My Seven Favourite English Books (Non-Fiction)

May 8, 2010

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.

3 Freakonomics:

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!

6 Complications:

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.

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Confessions of a bibliophile: 2

April 30, 2010

I got my love for books from my father. Pitaji, a retired Hindi teacher, has a huge collection of books. Not that he could afford to buy them, these were pieced together in different phases. The earliest books in his collection are from the time when he bought books while doing his PhD. When he became senior enough, he was a part of the committee deciding the course books for his university, sample copies of books followed soon enough. And when he became even more senior- and his earlier students too became senior- he began getting his books written by his students (and sundry other fans) gifted to him. Now, when Pitaji is 86, wheel has turned a full circle and he is back to researching- and buying books! His passion for the last couple of decades has been Vinoba Bhave which he reads and reflects on regularly. He buys all the Vinoba literature he can lay his hands on.

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Books, you may think offer either diversionary or intellectual delight. You read them for fun (“time-pass”) or for feeding your intellect. I firmly believe that they go far beyond this. They offer emotional support, memories of years gone by and even sensual comfort.

Let us take the last one, first. The sensuous feel of the glossy jacket, the textured cloth of a hard-bound book once you remove the jacket, and most importantly, the fragrance wafting from the pages of a newly purchased book. Rare is a book-lover who has not delighted in these.

I have this habit of inscribing my name on each book I buy. Mainly to record my ownership, and deter the occasional borrower who may wish never to return it. I also date my purchase and write the city where I bought it from. And when I go through my collection, the date and place trigger memories of distant times. Some books being milestones of sorts. This is the book when I bought when I got my first salary. This was when I got engaged to be married. That one was bought when our first born was on his way. And that one, over there, was bought at the airport when I was about to embark on my first international trip. Etc, etc.

I had this habit, now extinct, of covering my books. It was an elaborate process, buying those special “plastic”-y sheets (a thinner and longer version of those A4 sized sheets we would use to make our OHP presentations in the good old days.) Those were the days when I could afford only paperbacks and I thought these coverings gave more life -and character- to the books and the book collection. I was pretty religious with this exercise, however over a period of time got discontinued due to the growing volume of books, growing pressure at work (hardly any weekends) and then lesser number of paperbacks available for covering. I was now able to afford hard-cover first editions of books. And who covers hard-covers?

I have this habit of dusting my book-collection once-in-while. This is less to do with book hygiene and more to do to re-establishing my relation- my familiarity- with the books. I find household chores tedious, but there is greater joy than spending a few hours on a weekend just dusting and rearranging books!

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I normally do not lend books. Many a guest has been tempted to borrow a book or two. With experience I know that borrowing a book is easy. Reading it, difficult. And even more difficult is returning the book. No, sir, I do not lend books.

It takes some guile on my part to refuse lending books.

“I am still reading it, I will let you have it when I am done”.

“This one does not belong to me, I need to ask the owner if I can lend it.”

“My wife is reading it, she will have it reached to you when she is done”

Some are dogged in their demands for books and invariably they never get return it. Ever!

It is not that I never lend books. I do. But only to those who I think will love reading it. I actually pull out a book and offer it to a friend/visitor, “Please do read this book, I think you will like it.” They go ooh-aah. And accept the offer willingly. And they also invariably return it. This has a side-effect. Most of my favourite books are dog-eared due to this circulation. But I am glad I still have them.

I know a book-lover friend of mine who actually keeps his collection under lock-and-key. He refuses to part with any in his collection.

There have been other milestones too. Like this book, which I recovered from my ex-boss, after I resigned from my job. He called me for an “exit” interview. I flew from Delhi to Bangalore and was led into his office the moment I reached. Before he could start the interview process, I asked him: “Where is that book of mine which I lent you eighteen months ago?” (I had loaned him George Mikes’ “How to be an alien”. This one deals with the Brits and their view of life. It is written by Mikes, a Central European. There is a chapter in his book on Sex. I reproduce the entire contents here: “Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.” That’s the entire chapter!)

My boss sheepishly reached into his book-rack and handed over the book to me. It had strange black burn marks around the edges. My boss’ office had been gutted a few months ago. But luckily my book had survived. And that is what matters to me the most, at that time.

It was an even-sum game, I gave up my job, and I kept my book.

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Confessions of a bibliophile: 1

April 27, 2010

Those of you who know me would know I love books. And those who have visited my house would know that I love being surrounded by them. Some of you may have read one of my earlier posts, “Books, oh books” about my fascination for books.

I love books, and I very often buy them. I have always had this “other love” in my life. Books. My wife reached this conclusion pretty early on in our married life and she would point this out to me with unfailing regularity, the moment she saw me returning home with a bagful of books. Till she realized that I was a compulsive buyer of books. And incorrigible. She sighed, and reconciled, God bless her. I have written earlier regarding my love for books and that I could not afford to buy books. I would borrow them from friends, from circulating libraries and from school or college libraries. And when I started earning, my salary liberated me- as it were- and I plunged into buying books.

