I wanted to do this the day I spotted it, but perverse cosmic forces and a few djinns buffeted me around, until now.
Do you reread books?
Is the Pope into choir boys? Does Tom Cruise need therapy? D-uh. Of course, I reread books. Even Homer Simpson has his TV Guide. Blessed with a single bookstore and zero libraries, rereading is pretty much how I stay afloat in this desert. I bought around fifty (expensive) titles during my vacation, but carried back only a handful owing to weight constraints (the needs of the many outweighing the few, etc.). Besides, I couldn’t say no to all those crunchy, gooey goodies.
I should be reading more, there are a few thousand titles I need to go through, to feel even passably well-read, but all the time I have is spent reading stuff online. In my defense, they’re sites and blogs of topical and longstanding interest, except for when I’m sucked into the tragicomic autobiographical maelstrom that is LiveJournal™. Like you did. Just now. Sucker!
Like I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I reread not only to revisit old flames, but also because I forget. Not just bits and pieces, but whole chunks, sometimes even the entire book. I live within a book’s universe when I’m at it, and promptly develop amnesia when done and start on the next. With the years, this is becoming the norm rather than exception. At Eloor, I’d chance upon an interesting paperback, eagerly read the blurb and preface, random skim through pages, end up at the last one and find #4139 (me; yes Ramanujan, it is a prime) had already taken it the previous year. Damnation. So I spend 10% again to re-stimulate a fresh set of neurons.
If yes, which ones have you reread and why?
During cubhood, Manoj and I went through a gradually growing pile over and over again. And again. Why? No Cartoon Network, that’s why. We didn’t have a real library, mom read the rare award-winning Malayalam fiction, and all papa left behind were electronics journals.
The numbers on the pre-teen rotation hit-list were:
BalaVinjnanaKosham, Prabhath Book House: Our first encyclopedia. Evolution, civilizations, biology, anatomy, space, inventions, geography, history, etc., laced with liberal doses of paeans to communism. Except for the ideology, the die was cast. A precious gift from mom. And she wonders why I turned out the way I did.
Jeevitha Vidyalayam, Arkady Gaidar: A coming-of-age tale for Boris Gorikov, a growing-up-primer for me. I loved everything about it, as did Syam, as did our respective brothers. Tried to fashion our life and adventures along its lines. Clearly, an impossible task, but I did build a raft and float it in the pond, complete with flag and passengers. The book is far more complex and layered than that, of course, and not just about rafts. Ha! I registered goose bumps (again) on the most recent reread, which would be last year, primarily from all the nostalgia overload.
Chukkum Gekkum, Arkady Gaidar: Tale of domesticity, parenthood, tame adventures, and sibling rivalry, with which we identified. I bought these two Gaidars from a school book fair in the fifth standard. I remember a senior running around shouting Maxim Gorky’s mother was there, and I wondered what the big deal was if a parent came to visit.
Stories for Children, Leo Tolstoy: I cried reading “The Lion and the Puppy.” There were stories about stolen plums, a child escaping an oncoming locomotive, etc., and the accompanying pictures were so beautiful they imprinted firmly in our minds. The art in all the Russian books was so enchanting. Everything’s enchanting when you’re young and daydreaming.
The Blue Cup, Arkady Gaidar: Dad-and-daughter’s day out, a charming little gem. I didn’t fathom the subtle undercurrents for a long time.
KuttiKathakalum Chithrangalum: Another Russian translation, assorted stories, humorous plots involving animals. There were a whole bunch of them (Russian books, not clever creatures) that mom got us from time to time, but sadly, we lost them all when we left for Kuwait, and our relatives and neighbors cleared out.
Kids and Cubs, Olga Perovskaya: Tigers and foxes and wolves, oh my! And a horse named Chubary. Why are kids fascinated by animals? Will we ever know? (I think we already do, just ignore the rhetoric.)
Black Book and Schwambrania, Lev Kassil: This was one of the English ones we adored, as it had an advanced level of humor, was about school life, zany adventures, brothers, and idealism. Manoj and I created a stupid-sounding make-believe country and wrote stories about it, just like in the book. Of course, the book was about losing your childish notions of utopia and working towards a practical prosperous socialist society (yet another childish notion), which meant I looked at the book differently at different points in my life.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas: My favorite classic, amongst the scant few I’d read till then. Revenge is a dish best served gold. I remember watching Prem Nazir’s Padayottam at Kuwait as an eight-year-old and exclaiming, “Hey, this is that Monte Cristo story!” and mom and others shushing me up.
