Learning about life with the likes of Pi

We speak to the organiser of Abu Dhabi Reads, a community reading project that you're invited to get involved in.

Students from the New York University Abu Dhabi get into some reading. Fatima Al Marzooqi/The National.
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New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is preparing for the finale of its first community reading project - Abu Dhabi Reads. Students and the general public have been asked to read Yann Martel's highly acclaimed fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi (2001). On November 1, all will gather at the university to debate the meanings in this allegorically rich book. Cyrus Patell, the associate dean in humanities at the university, explains more.

What is the project all about?

Based on similar programmes around the world, Patell sums it up as "a giant book club" that brings a community together to share ideas about the book.

How was the project organised?

Last month, NYUAD's in-house magazine Electra Street quizzed its readers about which book they wanted. Three were suggested - Life of Pi, Ray Bradbury's dystopian sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451 and Keija Parssinan's The Ruins of Us, a family drama set in Saudi Arabia. After an online vote, Life of Pi won by a reasonable majority.

What's so good about Life of Pi?

"Life of Pi is an interesting book because, thematically, it's about a modern experience. It reads like a fable," says Patell. "It's about a boy named Pi Patel who finds himself shipwrecked and then alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. He comes into a conversation with the tiger and finds a way to coexist."

But Pi's circumstances have deeper allegorical meanings. "Pi is kind of a migrant who is forced to go from one situation to another," contends Patell. "Also, in a sense, the tiger is a kind of allegory for what you might think of as radical cultural difference.

"We think of Abu Dhabi as a crossroads where many people come together. For many, it's coming to a new place and dealing with different kinds of people who are unfamiliar, and they need to find a way to survive. So in this way, it's very interesting to read this book in a crossroads city like ours." In other words, the story has a lot of regional resonance.

How do we get involved?

First, get yourself the book. Extra copies of Life of Pi have been stocked in Magrudy's book store in Al Wahda Mall. Read it before November 1, then come to the meeting brimming with thoughts about what the book meant to you. "We want people to think of a moment that exemplifies something that is crucial about the book and come prepared to talk about that particular moment," explains Patell.

A movie adaptation of Life of Pi is about to hit cinemas. Couldn't you cheat and watch the film instead?

Nope, for the film isn't due to be released in the UAE until the end of November.

Also, as Patell points out, if the movie adaptation is different from the novel, come discussion day, you could end up looking like a great big idiot. "You know, there was this episode of the American sitcom Seinfeld, where one of the characters, George, belongs to a book club," recalls Patell. "But he cheats and watches the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is radically different from the book, and talks about this version in his club. So he makes himself look like a fool."

What does NYUAD hope to get out the project?

As well as reaching out to the wider community, the project aims to show that reading is fun. "I think many people read books, but they read alone. They then have trouble finding someone to talk to about it, process the experience and to deepen the reading that they've done," says Patell. "So as well as to get people reading books, we hope this is an opportunity to get them talking about books, too."

• The Abu Dhabi Reads project culminates in a discussion at NYUAD's Downtown Campus on November 1 at 5pm. Visit www.electrastreet.net for more information.


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