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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 6

 In addition to following “threads” (references) to the original publications, other methods I have used include tracking “interesting remarks” made by authors on an unrelated or related subject and casual remarks. For example, in the book on Braiding Sweetgrass, the author (Robin (she) Wall Kimmerer) mentions a school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to which children from Native American families were sent after being separated forcibly. Tracking this remark, I learnt about the “Trail of Tears” of Native Americans who were robbed of their lands and were sent to reservations.


The author’s remarks on Federation of Iroquois Nations led me to articles on the Five Nation’s Peace Treaty and how it became a model for the federation of the original 13 colonies of the USA.


One more recent example is a reference to an “axle tree” in the poem by T S Eliot on The Four Quartets. When I looked it up, I found that in common language it stands for the wood used as an axle for the cart. The poet uses this as a metaphor and as a metaphor it is the same as the idea of Dharma Chakra. The axle is stationary while the periphery moves. Time is still and at the same time moves, is the idea.


The axle also means the cross of crucifixion – representing God outside of time.


More interesting is the similarity to the symbolism of the tree in all world cultures. The axle-tree is the Cosmic Tree and therefore may be the Aswatha tree of Hinduism, Bodhi tree of Buddhhism or the Ygdrasil of the Norse mythology. Now we can chase the mythology and symbolism of these trees, by more reading, if only we are blessed with good health, good eyes, good resources and more time on this sweet earth!


Yet another example is an essay on appointment of an Atheist as the Chief Chaplain at Harvard (The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. - The New York Times ( In addition to the surprising fact of an atheist being the leader of Chaplains, I learnt that the original intent of the Puritan founders for establishing the Harvard College in the 1630’s was to make sure that their clergymen were literate. I also learnt that the motto for Harvard is “ Truth for Christ and the Church”.


Many years back, when I was deeply involved in medical research, we did not have the internet. To do my literature research, I had to go to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia which had the largest collection of medical journals going back to the late 1800’s. Journals from each year were bound into volumes and kept in their stacks in the basement of the building. We could not go to the stacks and pick out the volume we wanted. We had to go to the beautiful large reading room at the College and fill out a request slip with the details of the  name of the journal, volume number and the year. An attendant will go down to the stacks and bring the volume we requested.


During my years of training, the only days I could go to the College of Physicians Library were Saturdays. I usually waited till I had a list of 10 or more references to look up before I went there. One habit I developed during those visits was not to stop with looking at the reference I went for. I used to look at the title of the articles in the entire volume of the Journal because I did not know how soon I will get free time to go to the College Library.  Using this habit, I often found articles on other subjects I was interested in or some classic papers I had missed.


Talking of classic articles, another useful habit is to read a biography of the author. You will be surprised to find other articles or books the author has written which are more interesting than the one you were looking for. It is also an additional aid to memory.


One of my habits has been to answer questions from students from memory during the encounter but go home and verify. That way, I can go back and give them the correct answer if I was wrong and also give the student the source so he/she can read. This is another aid to memory.


A recent example is a reference I made to Sayanacharya, a great scholar in the Vijayanagara kingdom during the 1500’s. I was correct when I gave that information during a lecture. But when I went back to look up the reference, I found another reference with greater details about his life and learnt more about his entire illustrious family.


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