The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis: Borrowed from akkara Manoj (he lived across the fields), was lost in that witching world for a long time, magical days. I wasn’t aware of the messianic undertones, guess too much is made of that.
Also the shipload of Amar Chitrakatha, Tinkle, Target, Balarama, Poompatta, Muthassi, Eureka!, Tintin, Asterix, Beau Peep, Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Garth, Buzz Sawyer, Rip Kirby, Kerry Drake, Mike Nomad, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, Hitchcock, Tarzan, Paddington, Grimm, Andersen books we stashed, repeatedly devoured, and exchanged.
Moving on to adolescence …
Contact, Carl Sagan: Obviously. I’ve only read it 37 times and you know I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had 18 years to do that, I’ve actually kept count. Boy, do I feel old. I’ve gone through three editions of it, two being gifts; my original copy is with Unny, since 1994. He decided he had to read it as I kept boring him about its influence on me, as we sat on top of that mango tree, digesting lunch. It may be the only full-length fiction paperback he has ever read. Good choice, I’d say.
I made mom get it from a book fair (at Kanakakunnu Palace, near her office, God I miss book fairs), during the beginning of tenth standard. I learned about its existence from Time magazine (maniyan uncle’s subscription), and was eagerly awaiting it as I was already hooked on Cosmos. She rues the day she bought it, saying it ruined me forever. Little does she realize it had more to do with the Qur’an translation I was made to read than anything else. Oh, the irony. Of course, the Russian books and encyclopedias helped, but the Qur’an makes for a better story.
I was young, impressionable, and a sucker for science. I found my hero and role model. I adored him. Sagan wrote lyrically and touchingly. The story was set in the future, and I was all about the future. It encompassed every single area I was interested in—biology, astrophysics, mathematics, art, theology, relationships … and if I wasn’t already into it, I wanted to. To quote from the book, my mind soared. I learned, identified, empathized. I wanted to reunite with papa too, and listen to him and laugh at his jokes, let him know how much I missed him, how much he meant to me. I discovered new things on each rereading. It was my Bible. Cherished phrases and quotes would run through my head, and would put me at peace.
I wasn’t entirely satisfied with parts of it (galaxy-wrights interested in puny human dreams? The multidimensional door was a familiar device from Narnia, and hence disappointing), the ending (too pat, improbable, and easily proved wrong), but thought it a stepping stone to further contemplation. Still, every time I read those closing lines, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only …” I bite my lip and fight back tears.
The film version—a totally different beast (never judge a book by its movie)—is something close to my heart too, for different reasons. It wasn’t so at first. I took it as a personal insult when Zemeckis deviated drastically from the original, obliterating and altering plenty of detail (where’s Ken, Devi, the crew, “step” dad, etc.?), had a weak (albeit beautifully shot) ending, but then reconciled myself to the fact that this was Hollywood, a compromise, catering to the commonest denominators, keeping an eye on box-office returns. On subsequent viewings, I started to appreciate the movie on its own terms, enjoying the photography, the background score, the glorious radio telescopes (I think they are the most beautiful man-made objects), Jodie Foster, and the message it conveys to the millions who hadn’t/wouldn’t read the book. As it winds up, just before the credits roll, there’s a dedication, just two words: “For Carl.” That’s when I really connected with the movie. Somebody took an effort to keep alive the memory, the legacy, the gift, and I appreciate that.
I remember Mansur and I watched it when it came out in theaters back home, and he was okay with the movie while I ranted and fumed. Obviously, he wasn’t into the book as much as I was. When I first heard a movie was being made, I couldn’t believe it, thinking it was an impossible task. I kept running into it on cable much later. KVK sent me his DVD from the US to Riyadh, which promptly got eaten by the goblins at Saudi customs, and he graciously ordered two more copies and saved them for me to collect from him at Bangalore during one of my vacations. I have grown to love the movie a lot over the years, and I still get all tingly watching it and running the book simultaneously in my head.
I shall note in passing that it was Contact and Blue Cup that made me want to raise a girl child, even when at school. I got lucky. All hail the XX chromosome.
Cosmos, Carl Sagan: The show that changed my life. Any questions?
And they say television is bad for you. What I am, is thanks to ye olde pothead martiophile and his plosive billions. “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” I had found my religion. Heady stuff for a fourteen-year-old, kindling of a life-long passion, validation of everything I had secretly known, loved, and feared. All the fluff, nonsense, and hogwash whittled away, sharpness and clarity descended into a muddled head. I found a little bit of papa in him, in those canines, crow’s feet, tan jackets, and turtlenecks.
