A good friend of mine lives and breathes a unique commandment when it comes to the world of literature. He steadfastly refuses to read any work that is not written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. At the edifice of such incredulous obstinacy lies a firm conviction that “whatever was penned pre-Dostoevsky is not worth its salt, and whatever needed to be written post-Dostoevsky has already been written by Dostoevsky himself”. He even has a favourite aphorism that bridges times triumphant and turbulent, “every human being is one of the four Karamazov brothers in character and context.”
Hmm. Torn by curiosity, I ran with this ‘idea by association’ for many months. Dostoevsky seems to have made the most of a miraculous reprieve that life bestowed on him. Saved by a welcome political intervention, just minutes before he would have been riddled by a hail of bullets, courtesy of a firing squad, this formidable Russian author proceeded to churn out more formidable tomes! While “The Idiot” lent a new and refreshing perspective to and on life, “Crime and Punishment” shook me to the bones. “Notes from the Underground” taught me the value of silence as opposed to futile words. However, by the time I was done with the mammoth “The Brothers Karamazov”, I was besieged by a strong sense of Dostoevsky-fatigue. It was like playing all the albums of Black Sabbath back to back before proceeding to listen to Luciano Pavarotti, all without a single minute of respite in between. I should have been more discreet and discriminate in choosing my gauntlet to pick.
Thus ended my tryst with being a Dostoevsky acolyte (even though I have to admit that I keep going back to those wonderfully ambivalent works every now and again). The upside of this endeavour being an embellishment to the bricolage of books adorning my bookshelves. The American engineer, author and philosopher, Alfred A. Montapert, once famously said “nobody ever did, or ever will escape the consequences of his choices”. This is as true of books, as it is of more sombre situations in life. So the following is the “top of the pile choices” that I made in terms of a “quintessential” bookshelf, and whose consequences I am, happily, the object of:
- Three Men in a Boat (To say Nothing of the Dog) – Jerome K. Jerome
Going through an enervating phase in life? Exasperated getting in and out of absolutely worthless conference calls? Are you being bitten by your boss and getting consoled by the dog every evening? Then fret not: Jerome K. Jerome is the superhero sans cape (provided you are into books!). This adventure or a collage of misadventures involving three good friends (based on Jerome K. Jerome himself and his two very good friends), a two week boating holiday gone askew, and a dog thrown into the confounding mix, will leave you, as well as your friendly neighbour, in splits. A must on any bookshelf.
- The Elements of Style – Will Strunk & E.B. White
A sylph-like book that can be effortlessly tucked into the folds of your jacket, “The Elements of Style” is an indispensable acquisition for every budding and seasoned writer and blogger. Every passage, paragraph, and page written after reading this marvelous book on writing represents a change for the better.
- 1984 – George Orwell
Orwell’s magnum opus “1984” makes him an authentic Nostradamus. His prescience of a future world controlled by a despotic regime that even monitors the thoughts of its hapless populace – when concepts such as Information Technology and the Internet were not even figments of the most overworked imagination – is downright frightening! ‘Big Brother’, ‘Double Think’, and ‘Newspeak’ are not just ingenious terms cocking a thumb at totalitarianism. They are visionary phrases that transcend the past, present and future. 1984 is as eternal as time itself.
- Old Man and The Sea – Ernest Hemingway
An aging and weather-beaten fisherman, Santiago, goes 84 days without a catch. On the 85th day of his unfortunate spell, he strikes gold, or at least he thinks he has struck gold. He hooks a huge marlin and using his hands, shoulders, and back, holds the line for two agonizing days and two excruciating nights. Finally, the weary fisherman pulls the marlin onto its side, kills it lashes it to the side of his boat before setting sail for home. However, the trail of blood from the dead marlin attracts sharks and they end up devouring the marlin. What can a book about a depressed fisherman penned by a depressed author who ultimately committed suicide, possibly teach anything to the reader? Well, everything! This slim novel is a testament to the courage that views every marlin and shark in life with equipoise and equanimity.