Lest you think that I am a book-worm, let me tell you, I am not. I confess here, publicly, that I have read not even half of my collection. But show me a book-lover who has read all in his, and I will show you a liar!

This used to trouble me a bit. Not a bit actually, but hugely! Till an enlightened book-lover friend of mine told me: “I buy when I can, I read when I can”. And that took off from my conscience the load of guilt accumulated over the years! And now I have this stance: “Sure I have not read this book, but what the hell, I like what this book is about and I will read it one day”. And I often do. Many a time I have pulled out and read to the finish a book a bought five or six years ago. And I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

There are many books which I have not read cover-to-cover. Some half-way, some two-thirds. So what if I do not complete them, I know when to turn to these books depending on what I seek. You do not need to unload on your body the entire bottle of perfume to know what it is all about!

There is another aspect which a book-lover may encounter. Feeling guilty about exiting a book-store without making a purchase. I did. I would enter the bookshop, browse for hours and would feel “obliged” to buy a book or two. I felt guilty leaving without giving the store any business, and to part company with books I would come back to again-and-again in the hours spent at the shop. How could I not give any business to the shop and more importantly, how I could leave behind my objects of desire. So there I was queueing-up at the cash counter, pulling out my wallet and saying thank you to the cashier as he packed the purchases into a polythene bag.

Till someone- another book lover- told me that it was ok. It was alright to leave without buying a book. I put this maxim to practice. It was difficult the first few times, but then I got used to it. And it has been a breeze since then. I breeze into a book shop, exchange a few pleasantries with the book seller, browse and breeze out. Simple!

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I had written in the earlier post:

Books brought you into a mystical communion with writers past and present. Books whose writers were not mere pen-pushers but confidants sharing life’s secrets and mysteries. A book was an entire package of life’s treasures and all its sensual goodness…..

Now that I think more, having books are like having great thinkers as friends. Great friends are those with whom you can spend hours with, turn to them in times of need, ask them for appropriate advice when needed. Great friends are non-demanding, they just stand around and let you be as you do your own thing. Friends with ages of wisdom, tons of good wishes, and- more importantly- always at hand. I wonder if you have realized that you may have a large circle of friends, you may consider them as great friends- which they indeed are- but you rarely turn to any of them at random in times of specific need. For example, if you have some issues with your better half, you may ask a select few. And these select few are different when you are besieged with problems at work, or with your finances, or with multiple such distinct issues clouding your life. Such is the case with books. All great friends, as I have just described, but each fulfilling a different need. Provided of course you know what to seek in a particular book, just like you know what to talk to a close friend about.

There is a small difference though. How many great friends you think you have? 4? 7? Ok, maybe 9! I would be surprised to hear a figure in double digits even with the most socially active people. And if you do think you have a large number of great friends, my humble recommendation is maybe you should start redefining for yourself what you mean by a great friend. On the other hand, you may have a large collection of books and each could be your great friend, in the manner listed above.

…..to be continued….


Books, oh Books!!

August 27, 2009

My obsession with books started when I was a kid.

Not the “text-book” type of a book, that was a student’s occupational hazard. What fascinated me were books of the story variety. Books which took you away from the routine and into a land of imagination and fantasy. Books which smelt good when they were new (and even when they were old), books whose covers shone with the radiance of a million promises, books which gave endless tactile pleasures. If they had a hardbound, laminated cover you would caress it before opening the book at random and inhaling the ambrosia wafting from within. Books would entertain, engross, educate and mystify.

Books brought you into a mystical communion with writers past and present. Books whose writers were not mere pen-pushers but confidants sharing life’s secrets and mysteries. A book was an entire package of life’s treasures and all its sensual goodness packaged into one volume.

I would ache to possess books. Just to get them into my physical proximity. But the catch was there was no money around to buy these books of my dreams.

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There was this Hindi “Baal pocket books” which advertised itself as a quarterly book-mailing club for kids. You could subscribe to the club’s membership at an equivalent of 10 paise per day.  Remember in those days children’s monthlies, “Parag” and “Nandan”, cost 50 paise each. The government publication “Bal Bharati” cost even lower. “Chanda Mama” and “Lot Pot” we considered infra-dig. “Champak” was too kiddish. While CBT’s “Children’s World” has hardly available in the market. The all-time favourite kiddies books by Enid Blyton were far more expensive. So was Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Three Investigators” series when I grew old enough to fancy them. The hardbound Hardy Boys’ series (there were no paperbacks of these then) were even more expensive.

There was this occasional monetary gift from relatives, initially in paises and then later in rupees. These were assiduously collected in an improvised piggy bank fashioned out of an old tin can. Money saved to purchase a new book. Yes, one long desired book, totally new. Wholly my own. The cheaper the book the better. Not cheap books, I assure you. (I did read some of them- the cheap ones I mean- but that was much later and certainly not with my painstakingly saved money.) I am talking about more-read-for-the-rupee, so to speak.

