In this post I write about my seven favourite English non-fiction books. You will not find Sartre, Kahleel Gibran, Richard Bach or, horror of horrors, even the likes of Shiv Khera and Robin Sharma. My list is a lot less intellectual, I talk about some basic- but interesting- stuff which I have read over the last 30 years or so. Mine is an eclectic collection of books which I have read and re-read over the last few decades. In subsequent posts I will talk about my top seven English fiction books and then about my top seven Hindi books.
1 How To Be An Alien:
I discovered this slim book, written some 60-70 years ago, regrettably late; only 23 years ago. I have read this book several times and it is one of the most prized books in my collection. George Mikes (pronounced, Mik-kesh), a Central European, does a rip-roaring take on the British. I will love any book which has a chapter headed “Three Small Points” where the first point is: “If you go for a walk with a friend, don’t say a word for hours; if you go out for a walk with your dog, keep chatting to him.” And I will adore any book whose entire chapter consists of the heading “Sex”. Followed by text which goes thus: “Continental people have sex life, the English have hot-water bottles.” That is the entire text in the chapter on “Sex”, mind you!
By the way, there is another book which does an excellent, though longer, take on the Brits, “Notes from a Small Island” by Bill Bryson.
I wish I could write humour in the manner George Mikes did!
2 Surely You Are Joking Mr Feynman
Mr Feynman, or Prof Richard Feynman, was a distinguished professor of physics. He is known to generations of students of physics via his “Feynman’s Lecture Series”. This Nobel laureate was involved with the “Manhattan Project”, the WW II project of the US government to develop the atomic bomb. “Surely You Are Joking Mr Feyman” is his autobiography. This story of his life deals with everything but that atom-bomb venture. It sure does find a mention in passing, but the book largely deals with his experiences in studying ants, learning how to break a combination lock, seducing a girl etc.
I have always admired geniuses who could excel beyond what they are renowned for. I can think of none better than Richard Feynman.
This relatively recent book is written by a young economist, an econometrist actually. An econometrist uses mathematics to solve economic conundrums, and Steve Levitt does, with panache. He proves to you that having swimming pool in your house (remember this is an American context) is a lot more dangerous than having a gun in your house. Or that names have a cyclical life. Yesterdays’ names flower again tomorrow. Or that the hallowed teachers and even more hallowed Sumo wrestlers can be cheats. And that famous conclusion in one of the chapters of the book of his regarding the drop in the crime rates of New York city. Something to do with legalization of abortion a few decades prior.
This book has been so inspiring for me ever since I read it. I now think that I can solve all the problems of life only if I had all the data at my hand.
4 City Of Djinns:
If you want to read a good story, read William Dalrymple. What you get is not only a well-written story, you also get tons of authentic, hitherto unknown history as well. I am a huge fan of William D, a Scotsman who spends most of his time in India. He has written many best-sellers- In Xanadu, White Mughals, Nine Lives, and “The Last Mughal ..…”. All of them stories of history, and very well told. But none beats this endearing tale of Delhi, uncovering the layers and layers of its past. This has a unique structure, starting from the present and going back in time to Hastinapur of the Mahabharat, the earliest of the seven incarnations of Delhi. All told in an engaging, personal- and humorous- style.
I have this silly ambition of writing a book sometime. And, if I do, it will be a mix of story-telling, travelogue and history, just like what William Dalrymple has done about Delhi.
5 A Short History of Nearly Everything:
I have mentioned earlier about Bill Bryson. Bill B. is known for his uproariously funny travelogues, I have mentioned the book on England, above, “Notes from a Small Island”. He has written many more on his travels: “ Neither Here nor There” (Europe travel), “The Lost Continent”, “A walk In The Woods”, “Made In America”, “The Life And Times of Thunderbolt Kid” (All on USA) “African Diary” (Africa). But my selection for this list is “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, which is not striclt a travel book. This has oodles of information on matters science, astrology, chemistry, physics, zoology, etc etc. The Solar System, The Big Bang, Genetics, Paleantology are explained in lucid detail.
I love this book as while I am not, classically-speaking, a lay person considering I have a degree in engineering, but I have learnt so much from this book!
There are gifted people, like so many of us. And there are even more gifted people like Dr Atul Gavande. Dr Gavande is a second generation Indian medical practitioner in the US born to a doctor-couple practicing in a small US town. He is an eminent surgeon who has been writing in the Mecca of writers of all kinds, “The New Yorker”, ever since he was a Resident Doctor. His essays on the issues and dilemmas facing surgeons are of interest not only to the physicians but also to the patients and the caregivers as well. He has written two more books after this: “Better” (which was so good that I have gifted copies of it to a couple of hundred doctor friends of mine) and “The Checklist Manifesto” which has just got released in India.
7 Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps
When I first read the book, and I do not even remember who recommended it to me, I was stunned! I kept wondering which among my friends had told the authors (Allan and Barbara Pease) as to what happened in my household. This book is about relationship between men and women; in the Indian context, between husband and wife. The incidents, the observations , the conclusions… and even the solutions are so familiar. Unbelievable! I have recommended this book to so many of my friends, with a condition that it should be read by both of them- him and her. And I am not surprised that nearly all of them have come back and told me: “How is it that the author-duo knew exactly what is happening between the two of us?
If you really want to know, check out the book.