Internet fads, like Toxoplasma gondi, have successfully embedded themselves in the brains of a large proportion of the general populace and are changing the way we interact with the world, particularly cats. The Ice Bucket Challenge, purportedly a way to show solidarity with victims of Motor Neuron Disease, is the latest such trend to have captured the aam junta’s collective imagination, evidenced by the plethora of YouTube videos featuring celebrities from all walks of life emptying buckets of water on their head in the name of ALS. Side note, for some reason ALS is still archaically referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Wouldn’t Stephen Hawking’s Disease perhaps be a better name for it today? Anyway, the Ice Bucket challenge has since seen the emergence of an almost-equally popular (if slightly cerebral) variation, the Book Bucket Challenge.
Despite being a card-carrying member of the generation that basically invented the social media trend (referred to by the lead character of HBO’s The Newsroom as the “Worst. Generation. Ever.”), I have never really indulged myself in any passing social media fad, with the notable exception of dancing the Gangnam Style on the platform of Khajuraho Railway Station with Sarbojit Pal and Jonathan Donald. It’s true, I have never taken a selfie, especially a nude one (you’re welcome, universe), I have never done the Harlem Shake, and I haven’t even seen Frozen, let alone perform some quirky cover version of the song from that movie that everyone seems to be obsessed with. While I do pour a bucket of cold water over my head everyday (you call the Ice Bucket Challenge, we in India call it taking a bath), I have never recorded a video of myself doing it (see “No nude selfies” above).
Nevertheless, the #BookBucket is a challenge I can certainly get behind. Even if it ends up not doing a thing to help any charity, the Book Bucket Challenge is a feather in society’s cap as it not only allows readers to share their love of books by listing the ten books that have influenced them the most; it also helps them receive recommendations for books that they may not otherwise come across. And with the exception of certain people using this challenge as an opportunity to wave their so-called sophisticated reading tastes in our plebeian faces, it has been a largely positive experience.
Something that most people maybe don’t know about the Book Bucket Challenge or #10BookChallenge (I like using hashtags in a place like WordPress, it just points out how absurd they look outside their natural habitat) is that it is an Indian invention. Just like everything else, ever. Except this was not mentioned in our glorious ancient holy scriptures, but is instead the brainchild of a Kerala-based NGO. According to this article from Business Insider:
The Book Bucket Challenge is a drive started by One Library per Village, an NGO based in Kerala. The mission of this NGO is to create awareness and share the latest tools, services[,] and resources that add value to digital libraries, enrich user experiences[,] and enhance associated people’s career development and learning activities. Unlike what is coming across on Facebook, this challenge is not only about nominating your friends for listing ’10 books that have stayed with them for a while’. Instead, you have to make a list of the books you are willing to donate to libraries or needy people.
However, since I’m doing the Facebook version of this challenge, I’ll stick to listing 10 books that have stayed with me. As for donating books, most of mine are currently in safekeeping with various friends distributed all over the world, so I guess I’ve done that part already. Which brings me to another positive to have emerged from this challenge; one of the books an old friend mentioned in his list on Facebook turned out to be my copy that I had lent to him some 12 years ago when I was in high-school.
And with all those (largely unnecessary) qualifications out of the way, let’s inaugurate this most auspicious of internet fads.
Thank you, Madhura Joshi and Rameez Hussain for nominating me. Here are, in no particular order, 10 Books That Have Stayed With Me in Some Ineffable Way. I would, of course, like to list more than just my top 10, but I’m not going to. However, if you are interested to know what other books I could list, you can check out the 199 books I have added on my Facebook profile over here.
- A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
I know it’s a cheat to list two books right off the bat, but they deserve a single entry because of how closely they’re linked in terms of their subject matter and by the influence they have exerted on my life. There was a time when I was absolutely certain that all I would ever do in life was study particle physics. And after clearing the entrance examination to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 2010, I thought I was but one small step away from achieving the first stage of my dream. Instead, that turned out to be as far as I would go. A disastrous interview helped me realize how far behind my peers I was, and after a royal bollocking from the interviewing committee, I emerged from TIFR’s Colaba campus dazed and confused, but certain in the knowledge that a career in Particle Physics shall be to me what careers as a cricketer, footballer, actor, or singer are to other people.
