Home > Books, Choice > Of Books, Choices and a Reading Project

Of Books, Choices and a Reading Project

WP_20150107_08_00_37_ProOne of the things that I routinely do when I visit someone else’s place for the first time is look for a bookshelf, and if I spot one, spend a fair bit of time looking at the titles. Apart from being a great conversation starter, a book shelf says so much about the person – if it’s an acquaintance who one doesn’t know well yet, I can almost foresee how well we are going to get along (or not) 🙂 .  However, with the advent of e-readers, this kind of personality analysis is sadly becoming more and more infrequent. It seems a bit rude to ask for someone’s Kindle and scrutinise their purchase history.

The contents of the book shelf featured alongside has probably been the single biggest influence on my general worldview and has shaped a lot of my thinking. The 200+ books nestled in this favourite corner of our home has some of the best writing that I’ve been privileged to read in the last couple of decades of my life. Of course, there are more books in other parts of the house, plus the many borrowed from friends & libraries over the years, but the ones here are a fair distillation of my adult-life reading. Applying my psycho-analysis to myself, this book shelf almost defines who I am.

My reading pattern tends to yo-yo a bit. Sometimes, days go by when I don’t open a single page, and there are times when I spend most of the weekend and week-nights post-dinner, reading. In recent years, on average, I’ve settled down into a rhythm of finishing 12-15 books over the course of a year. And as I get older, this has led me to think carefully about what I read nowadays.

Given where I am in life, I give myself another 35-40 years of a (hopefully) healthy life, where my eyes will allow me to read for any length of time. This basically means that I will have to pick the 450-500 absolute must-reads from now till the day I die. While 500 may sound like a lot at first, it really isn’t that much. Think about the choice set: the millions and millions of titles published since Guttenberg came up with the printing press, and a similarly unimaginable number that will come into existence over the next four decades. From this vast ocean of literature, I have to find and choose the 500 best pearls of wisdom, entertainment, knowledge, pleasure, pathos, etc. And who knows, I might die of cancer in five years, or get hit by a truck once again while cycling next week (and not be so lucky to get away alive this time). Bottomline, I have begun to get really, really picky in what I read.

For example, the editors at Amazon recently published a list of 100 books to be read in a lifetime, of which I have read only about twenty…. 30-40 more to go from that list, at least. But the majority there are fiction, while most of my reading over the last couple of years has drifted into non-fiction, which makes it another huge list to look at and choose from. Then there are all the classics that I put off reading in my youth for later in life – Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and the likes…. now, I am in that “later” phase of my life. Poetry is something that I have never related to earlier, but after reading gems such as this one by Wislawa Szymborska, is a genre where I am desperate to make up for lost time.

So I have to be really thoughtful on which books to spend my time on.

The other thing that’s happened to my reading of late, is that I straddle 3-4 books at any point of time. I guess this is a consequence of getting into mostly non-fiction reading. I cannot remember the last time I stayed up till the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t put down a thriller until I got to the last page. Actually, wait.. I do remember – Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was when it happened last, a few years ago. I hardly read those sort of novels now.

On my bedside right now:

Brian Greene’s The Fabric Of The Cosmos. The big questions about our origin and how our universe works have become a  bit of an obsession with me.. physics, biology, genomics, stuff like that. Have discovered authors who deliver high quality science writing in the language of the layman. Greene is one of the best in that breed.

I’m an atheist by choice, but the few times when I can empathise with the divine feeling that believers describe, is when I hear MS Subbalakshmi on the stereo. She lived a very interesting life too. Given the paucity of publicly available written material available on her, T J S George’s biography, A Life In Music, makes a masterful effort even more precious.

On the Kindle:

Re-reading The Brothers Karmazov, two decades after my first attempt. In my twenties, I found Russian novelists depressing (exception: Chekov). Now, older and (I hope) wiser, I’ve started on it again, and the insights into and reflections on life that Dostoyevsky weaves into his characters are compelling to read now. Next, Great Expectations.

Also on the Kindle, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: Written with clarity and verve, a depressing but brilliant account of how the consequence of mere human existence is proving to be disastrous for many other species and ecosystems in our planet. Next, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.

The reading that I look forward to most these days is a book that I finished just a couple of months ago. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens who teaches Humanities at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, offered a course called ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ on Coursera some time last year. I signed up enthusiastically, but like with many other courses, didn’t last the distance and dropped out midway. I was still fascinated with the ideas and discussions that the course threw up, so when his book Sapiens (which is a print version of the online course) released a few months later, I immediately ordered my copy. Harari traces the history of our species over the last 70,000 years, with three distinct inflection points – the Cognitive , Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. With lucid, evocative  language, a sharp wit and cogently laid out arguments, he tackles a broad swathe of issues across areas spanning anthropology, culture, myths, evolutionary biology, to name just a few, and constructs a fascinating narrative of how we came to be where we are as a species. If I were to pick the one standout book from all of my last year’s reading, this would be the one.

I really believe that books like Sapiens must be made compulsory reading for high school children in our schools. Since that is never going to happen in our education system, I started a reading project during the boys’ Christmas break. Now over dinner at home, I read out a few pages from Sapiens aloud while A1/A2 and V chew on their calories. Harari’s extremely engaging style and compelling content has meant that they were hooked right from the first few pages, which was not surprising at all.

For me personally, this whole process of reading out a book to them has been immensely gratifying. The last time I read out aloud to A1/A2 was more than a decade ago, when they were toddlers, so it probably triggers a strong sense of nostalgia inside… watching their faces as I read aloud, trying to answer all their questions which triggers some amazing conversations.. this reading project has been a deeply satisfying experience, one that I shall cherish for the rest of my life.

  1. Kartik Jay
    February 5, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Great write-up, Sats (as always). I must have missed it – what is the significance of the title of the blog post ‘900’?

    Sent from my iPhone


    • February 5, 2015 at 4:43 pm

      Sorry, accidentally hit ‘Publish’ before I put in the title for the post. 900 is WordPress’s version of 404, I guess. Have updated with the title now. Thanks.

  2. February 17, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Satish, you read, digest and long for books that I havent even heard about! Great, simple, clear write up as usual! Wonderful. Gopal.

    • February 18, 2015 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks, Gopal. Sapiens will be a good read for Dhruv too. Highly recommend.

  3. Chandu Thekkath
    February 18, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Satish, Fascinating. We should compare bookshelves (alas my local one is slowly getting populated)

    • February 19, 2015 at 3:20 pm

      Absolutely, looking forward to it. There are a couple of nice bookshops in the city that you’ll like, will tell you more.

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