- The Great Gatsby – Scott G. Fitzgerald
If ever I am given the choice to be transformed into a literary character, it would sans a semblance of any doubt, be Jay Gatsby. Yes, you read that right! Not the morally upright Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. With all the raised eyebrows, rankled emotions and reverberating objections, it would still be Jay Gatsby of “The Great Gatsby”. Gatsby is a pack of pernicious lies; Gatsby is a charade of false assurances; Gatsby is a walking machine of deception, but more than anything else, Gatsby is a helpless prisoner of destiny and a child of inevitable fate. I may as well be the grist for the mill of human emotion rather than be an artificial and confirming relic of stereotypes and lethargic conventions. To paraphrase the mercurial Kurt Cobain, “It is better to burn out than to fade away.”
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
If “1984” predicted the birthing of a conflicted world, “Brave New World” is the perfect precursor to an existential crisis birthed by the advent of Artificial Intelligence. set in 2540 CE, the book is set in a futuristic society, called the World State. Emotions are conditioned out of children at a young age, and “everyone belongs to everyone else”. At the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, children are created outside the womb and cloned in order to increase the population. Embryos destined for the higher classes get chemicals to perfect them both physically and mentally, whereas those of the lower classes are altered to be imperfect in those respects. These classes, in order from highest to lowest, are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. The Alphas are bred to be leaders, and the Epsilons are bred to be menial labourers.
Huxley’s book is a courageous clarion call for the world to look back, take a deep breath and introspect at the untrammeled progress of Science.
- The Bhagavad Gita
Even for an agnostic, this marvelous song of life contains lessons touching upon every minute and colossal facets of life. Magisterial in its intent, and glorious in its sweep, The Gita is undoubtedly the greatest ‘spiritual-scientific’ book ever.
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The only tricky aspect of this book is the author’s name! “Flow” is one of the finest ever books penned in the field of psychology dealing with channeling the best of one’s potential. This Hungarian-American psychologist introduced to the world, the concept of flow, a highly focused mental state. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
“Flow” may be a life-altering read.
- D-Day – Antony Beevor
A book which the megalomaniac Vladimir Putin ought to be reading right now. One of the greatest chroniclers of World War II, Antony Beevor, brings to his readers in a poignant, seraphic and telling manner, one of the greatest offensives made during the bloodiest war ever, that ultimately might have led to the salvation of the human race.
- Beyond a Boundary – C.L.R. James
It is not often that a writer possesses the curiosity and acumen to explore life at the intersectionality of sport and colonialism. C.L.R. James does this, and more, with spectacular aplomb in his book. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” is now an indelible and immortal quote that has elevated C.L.R. James to the very pinnacle of social commentary.
BONUS – Since it takes 11 to make a team (especially if one has a fanatical passion for the game of cricket)
- Infinite Justice – David Foster Wallace
You can put this humongous book (over 1100 pages depending upon the edition) to multifarious purposes. You can use it to play Whack-a-mole with mosquitoes, rest your head upon it as a substitute for a pillow, or even play an absorbing game of book cricket with it. But when you are not doing any of these things, please make it a point to display it prominently on your bookshelf. Whenever any “know it all” smart-alec asks, whether you have read Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, shoot back by sending a picture of Infinite Justice along with a message “unless you have read this, your biblio life is incomplete”.
Jokes aside, Wallace must be credited for penning one of the finest sporting pieces ever, (Roger Federer as a religious experience*) as well as for delivering one of the finest commencement day speeches ever (“This is Water”*). The twentieth-century French anthropologist René Girard promulgated a fascinating proposition called “mimetic theory”. According to this theory, human desire is not individual but collective, or social. Because people want what other people want, there will inevitably be conflict as people compete for the same goods. Mimetic desire leads to mimetic rivalry. Hence possessing Infinite Justice is an exercise in ‘mimesis’, even though the book does nothing to leave you contentment-wise in excelsis.
It is always a grind to choose the best out of the best and there would be many hair-tearing moments of regret on the gems that have been missed out once the selection has been finalised. But then there are only a certain number of books that a bookshelf can accommodate unless it’s on goodreads.com!
- Roger Federer as Religious Experience – Tennis – The New York Times (nytimes.com)
- This is Water (metastatic.org)
Venky aka Venkatraman Ganesan
Venkataraman Ganesan is a Chartered Accountant by accident and a lawyer by intent. He has a maniacal penchant for books, more books, still more books and lot more books. He is a cricket (not the insect) tragic who loves his Scotch & scribbles for fun. He maintains a blog www.blogternator.com, which his own mother steadfastly refuses to read, even when bribed..