My love for particle physics and cosmology was first kindled by my encounters with these two books. Richard Feynman’s effervescent personality, approach to life and epistemology, and ability to match a brilliant intellect with an equally brilliant sense of humour was an inspiration to me. Stephen Hawking’s book was difficult to follow as a 12-year-old, but I managed to grasp most of it by simply reading what I hadn’t understood over and over until I did, before moving on. I have crystallized in my mind the memory of reading the final words of A Brief History of Time (“For then we will know the mind of God”), closing the book, and thinking to myself: Now I know exactly what I want to do with my life. C’est la vie.
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Through a series of nasty experiences, I had come to believe that all Indian fiction in English fell under one of two categories.
- ‘Exotic’, ‘colourful’ books that are Kipling for the late 20th and early 21st Century reader. They are the purview of those poor souls afflicted with the Brown Man’s Burden, a desperate urge to prove that under their light brown skin, they’re as white as any of their London/New York literati friends. The prose is so purple it can at times leak into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum and disappear off the page entirely.
- Bhagat literature. The heroic “nice-guy” and his attempts to win over a beautiful girl from a higher station of society than his. The girl won’t like him because of superficial reasons like her having nothing in common with him to the extent that in reality, they probably wouldn’t be able to have a simple conversation. Does he win her over? Yes. Every time.
The White Tiger was a rare exception. Sure, Adiga hails from similarly elitist backgrounds, but his descriptions of India were so brutally accurate, he might as well have included photographs and turned it into a graphic novel. The framing device was genius; the entire novel is a series of letters from the eponymous White Tiger – a small-town genius who’s had to fight his way up out of “The Darkness” of poor rural India into “The Light” of upper class urban India – to President Wen Jibao of China. The prose in this book is near perfection, not too difficult for the lay Indian reader and yet of sufficient sophistication that it can hold the attention of people used to tougher fare. As an aspiring writer who treats fiction as his Achilles Heel, I know how impressive it is to achieve that precarious perfect middle path.
- A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
Merci beaucoup, mon ami!
My birthday this year was a low-key affair. And then a man from Amazon arrived at my doorstep carrying two gifts from my friend Arthur Cheysson. One of them contained Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and the other contained this next entry on my list: Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. We human beings are social animals; we’re fundamentally tool-makers. The things we make influence us in the strongest possible way. In that sense, as we work away on our pieces of stone, steel, or plastic, they make us as much as we make them.
Originally a BBC Radio 4 programme, it takes a simple and brilliant route to showcase the occasionally biological but mostly social, cultural, and political evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens. Authored by Neil MacGregor, the Director of British Museum, (from where all the objects in the book are taken), it is a gentle walk through thousands of years of human history, elucidated spectacularly through the objects that played an integral role in life and society at a particular place and time. Starting with stone tools from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the cradle of our species, we look at coins, sculptures, tea pots, and even a royal slipper until we end on the two objects that define our world and our position in time and space: the credit card and the solar-powered lamp and phone charger. The choice of those last two items speaks volumes about the age we live in.
I would like to add that the BBC Radio 4 programmes on which this book is based are available for free listening and downloading as a podcast over here. I highly recommend downloading them and giving them a shot.
7. Collapse by Jared Diamond
I originally intended to put Jared Diamond’s earlier book, Guns, Germs, and Steel over here. I then thought I perhaps ought to list Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet instead. My mind was finally swayed in favour of Jared Diamond’s Collapse when I was reminded of a quote by the man who wrote entry # 5 on this list.
We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.
As someone who works (sort of) in the (sort of) development sector, I believe this quote sums up perfectly why I’m joining in to make a fuss about climate change, clean energy, and resource security. We are not, as many people would think, trying to save the Earth. The Earth is safe for the next billion years or so; at least until the Sun turns into a Red Giant and swallows all the inner planets (refer to the header image). We are trying to save our own place on it, we are trying to save this giant edifice to human ingenuity, this global civilization of ours that, despite its shortcomings, remains the greatest thing human beings have ever come together to make. Collapse highlights the issues that lead to the end of civilizations; ends that are usually sudden, unforeseen, unpredictable, and unknowable until much after you have crossed the point of no return. For all we know, our civilization may have already crossed our point of no return and collapse is inevitable. That might not always be a bad thing if we can manage (or should I say #mitigate) it well.