Some of these low-priced books were primarily sourced from the pavement stalls on Bishtupur Main Road, just opposite Central Bank of India. I refer to the magnificently produced books of a now forgotten publishing house from the then USSR, “Progress Publications, Moscow”. They had these eclectic collection of books right from the illustrated biography  of Lenin (in colour and on glazed paper!) to folktales from the distant corners of the Soviet Union to some excellent textbooks on the sciences. Many a weekend morning and much of one’s savings was expended acquiring these.

Then there was the ever popular and unbelievably inexpensive books from Geeta Prakashan, Gorakhpur. Mostly found at the railway station. That one publishing house which has done pioneering sevice to the spread and dissemination of Hindu religious literature. They also had publications for kids with stories from Ramayan and Mahabharat in a simple-to-understand way or some moral stories with a neatly packaged homily at the end of the story. All-in-all, entertaining, enlightening. And more importantly, very, very inexpensive.

Also available at the railway station were ELBS books, low-priced English language paperbacks from an institution called “English Language Book Society” which had taken upon itself the responsibility of selling low-priced textbooks primarily for the student.  Never mind the binding of these paperbacks wore off after a few weeks of handling. A book was a book, right? How does the fragmentation matter!

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I had the recourse to a substitute to buying books though. Not something which would enable possession of books but certainly I could get to read them. My father was a college lecturer and hence entitled to borrow a number of books from the well-stocked college library. Those were friendly days; no problem if I strolled into the library and borrowed a book or two (or five). The library was at a walking distance from the college staff quarters where I stayed. On Saturdays and during the school summer vacations (the college library was open through the summers) that was the place to be in.

Most of my reading of the classics by Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Jules Verne etc. is courtesy the college library. And lots and lots of Hindi literature or Hindi translations of world literature. Premchand’s stories and novels,  the magical “Chandrakanta”, “Chandrakanta Santati” and “Bhootnath” series. Translations of Bengali novelists Vimal Mitra and Shankar. Marathi writer Sane Guruji’s “Shyamchi Aai”. Translations of Gorky, Chekhov, Camus etc. I am not sure how much of these I understood, probably nothing, but it was an honour and a pleasure to be holding these tomes and reading away! At the risk of sounding immodest, I admit that I was a bit of a precocious kid. My father, Pitaji, did nothing to discourage me.

Our school too had a most wonderful library which we were allowed to access only when we entered the high school. An extraordinary collection of books! The entire collection of Enid Blytons; all of her series including Mallory Towers  and St Clare’s which we young men thought were oddities in an all boys’ school, but we read them nevertheless. The most-in-demand “Hardy Boys” series and “The Three Investigators” series presented by Alfred Hitchcock. Biggles, Billy Bunter, William. Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”. Alistair MacLean and Desmond Bagley. The mandatory Classics. And tons of other books. And yes, shelves and shelves of text books too.

The library was under the stern supervision of Mrs Irani who could be immensely strict. You were punished if caught even whispering in the library. She would closely examine the books as they were being returned. I shudder to think of the punishment boys would get when they turned in a soiled, or worse still, a dog-eared book. But Mrs Irani could be utterly loving too, in her sweet parsi aunty kind of way. Ah, those endless hours spent in the library pouring through volumes of old National Geographic magazine! And the old, bound editions of Dharmyug. And browsing through Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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Sometimes in my early teens, in my pursuit of books, I discovered the “circulating” libraries. These were tucked into the bylanes of the interiors of Bishtupur market, diagonally opposite the famous mithai shop, Manohar Maharaj. These shops lent pulp-fiction for a pittance. And it is here that I got my quota of James Hadley Chase, Harold Robbins, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Peter Benchley’s Jaws. And so many others. Needless to say that these reading exploits were carefully concealed from my parents- or so I always thought- by covering these books in old newspapers and reading them only when I thought they had gone to sleep! Ah, those heady days of growing up!

Bishtupur also had two book shops, I am not sure whether they exist now. There was this “Sanyal Brothers” up the Bishtupur Main Road which would specialize in fiction and best-sellers. Down the road was “Sen and Co.” which sold mostly text books. These were holy destinations for me, Sanyal more favoured than Sen as it allowed window-shopping and browsing. There was one more shop tucked into the bylanes of the market, not far from the aforementioned circulating libraries. This was actually a fruit juice cum fruit shop turned into a book shop, “Bhatia Pustak Bhandar”. The sardarji there displayed a mouth- watering selection of fruits and books too! The books-cum-gift shop “Wasava Singh” at Kamani center happened much later, when I was in my high school perhaps, maybe even later.

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The situation was not very different in my college days. The financial resources were still scarce, the love for books heightened further. But I had access to some of the best libraries and to some great book shops (for window shopping) in my college days. In those days of discovering myself the reading tastes swung wildly! Ayn Rand was an absolute must for all of us who had even the faintest ambition of being called thinking people. Then reading swung among sci-fi, Vedanta, psychology, politics, Marx, Sartre…. The more ecletic the better. Never mind if I could not understand most of what I read!

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I became totally unhinged in my love for books when I started working and earning a salary. But that is a story for another piece!

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