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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2004 > Amherst Creates
Amherst Creates.

Reviews | Short Takes | What They Are Reading

What They Are Reading

We asked David Reck, professor of music and Asian languages and civilizations, what he has been reading lately. Here’s what he told us.

I am a musician, and the common rap is that musicians don’t read. To the contrary, we musicians read a lot, but the script tends to be squiggly marks hung like laundry on five lines on music paper. We musicians also read with our ears, a skill that I particularly developed in India, where the most complicated music imaginable is passed down in an essentially oral tradition. My most valued “books” are a 14-year archive of MiniDiscs and cassettes of lessons with the legendary veena virtuoso Ranganayaki Rajagopalan. A woman now in her 70s, Rajagopalan is still capable of caressing the strings of her instrument to move the eyes to tears, to delight the mind and to communicate to others the unseen mysteries of her great tradition.

“But wait,” you say. “This guy is an Amherst professor. We live and breathe books here. He even wrote a few.” True. I earn my bread and butter with my mouth—presumably also with my brain. Though the pristine thought of a Mozart symphony or a Bach fugue exists indisputably in the invisible architecture of the sound itself, sooner or later we human beings have to come down from the Himalayas and chat about it. We intellectuals, after all, live in a word society, and books are a part of it, even for musicians.

An errant heart and a brush with death gave me the luxury last fall to read to my soul’s delight, to read with my eyes as well as my ears. Much of what I read comes out of India. When I spotted The House of Blue Mangoes by the south Indian author David Davidar in Heathrow Airport, I figured that any book by an author who encapsulates my name twice in his own couldn’t be all bad. A gripping epic in the Faulkner mold, the book follows three generations of a 19th-century family in a tropical South Asian village by the sea. No need for an anthropology course; it’s all here.

In the hermitage of the 20th-century saint Ramana Maharishi at the base of the sacred mountain of Thiruvanamalai I picked up an English translation of the ancient Periapuranam: The Lives of the 63 Saivite Saints. To spend time with the lives of these remarkable saints and their myths or facts (or maybe a bit of each), to track their miracles and their trials with men and encounters with God, is to enter into the labyrinthine world of south India’s religious traditions. The book made me realize that a professor’s annoyances of memos, e-mails, grades, garbled lecture notes, troublesome students and interminable meetings are not such a big deal after all. At least we do not have to calm rampaging elephants or bring back to life a beautiful girl bitten by a cobra and cremated to ashes.

Several years ago some of my students announced that they were going to England after graduation to live in a utopian farming commune. In an inebriated phone call from a pub several weeks later, they informed me they had left utopia. Why? “It was too goody-good,” they said, amid raucous laughter. “There was no evil there! So we fled to London.” I felt the same way leaving the saints and picking up When God Is a Customer, translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman. This is a collection of texts from Telugu courtesan songs in the genre known as padam—erotic songs that are interpreted by beautifully clad and bejeweled female dancers with graceful mime, exquisite facial expressions and a language of hand gestures in a 2,000-year-old tradition called Bharata Natyam. If you think India
is all ascetic holy men and gurus, then this is the book for you. You could also visit the temple carvings at Khajuraho.

Then there was the extraordinary philosophy of the so-called “forest books,” The Principal Upanishads in Sanskrit, with translation and commentary by the great scholar S. Radhakrishnan. These works of introspection and wisdom, written by seers and hermits from 800 to 300 B.C.E., continue to astound us today. And speaking of wisdom (as well as the reinvention of language and so many other things), I reread As You Like It, Hamlet and Shakespeare in Love...excuse me, I mean Romeo and Juliet. Is it conceivable that as a pimply faced youth I could have understood anything in these monuments? Yes, because Professor Parkinson, the British scourge of my university, saw to it that great truths could be hammered into the unlettered heads of students even in that great wasteland called Texas. Thank you, Dr. Parkinson. Your lectures ring still in my ears, perhaps enhanced by a few (and only a few) insights of 48 years of life experience since then.

That was my fall with books.


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