Also, a massive shout-out to Dinesh Kapur, who took my copy of Collapse with him to Cambridge University and got it autographed by Jared Diamond himself!
- A Corner of a Foreign Field by Ramachandra Guha
The book has a highly misleading subtitle: “The Indian History of a British Sport”. This book is so much more than the story of cricket in India; it is a story of how cricket conquered India. It’s a story of how cricket managed what the British Imperial Government couldn’t; to completely ingrain itself into the hearts and minds of the native population and stay there indefinitely. It’s the great colonial survivor that has since become as Indian as cutting chai and defecating on railway tracks. Cricket was handed down to me like a family heirloom. My grandmother speaks of watching CK Nayudu play in the 1940s, my older uncle of skipping college to watch Rohan Kanhai and Gary Sobers bat in the 1960s, and my father watched Viv Richards score his first test hundred in Delhi in 1974. I’ve watched Sachin Tendulkar score a brilliant 177 versus Australia in Bangalore before being dismissed by a man named Adam Dale (that’s literally the only thing I know about him), after which I saw Mark Waugh score 153 not out while Anil Kumble took 6 for 98.
Cricket has been a lot more than just a diversion, first for the British colonist and subsequently for us Indians – or as Guha describes them in the book “The Homesick Colonial and the Imitative Native” – it is a vehicle for national pride and the arena in which all of India’s socio-political complexities are effectively condensed in the form of a team that’s occasionally capable of extraordinary things but whenever it comes close to dominance ends up handing over a test series lead to a sub-standard England team BEFORE LOSING 3-1!
Guha’s book uses cricket as a framing device to tell the history of colonial and post-independence India, of conflicts between religions and between castes, and of men who transcended their station to become Gods only to be lost to obscurity once again. Guha draws parallels between events transpiring on the cricket field with events unfolding in India and how those events led to new developments on the field. A more appropriate subtitle would have been: How Life imitates Sport imitates Life.
- Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
Some of you might be surprised with this choice. Surely you mean the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Mr Alagappa? While I am as big a fan of the H2G2 novels as you will ever meet (and I’m not just saying that because I’m 6’3” and fat), I personally believe Dirk Gently is where you will see Douglas Adams at his very best. He wrote it at his own pace (to his publishers’ constant chagrin); you can see that every page was painstakingly edited and every line vetted a hundred times before it ended up in the final published draft. Douglas Adams probably only wrote when he was in the muses’ grip, the prose flows so effortlessly. But the reason why I’ve listed this book over his other work (including the under-appreciated but highly recommended ‘Last Chance To See’) is because of what he did to the art of storytelling in Dirk Gently.
Most novels keep things simple; they have a beginning, middle, and an end. Some novels use a technique called ‘In Medias Res’, where they story begins in the middle and we work our way back to the beginning before getting to the end. Dirk Gently does nothing of the sort. Richard Dawkins said that as soon as he finished reading the book, he turned it around and started again. That’s exactly what I did too. Dirk Gently begins and the plot progresses while being punctuated with brilliant little jokes that you sometimes don’t catch until the 5th or 6th time you read it, and then towards the end you slowly start to realize the book is a bit of a Mobius Strip. Also, since you’ve come this far, if you ping/WhatsApp/tell me the words, “My old maiden Aunt who lived in Winnipeg”, I’ll buy you a beer/beverage of your choice if and when we next meet.
- The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Just to clarify, by Foundation Trilogy I mean Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation. This does not include the sequels written when Asimov was in a funny mood in the 80s.
This is not a cheat, btw. They are one book, one story released in 3 parts. So much has been written about these books, I struggle to think of anything new I can possibly add. In 1966, the Hugo Awards – I hate to describe them as such, but it gets the point across succinctly – the Oscars of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, decided to institute a one-off award to be given to the Best Series of All Time. Nominees included Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Asimov himself thought the nominations were a formality and this was all an excuse to give Tolkien the award. You know how this story ends. The Foundation Trilogy won it, and deservedly so. Side Note: The same year, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the Hugo for Best Short Fiction went to Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman – two works that would definitely have featured in my Science Fiction Book Bucket.