I got the book after I got Contact. I longed for the coffee table version with the full-color reproductions, but had to settle for the paperback. Mansur bought me a second-hand one a few years ago, which I gladly donated to somebody dear and made a convert. It is the most poetic science book I have ever read, with every paragraph-ending constricting my chest walls with the grandeur and majesty of the Universe and existence, and has kept me searching for evocative nonfiction to this day, to the peril of my fiction fare.
In the vastness of time and immensity of space, it is indeed a joy and honor to have shared a planet and an epoch with Carl, however virtually. Thank you.
Broca’s Brain, Carl Sagan: There was no stopping me. I was on a Sagan binge. My first foray into neuroscience, linguistics, and eventual Steven Pinkerdom. I must have read non-Contact Sagan books at least a dozen times each. And I still want to read them. This could either be an indication of how good the books are or my deteriorating brain.
Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan: My introduction to speculative evolutionary psychology. A lot of it is now considered erroneous, but that was the interesting part. Science is self-correcting and repairing; that is its greatest strength. I learned there are no clear-cut answers to anything.
The Cosmic Connection, Carl Sagan: Appropriated from the Secretariat Library (hey, nobody had taken it for years and nobody probably would), this kept me company for many nights, transporting me to faraway places. The image of a freight train barreling through the night is what comes to mind as I think about the book, from a memorable phrase within.
I lent the book to Sajini and gave her three years to finish it, and she didn’t and lost the book to boot. I have never forgiven her. It takes a certain kind of appetite and mentality to appreciate the Wonder of Being; some have it, most don’t (which always came as a rude revelation), and I feel they are much the poorer for it.
Contact is the distillation of all of Sagan’s nonfiction and I felt like a wayfarer experiencing déjà vu, whilst traversing quasi-familiar routes.
Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan: My first Amazon purchase, via discount coupon, through Girish. He lugged it home during a vacation and was muttering about the weight. I fell in love with my Mentor when I realized he had read all of Sagan before me, could quote from it extensively, but dismissed his works as “Bah, the pothead keeps repeating himself. What a bore! The world will still be the same; the morons will outnumber us always.” Like Ellie, I’m the incurable romantic, but when push comes to shove, I know whom to look up to. I wonder who has my book now.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” Richard Feynman: I’ll forever be thankful to Cherian for introducing me to Feynman during high school, even though I can’t stand the sight or company of him (Cherian, not Feynman). Unfortunately, he raved about the gimmicks, one-upmanship, and womanizing, and missed the underlying theme about the scientific method, skepticism, and the pleasure of finding things out yourself. And to think Cherian had a laboratory in his basement I envied.
Of course, the book is one elaborate boast (which irritated Girish, who’d keep saying, “angeru verum swantham peepi oothiya fraud aayirunnu,” but I couldn’t help but admire the guy. Feynman reminded me of papa, with all his tinkering with radios, experimentation, showmanship, and wit.
The World According to Garp, John Irving: Girish and I took this from Monarch Lending Library (solely by the picture on its cover—a toad, possibly alluding to the undertoad) and were blown away. This was the late ‘80s and we hadn’t yet come across gut-wrenchingly realistic contemporary fiction. Personal tragedies, bizarre situations, feminism, gore, violence, dark humor … it was a trip. “I’m Ellen James; I’m not an Ellen Jamesian,” broke my heart and remains as the line that most affected me. The stories within a story added to the authenticity. We loved it so much we didn’t want to return it, and forfeited the membership and caution deposit.
Earth, David Brin: A mammoth sci-fi epic set in the future, involving a micro black hole and a sensible—if acerbic—old lady. (Ha, you probably should read the book to get the joke.) More than the interweaving plots and myriad characters, the details of the future (presaging the Web and video bloggers) and insights into a whole variety of fields—evolution, neuroscience, consciousness, quantum physics, ecology, economics, heroism, etc.—were what held my interest and I marveled at the breadth and scope of the author’s imagination. Brin is upfront about the preachiness (global ecological and sociological catastrophe) in the foreword, so you’re sufficiently warned. The guys at University College made fun of my insistence that they read it and learn something. Binu K. George (the darling “muscle-bound moron” or “muscle-mound boron” as Mansur called him) would stretch his brawny forearms and intone, “mmm … Earth vaayikkanam, basis vekkanam,” with a smirk. My brother and I had a laugh remembering it, during my vacation.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Age 13¾ + The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend: The funniest book I’ve read on puberty, complete with the pretensions of juvenile pseudo-intellectualism. I was the same age reading it, so felt vastly superior and good about myself. Got it bundled with its game for the Commodore 64; I spent more time with the book than both game and computer combined.
