A while ago, readers on Facebook were tagging each other to list out their ten favourite books. I was tagged too. And since I like making lists, I made one. It had over thirty titles. To whittle it down to ten, I decided to pick only those books that had a certain formative influence on me—essentially, those books that made me who I am. I did not annotate the list then. Now I have. Here it is:
- The Groaning Shelf by Pradeep Sebastian
My tastes as a reader have largely been shaped by The Hindu Literary Review (formerly a monthly literary supplement and now a weekly feature of The Hindu). Of its many perceptive voices over the years, Pradeep Sebastian’s has been the one that has consistently conveyed, with infectious enthusiasm (through his Endpaper column), the sheer joy of being a reader and a bibliophile.
- Rereadings by Anne Fadiman (editor)
These days, I’m as much a re-reader as a reader. This is quite possibly all thanks to Anne Fadiman’s Rereadings. I also, ritually, reread Rereadings. It’s got, without doubt, the greatest essay on rereading ever committed to paper (Fadiman’s) and, perhaps, the greatest essay ever written about The Charterhouse of Parma (Philip Lopate’s). Enough. Said.
- Strange Beauty by George Johnson
(This is drawn, verbatim, from another post on the blog about science writing and writers.)
The best science writers do not write science; they write cultural histories. With the single-minded obsession of an auteur meticulously putting together a motion picture, they tease out the narratives underlying the human efforts to make sense of the Universe. And just like the most accomplished writers of fiction they have their overarching themes.
George Johnson is interested in the influences that shape the mind of a polymath, and the social and cultural conditions which provoke and nurture it, in Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics, arguably one of the finest scientific biographies ever written. The complex Murray Gell-Mann is both the subject and the grand unifying principle of Johnson’s masterwork, allowing him to pick up and then weave multiple intellectual narrative strands into one unified tableau.
- Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
Calvino has a way of making the classics sound like they’re the spiciest new bestsellers around. Just sample the opening sentences of his essay on Xenephon’s “Anabasis”: “Reading Xenephon’s Anabasis today is the nearest thing to watching an old documentary which is repeated every so often on television or on video. The same fascination that we experience when watching the black and white of a faded film, with its rather crude contrasts of light and shade and speeded-up movements, emerges almost spontaneously …”
And here he is on Voltaire’s Candide: “Geometric characters, animated by a flickering mobility, stretch and twist in a saraband of precision and lightness: that was how Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in 1911, giving visual – and almost musical – form to the energetic brio which this book continues to communicate to today’s readers, above and beyond its thick network of references to its own epoch and culture.”
Why Read the Classics? taught me two things: One: The text is what the reader makes of it. A classic could be as thrilling as a thriller and a thriller as coldly austere as a classic; how you read them makes all the difference. Two: Alongside Borges’s essays, it made me realise that writers of fiction are, perhaps, at their lively best in their non-fiction.
- Collected Fiction & Selected Non-Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges is a reader’s writer. He writes as a reader and he writes for readers. His works of fiction read like essays. And his essays possess the narrative dazzle of the best of fiction. Intellectually playful, erudite and drawing on esoteric and arcane stores of knowledge and philosophy, Borges never fails to surprise or inspire.
- Little, Big by John Crowley
Little, Big is everything they (Michael Dirda, Harold Bloom, and others) say it is: an exceptional fairy tale, a magnificent fantasia of ideas, a poetic and magical tale of love and marriage, and, perhaps, as a Washington Post reviewer once wrote, “the greatest fantasy ever written by an American.”
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude is Borges’s stories made flesh and blood. It is also far more than just that. It’s lightning in a bottle. It’s infinity between the covers of a single book. It’s a superlatives-exhausting marvel. What shall I highlight? The wistful sense of the irresistible passage of time? The lighthouse-like chunks of wisdom that stand anchored and glowing amidst the churning tumult of individual human lives? The mythic game of combinatorics that fate plays with the Buendia family? The goose bumps inducing rush and narrative momentum of the last one hundred pages? None of that would do justice to this magical novel. The wisest advice I can offer at the moment is this: Read it.
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
Any superficial description of Fifth Business is likely to make it sound seriously boring and boringly serious. Yet, it’s title—a term from theatre that, according to Davies refers to “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement”—hints at mystery (Recognition! Denouement!), if not magic. And—make no mistake!—it is magical; a moral novel with a Freudian heart and a Jungian beat. John Updike gave “the mundane its beautiful due.” In Fifth Business, Davies imbues prosaic lives with a mythical glow.
- A Book of English Essays (Penguin)
I had bought this robust collection of some of the best essays in the English language on a whim; it turned out to be one of the most important books I ever bought. It came into my life at the right time: I was just discovering my abilities as a writer. It was here that I discovered the possibilities of non-fiction writing in English: as personal essay, as criticism, as commentary, as annotation, as argument, and as a means both of thinking and of articulating thought. If I now take great pleasure in placing one word next to another, in constructing thoughts, and in structuring sentences and paragraphs, it is certainly because of A Book of English Essays.
- I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov’s memoir was the first among his books that I read. It’s his only book that I continue to re-read. Asimov was a prolific writer. (He authored over 400 books, both fiction and non-fiction.) He was also a fiendish reader with a monstrous memory. I. Asimov: A Memoir is many things: a glowing account of a childhood spent reading, a first-person biographical history of the SF golden age, a glimpse into the writerly life and its idiosyncrasies. However, at heart, it’s an account of the life of a reader as writer. And therein lies its value. Reading it the first time around I felt a glow of pride in being a reader. It’s a glow that has never diminished since.