The problem with Foundation is what TV Tropes calls the Science Fiction Ghetto, aptly summarized by this popular comic. I can help by listing what it isn’t, rather than talking about what it is because odds are either you’ve read about it in someone else’s list or it’s in your list. Foundation is not a space-opera a la Star Wars; it doesn’t have big spaceships fighting epic gigantic battles IN SPACE with multi-coloured lasers going all “Pew! Pew! Pew!” Except at one point in the book, but – wait, that’s a spoiler. Foundation does not have a brave hero who fights against all odds and triumphs in the end to live happily ever after. It has multiple heroes who are revealed to be flawed human beings who are not above trying to profit off their heroism. It’s not a book for children, though they can read and enjoy it as much as someone who’s fifty. It does not have robots that humans fall in love with. It doesn’t feature any aliens, especially aliens that look exactly like humans but with a few extra breasts. It’s not anything like what you expect it to be. What is it, then? In a word, extraordinary.
- Jeeves Omnibus by PG Wodehouse
Ironically, the first Jeeves book I ever read is the only one to not feature Bertie Wooster in it. Ring for Jeeves is the story of the time the world’s greatest valet (‘t’ not silent) went into the service of the 9th Earl of Rowcester who, thanks to post-war economic policies or something (it’s never mentioned clearly), is completely impoverished and desperate to sell off his stately manor, which has turned into something of a white elephant. It is the most unique plot you will ever see in a Jeeves novel, but replace a few characters and locations and it soon becomes standard Jeeves and Wooster fare. And that’s okay because plot doesn’t matter to a Wodehouse novel. In fact, I would go as far as to say only a fool reads Wodehouse for the story.
To quote Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (No, I haven’t read it either): Storytelling Trumps Beautiful Writing, Every Time. Chetan Bhagat tweeted this very same quote (without crediting her); possibly in an effort to explain why he does what he does.
Except beautiful writing wins when it’s Wodehouse. Pelham Grenville (PG) Wodehouse, Plum, is the greatest writer of the English language to have ever lived, and yes that list includes Shakespeare, Milton, and whatever other early 20th century author second-year Stephanians claim was their childhood favourite. Wodehouse trumps them all because his stories are terrible to non-existent. And yet, we read him, we worship him, we chuckle softly every few seconds while not caring about who Bertie has accidentally ended up engaged to because we know Jeeves will bail him out. We read Wodehouse simply for what he does to the English language. He doesn’t so much as make love to her (there is no sex in any Wodehouse story I have ever read) as he simply takes her out for an amazing evening of dancing, theatre, and fine dining before dropping her home promptly at midnight.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut writes using short words in short sentences. He swears as often as we do in real life and talks to the reader like this. No, like this, reader. Seriously, you, the person looking at these words, this is addressed to you, do you understand? It isn’t until you try (and fail) to imitate him that you realize how beautiful, graceful, and poignant his work is. To give it its full title, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is about many things. But I think its unifying theme is the inescapability of the dark side of human nature and a descent into madness. It’s a fatalistic comedy about a man tortured by being one of the few survivors of an Allied war crime; he was locked up in a Slaughterhouse (number 5) during the fire-bombing of the German city of Dresden that killed more innocent people than the bomb that hit Hiroshima.
Billy Pilgrim, for he is a man on a spiritual journey, seems unfazed by this because he is unstuck in time. He jumps from one era of his life to another at random, a gift or curse given to him by extra-terrestrials from the planet Tralfamadore who put him on display at an alien zoo where he was forced to mate with another human, a lovely young pornographic actress. He never says it once, and because I’m an idiot, it took me a few years to figure it out. Billy Pilgrim has PTSD.
This book has affected the way I view the world, it has been a warm blanket and protected me against the cold harsh winds of reality. I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five so many times my copy of this book is in tatters, the spine is broken, and pages are strewn everywhere. It’s dead, basically. So it goes.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The greatest novel ever written. As a single work of fiction, there has been nothing better before or since. That’s all I have to say about it.
Phew! That was some read, eh? Mind commenting?