malaussene Saga by Daniel Pennac ever makes into English, everyone should read it, that was truly a joyful read.
DrScrabblette: When I really need some cheering up, I pick up a trusty Wodehouse and read about the adventures of Jeeves and Wooster. My other guilty pleasure is a book of poetry, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, that I received from my high-school English teacher when I was fifteen — I can always read a quick poem whilst waiting for a bus or in a doctor’s waiting room. I now have a digital version of it for convenience. My all-time favourites are Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and also the Romantics. My guilty pleasure is that I love reading magazines, sometimes cover to cover: the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Monthly, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Esquire, GQ, Sports Illustrated, and even the gardening, home decorating, and cooking magazines at the hairdresser’s or doctor’s offices. Where else can you read the philosopher Ortega y Gasset on the mania for sports, Dr. Karen Hitchcock’s writings on the medical profession, or the creative nonfiction of John McPhee, Joan Didion, or Tom Wolfe? I don’t subscribe to physical newspapers anymore, but I still do subscribe to several hardcopy magazines with longform stories.
Do you have a favourite storyline or plot? And do you have one you will not read?
DrFriendless: I think the Belgariad (David Eddings, 1982) was the beginning of the end of fantasy for me. Once I realised that the world existed solely so that the characters could visit all of it in an epic fashion, I lost interest in the genre. That was unlike Tolkien, say, whose world’s existence was independent of the stories he told in it. So I moved onto “true stories”, where the motivations of the characters and the world they live in were real. Like, for example, “The Time Traveller’s Wife”, which is a wonderfully true-to-life story. So I won’t read epic fantasy, particularly if there’s a map in the front, and omigod never if it’s the first of 5 volumes. By the way, given my opinions on the genre, believe me when I tell you that “A Game of Thrones” is wonderful stuff.
DrScrabblette: Anything goes, so long as it is fresh or weird. I am also a big fan of short stories (Aimee Bender and Maile Meloy are current obsessions). I’ve been through a lot of literary fiction with no discernable plot at all, lots of works in translation from across the world (contemporary Italian writers like Marta Morazzoni, Paola Capriolo, and Alessandro Baricco are my favourite) and also a lot of genre fiction over the years: Cold War thrillers, Spy novels, Legal thrillers, Science Fiction, Horror, Westerns, Detective fiction, Magic Realism etc., but my favourite category is Metafiction. I love retellings of Shakespeare (Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike), Odyssey (Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood), Arabian Nights (Arabian Nights and Days by Nagouib Mahfouz, When Dreams Travel by Githa Hariharan, Chimera by John Barth), and the Mahabharata (The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni), one of my perpetual obsessions. Whilst I like books with ancient supernatural creatures, I’m not a big fan of the modern fantasy genre, especially those with swords and sorcery, and witches, wizards, and mages etc.
Why do you/don’t you use a public library?
DrFriendless: I don’t need one. Our house is full of unread books. When I got into manga a few years ago I would go to the library and read Usagi Yojimbo, but generally I can survive on years of accumulated Amazon purchases. Buying a book from Amazon can be cheaper than the bus fare to the library.
DrScrabblette: I am a library academic with a bit of library anxiety for physical libraries, an after-effect of too many unpleasant encounters with librarians at the British Council Libraries in India, but I force myself to hang out in libraries and use them as much as possible. My current local library is the Balmain Public Library and I have a stack of books and videos I need to return this weekend! My favourite public libraries are mostly in the U.S. though.
Do you RUI? If so, what?
DrFriendless: Of course, but only the same stuff as always. A much bigger determinant of what I read is whether I’m relaxed or not. If I don’t have work to do or errands to run, I’m much more likely to pick up a book and have some fun. I guess I tend to become under the influence if I’m watching TV of an evening (damn you David Attenborough, you’re ruining my liver!) so reading is not practical at the time.
DrScrabblette: I am a bit of a teetotaller these days, but even when I could drink alcohol, I preferred to drink tea while reading. When under the influence, I’d rather dance to loud music. That said, I have a friend who reads books whilst driving. A bit scary, but not as dangerous as texting while driving.
Do you have a favourite reading spot?
DrFriendless: Yes, on the bus going to work. As I no longer have a long bus trip to work, I don’t get much reading done. It’s a sad state of affairs.
DrScrabblette: Bed, recliner, dining chair, computer chair or anything that is not moving. Not on the beach. I’m too busy watching people. I simply cannot read on planes, trains, automobiles, or ferries either.
DrFriendless: Yep. What else would I do there? Ideally I can find a Kindle. Most recently it has been a beginner’s guide to REST API design, which was cheap on Amazon, and poorly written, but has taught me a surprising amount which previous research did not.
DrScrabblette: Never. Unless it’s the graffiti in a public bathroom. Growing up in a family with one toilet, this is not something I even understand. I’m in and out in no time. Sometimes, I get a bit of shut eye and rest my tired eyes.
Ladies’ restroom at The Elephant Room, Edinburgh
Romance fiction of the Happily Ever After (not the love tragedy) kind – are you a Lover or a Hater and why?
DrFriendless: I’m pretty much a hater. I enjoy novels which contain insights into human behaviour – for example, “The Time Traveller’s Wife” was a beautiful love story which put very real people into an unreal world and described the consequences. My life experience has been more akin to that story than any form of Happily Ever After. If I can’t trust the characters to behave realistically, I can’t trust the story at all.
DrScrabblette: I don’t have a strong opinion on this as far as books, and it really depends on the story. I recently read some romance fiction by Kavita Kane as the characters were based on The Mahabharata. When I was a teenager, I was really into the love tragedy kind actually, and wanted to grow up and be like Miss Havisham from The Great Expectations, but now I’d rather be the storytelling Sheherazade, living happily ever after ‘until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness.’
.Can a romance/crime/super/etc hero be the driver of a hatchback?
DrFriendless: Absolutely! In fact I despise James Bond and all of his Aston Martinis and nonsense. I want an engaging story to be set in a realistic world, and Bond tends towards “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, which bores me senseless. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh, or Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe, or Maigret, or Miss Marple, are much better heroes.
Having said that though, I don’t think I’d be focusing on the heroic romantic aspects of the hatchback, as there really aren’t any. I’d be going for product placement kickbacks, to be honest. And I would recommend to the driver of the hatchback to stay well away from the village of St Mary Mead, it’s a dangerous place.
DrScrabblette: Of course! That’s the best way to travel with man’s best friend. Also, I would like a hero who drives a pickup truck with a motorcycle in it and is prepared for an off-road adventure at short notice. And another one who has a scooter with a sidecar like my father did. And another with a Jeep, like my uncle did. And yet another with an aircraft. After all, my ideal heroine is Draupadi who had five husbands all at once, for no one man could match her talents and intelligence, or meet all her demands. And they rode the chariots of the gods :-).
Relief from the DashAvatar Temple (500 CE) in Deogarh, India. Draupadi (far right) with her five husbands, from the Mahābhārata.