Damn, this is getting disturbingly digressive and unwieldy. I’ll try move quickly and be brief hereon.
My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell: Naturalist aspirations.
All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot: Veterinarian aspirations.
The Kon-Tiki Expedition, Thor Heyerdahl: Seafaring explorer aspirations.
Malgudi Days, R. K. Narayan: Another real world, full of simplicity and humanity. M. Krishnan Nair looked down upon RKN, calling him a mere journalist, his writing style being so deceptively plain. I disagree.
A Flight of Pigeons, Ruskin Bond: Memories of sunny evenings, chapatti and dal, bullock carts on dusty roads.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo: Cosette. Sigh.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: Every boy is a Tom Sawyer fan until he grows up and rereads Huck Finn. Twain is da bomb.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: Truth, justice, beauty, and the American way. Ironically, the Depression era was the best period in America.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller: Wickedly funny, and just as heart-wrenching.
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger: Angst-ridden, stream of consciousness masterpiece and all that David Copperfield kind of crap. I’m glad I read it young, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much now.
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe: The original Tom Hanks on an island. I’d spend days thinking up ideas to trap game and survive. Maybe it’ll come in handy during my Survivor appearance.
The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins: Current living hero. Those who portray him as the one-dimensional militant atheist overlook what a passionate, gifted writer and lucid expositor of science he is. This should be required reading in schools.
Sadly, I haven’t read any Darwin so far. For shame. I should.
Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier: Girish’s recommendation. I didn’t see it coming.
Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome: Quite possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams: “Nevertheless, a wholly remarkable book. In fact, it was probably the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations.” Couldn’t have said it better, Mr. Adams.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton: My architect cousin Shahna introduced me to Wharton via Ethan Frome, but this turned out to be my favorite. I’ve written about the movie version elsewhere.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje: Immolata’s recommendation. Complex and achingly beautiful. I’ve written about it before.
Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee: Veena’s recommendation. Raw and powerful. The best Booker prize winner I’ve read.
And Quiet Flows the Don, Mikhail Sholokhov: Was more interested in the naughty bits at first, but grew up reading it.
In Praise of Older Women, Stephen Vizinczey: Ditto. Tender and poignant. Paradoxically, the women I’ve lent it to never liked it much.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: One of the most technically perfect, well-crafted books ever.
Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck: The best travelogue I’ve read—a loving portrait of a beautiful and troubled America through the eyes of its finest wordsmith.
Love Story, Erich Segal: I remember how moved I was the first time I finished it. Despite its apparent predictability and schmaltz, and the multiple readings, I’ve never really outgrown it.
Complete Works, Basheer: Thanks to mom’s brother (my feckless, unmarried, drunken, literate genius of an uncle) I came into possession of this treasure of world literature. I wrote in my old page, “For once, I am thankful I was born a Muslim in Kerala, as I can understand his work much better—natively and without porting.” My choice for marooned-island material.
Payyan Kathakal, VKN: I came around to VKN rather late, notwithstanding Syam’s constant urging, and boy it was a revelation. A guy who wrote the same way Mansur and I talked, full of wacky yet urbane allusions and assimilated anglicisms.
Khasakkinte Ithihaasaam, O. V. Vijayan: The definitive mother tongue novel. Brilliant and way beyond its time. As an aside, my brother and I wrote a piece on our military-mustachioed philandering polygamist uncle titled “Razakkinte Ithihaasam,” which was a hit with the immediate family.
Leaf Storm and Other Stories, Gabriel García Márquez: I didn’t know what magical realism was when I first read this (on Mansur’s insistence), but I knew it was something special. Esteban, Blacaman, Isabel … the never-ending dreamlike richly textured sentences, the eerie but familiar locales, the far-fetched yet believable tales, it was altogether wonderful.
There’s more, but that’s enough for today. Maybe I’ll dish out more pretentious twaddle on favorite books in another meme. Moving on …
If not, would you want to if you had the time and if yes, which ones?
I’ll be going over a few I have with me currently, purely out of necessity. I just finished rereading Matt Ridley’s Genome (I always reread Ridley; he writes assertively and without disclaimers, refreshing for a science writer, as many others are cautious with opinions and extrapolations), and have started on James Watson’s DNA, The Secret of Life (bought from the Trivandrum airport on the way here). Quite interesting so far, with a lot of overlap between the two, which shouldn’t be surprising.
Good lord, I’ve created a monster. I’m off to bed now. In an earlier incarnation, I’d hyperlink all the titles and references, but that seems a mammoth and thankless undertaking, so adios and al vida.