Must-read fiction and me


Some ruminations on books. Someone has come up with this title-cloud of English language fiction that all of us should have read. The info-cloud is made by Information is Beautiful with data culled from several online polls on popular fiction.

must read books

[Data: — click image, for a readable version]

Of course, several in the list are yet to be read by me — Tristram Shandy, Watership Down, A Thousand Splendid Ships, Scoop, Blood Meridian, His Dark Materials, Persuasion, Anne of Green Gables, Middlemarch  and so on, in smaller font. Thankfully, most of them are available as freely downlodable e-books snug-fit for your favorite e-reader. Let them wait for their download day.

But on the 'must-reads that have been read' front, whether it is The Hitchikers or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or The Name of the Rose or Atlas Shrugged or Animal Farm or even The Grapes of Wrath, I seem to have read most of the most-popular and several of the relatively less significant ones. No this is not my trumpet who is writing these notes (get the pun? duh). Point is, all these books were read within a period of ten years, two decades back, when Devathi 'old books' stall was as young as me and food was cooked by mother. Nowadays, I seem to bask in my new found illiteracy.

As I browse the titles, I could recollect when and where I read them the first (and mostly, the only) time.

David Copperfield was read sitting beneath the open mirror paneled kannadi bureau of my grandfather, which also stacked books of all sorts — from A Communist Manifesto to Kannadasan's Arthamulla Indhumadham (Meaningful Hindusim) to The Brothers Karamazov to some vague titles on tantric secrets by one lady saint Sayimadha Sivabrindhadevi. The bureau was forbidden to youth of the house (it also had Kamasutra, I presume) and so during summer holidays while visiting my Grandpa's place I used to creep into the room that contained the bureau in the afternoon while the household is enjoying their siesta, opened and sat down cross legged beneath the bureau, to read what ever I could rummage. The bureau's kannadi door, if left unattended after opening, while creaking back to a closure at siesta-disturbing decibels would mimic a cat in labor with impeccable annoyance. A cross-legged posture of penance with the knees wedging the racks and the door to remain open is essential for outgrowing my illiteracy.

Lord of the Flies was read in two or three consecutive evenings after UG school, sitting in a red 'rexine' sofa in my college friend's house. His father was an English professor and had the entire collection of classics and not so classics stashed in a wall cup-board whose double doors, once opened, cannot be closed  back properly over the ensuing avalanche of books. "From today, it is everyone minus one" (the original is a modified reply in a conversation) is an innocuous little sentence from To Kill a Mockingbird  that is stuck with me from my UG college days. Again, that book was read from that singularly neo-classic pile of sneeze. There was a reason for our swallowing such classical dust and deriphyllin. We both used to think of us as the next best in business to any writer we half-read and liked (say, Elias Canetti) and even started a no-profit-only-loss, typewriter-typed, cyclostyled and stapled magazine called The Ivory Tower (acronym is TIT, get the drift? that is how it became termite food).

But these are beside the point here. While I could read and discuss a The Grapes of Wrath during one of those 'sofa sessions' with my friend two decades back, I keep postponing reading Of Mice and Men by the same author, even after numerous mental ticks in the recent past in a list of to-be-read books-before-I-turn-forty. That brings up the point I mentioned earlier. It is obvious I have read most of what I have read in the must read English fiction list when I was doing my UG — actually, when I wasn't doing it, I presume.

While in my twenties I dared Wuthering Heights, Lolita and 1984, I am reluctant now to revisit a Farewell to Arms or David Copperfield. Thankfully, I could still re-read a Slaughterhouse Five and find it moving again. Ulysses (by Joyce) is an exception. It (he?) thwarted my reading attempts even then and I would remain defeated of its verbiage until such times either the book or me is forgotten by the other. Not that I had or have the wherewithal to read the exploits of the hero in the original title Odyssey by Homer either. Over the years, I have gracefully grown out of such puerile masochistic proclivities. Nowadays I have reconciled to re-interpret in all its audio-visual glory, a O' Brother Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers interpretation of the Odyssey. And enjoy the accompanying soundtrack Clooney lip-sync-ing Dan Tyminski sung I am a Man of Constant Sorrow — perhaps fittingly.

Before this becomes another salvo of seething lament seasoned in searing nostalgia about how the IntraWeb or Electrons have killed my reading habit (and served ironically in the IntraWeb), I should remind us that I continue to read fiction. A lot. Only the tastes have gone awry to veer far away from representing me as the generic everyone as anointed by the must reads I am supposed to have read. Even yesterday (Sunday) I could devour a When Eight Bells Toll in a matter of hours and ferocious Kindle clicks (ah, who could surpass that Peacemaker Colt start). Only, I hesitate to go back and pick a For Whom the Bell Tolls, like I used to in my twenties.

May be back then I had a few girl friends I needed to impress and so I bespectacled me with a facade of such elevated classics and thoughts. Nowadays, I don't need such impressive library. I am married. To a woman who is far too well read and worldly wise than me to fall for my philistine pick-up lines. I am grounded and go about reading an Anathem or Coyote Blue or How to be an Alien, none of which would make it to any of those generic must-read-for-everyone list.

Or there is a simpler reason for my neglect of those new-age classics to embrace my new found illiteracy. What if instead of reading, nowadays I keep finding other things to do? Like writing this note. Or working on that ever pending reviews or research papers. Unlike my younger days where I wanted to splash in serial lights I am intelligent and Oxbridgely and did everything other than getting educated in engineering, may be now I am actually doing round the clock what I claim to be doing and don't have time for these ah, literati.

Let it Be. Que Sera Sera*