As a book lover, one of the things I have most longed for is a week long holiday from work and a list of excellent books to read without any interruptions and distractions. I had been craving for such a break for a long time and it only came about this week.
So, Christmas holidays are here and at the end of my last day at work, I dropped in to Stockholm’s biggest library, Stadsbibliotek, and spent about an hour searching for the list of books I was going to devour over the next couple of weeks. Or at least, I thought I would. But here was the problem: none of the books that I had on my Reading List A was to be found in the library. OK, so I had two reading lists prepared for this occasion – List A: books that I’ve been longing to read and now was the best time; and List B: books that can be listed as backup if List A was not possible. Here is a sample of what I was looking for:
- The Idiot OR The Karamazov Brother – by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- The Honorable Schoolboy OR Smiley’s People – both by John Le Carre (Remember Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?)
- War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
- Missing – Karin Alvtegen
- In Cold Blood – by Truman Capote
- Any books by PG Wodehouse.
There was also a Plan C, of course. Plan C was that in case I found nothing from my first two lists at the library, I would pick 3-4 fiction novels that appealed to me the most from what was available. It was unlikely, but not impossible, that I might have to fall back on Plan C – after all it was Stockholm’s biggest library – but I was nevertheless going to be mentally prepared.
‘Mentally prepared for not being able to find a good book to read from a big library?’ you might ask and it may sound a bit weird to the unfamiliar, but imagine a guy (that’s me) who stands for hours in front of his personal library back home in India, stocked with 300 books (about 15 of them are yet to be read), and is still unable to decide what to read. Yes, some of us bookworms get weird in this aspect of our lives.
So, back to picking the books. I immediately move to Section D to look for Dostoyesvsky’s books and there are none of them available. Damn! Now to Section L for Le Carre and the two books on my list are also not there. I do see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I’ve already read that and, to my shame, not understood what happened in the story at all.
Nevermind! I move to T and even Tolstoy is out of stock. There goes List A into the dustbin. Out with List B. I move to Section A and look for Alvtegen and it is also missing. And there is nothing by Wodehouse that I haven’t already read so I am so frustrated now that I don’t even attempt to look for Capote.
It has been 15 minutes since I entered the library and I am already panicking. I can see my holidays going for a toss because now I don’t have any books to read. But I must persist and pick up something before I leave – that was plan C. I run over the list of authors I can think of. Jeffry Deaver – already read all of his books. I’ve heard of Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell.. oh Damn! Not those regular thriller fictions again.
It was a long battle in my mind but another 40 minutes have passed by and I have finally made up my decision. I have picked up The Nightmare by Lars Kepler, another thriller but at least the story is based in Stockholm so it will give me a peek into the city that I have recently moved to. And because my mind has stopped working completely, I also picked by The Sixth Man by David Baldacci and I have no idea why. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I am already thinking about the unread books I already have back at my apartment which I know I probably can fall back upon now: A couple of them by Wodehouse and one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Fast forward by a couple of hours and I am back at my apartment, holidays have started and I am already lying on my couch with a cup of hot tea and about to finish the 20th page of The Nightmare. It is a good thriller, but I feel more and more disappointed. The problem is, I’ve read so many thrillers in my lifetime that they all seem to be the same to me. Something to start with, a lot of twists and turns and I already know how stories unfold. Depending on how much you have progressed in the book, you can figure out whether the events that are unfolding right now are leading to the unraveling of the suspense or only thickening of the cloud around it. It gives me no high.
That is when I start thinking about the books that have ever given me a high. When I had read my first book, A Matter of Honor by Jeffrey Archer, it gave me a high because that was the first time I realized how books can engage you. But over the last few years only a very few books have really shaken me from inside and I start remembering them. I thought about Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and how deep the flaws of the protagonist ran. I was amazed by how sick he felt after committing a murder and how it changed him and everything around him. There was no mystery in that novel in the conventional way. The real mystery was in guess how much sicker he can get and how his life was going to deteriorate because of what he has done. It touched you like nothing else ever did before.
Then I think about Love in the Time of Cholera. I don’t know how others feel about it because I never look up the reviews of a book I’ve read because my opinion and my feelings for it are enough and do not need to be spoilt. But was this book something special! The protagonist Florentino Ariza is a young man madly in love with Fermina Daza who has turned him down but he waits for over half a century to win her over again. The feelings depicted in the book are unmatched and I cannot think of any other romantic novel – though I hate to call it just a novel – that has even come anywhere close to it. This stuff is special. If you haven’t read it yet, read it today.
Anyway, as I reach page 40 or so in the novel that I was currently reading, my mind wanders to Sherlock Holmes. Ah, unarguably the best I have ever read and reread and then again some more. I don’t think I will ever tire of reading Holmes and will even be reading it when I turn 50 or 60.
And so is the case with the Jeeves and Wooster series of books (again I refrain from calling them novels in the traditional sense) by P.G. Wodehouse. Have I ever cherished a fictional character more than I’ve cherished Bertie Wooster? No, and I probably never will. Someone had sometime quoted that Wodehouse is ‘..the ultimate in comfort reading because nothing bad ever happens in P.G. Wodehouse land… For as long as I am immersed in a P.G. Wodehouse book, it’s possible to keep the real world at bay and live in a far, far nicer, funnier one where happy endings are the order of the day.’ I possibly cannot say anything that explains it better that this quote.
And so, the list is long but there was one book that still has me stumped. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre is the book that I took a really long time to read and is perhaps the only book at the end of which I confessed to myself that I did not understand what the hell had happened and where the story had been going. Immediately after finishing the book, I could not even explain to my wife what I had read. What was so wrong about it? Or was it me who, despite all my experience in reading for the last 15 years, is still not good enough? The problem, as I can only remember it, was that the story kept swinging wildly from present to past and the author did not make it very obvious which scene was played when and how one got there. I think the ambiguity made me lose track of what I was reading but I kept going on and on, hoping that sometime later in the book it will become clearer. But that was a mistake on my part. It never did and the story ended with me hanging clueless about what happened.
I started surfing the internet in a bid to find a post that would finally explain to me, in detail, what happened in the story and if there was anyone else who did not get it when they read it. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that many other readers of this book admitted the same disappointment as me and so did even people who had watched the movie. And it always came down to the same reason: the story kept swinging from present to past without warning.
But this book taught me a very valuable lesson. Not all books will be run-of-the-mill thrillers-or-suspense where the author does the bulk of the work in making things clear for the reader. No, By Gosh! as Bertie Wooster would have exclaimed. I realize that what I really wanted to read was something where the author doesn’t spoon feed me but challenges me to understand what he is saying. A book doesn’t have to reach out to you, sometimes, you need to reach inside it and find things out. That is what happened when I read the likes of Holmes, Wodehouse, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Albert Camus and others. What they write is only a part of it. What you get out of understanding them is the real joy of reading.
I hope you have found your favorite books to read this winter. Happy Holidays!