Friday, June 24, 2005

Books that Shaped Me

Re-reading this post, it's surprisingly personal. Instead of just answering a few questions, I've gone on about the books that changed the way I read while growing up, and by extension, changed me. I suspect that half my readers will be bored to tears, but I enjoyed writing it. Thanks, Indu.

Indu's tagged me for this book meme that's been everywhere around the blogosphere. This is the first meme I've seen a large number of BITSians involved in, and the first time I'm participating as well. Here goes...

Total number of books I own:
This is surprisingly hard to answer. There are about 300 books I have immediate access to at home. Then there are perhaps 150 in boxes some friends gave us recently when they went to Muscat, but we left India before I even looked carefully through this set. The books I did find were mostly very good - while scanning through one of the boxes, I discovered several Steinbecks I hadn't read. My grandmother's house contains another 80 or 90 books she left us when she died, and I have about 40 in America. All told, I guess it comes to somewhere between 550 and 600.

Last books I bought:
The Pickwick Papers
So Many Books, by Gabriel Zaid. This is a fabulous collection of essays on books and reading. Interestingly, Zaid owns over 10,000 books.

Last books I read:
Original Sin, P.D. James. This is the first of her books I've read, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. I normally dislike murder mysteries where the reader doesn't have a fair chance of solving the crime, but Original Sin is worth reading as a novel, not just a mystery. Lady James creates a wonderful atmosphere, and she capture the Thames - in many different moods - superbly.
First Meetings in the Enderverse, Orson Scott Card. A terrible disappointment. This is the only one of the many Card books I've read that I positively dislike. (The Shadow series is not good, but it has some redeeming qualities.) First Meetings is a collection of short novellas, each of which describes the coming together of some of the key players in the Ender's Game Universe (I refuse to use the term Enderverse!). A couple of the stories just don't work, and the retelling of Ender's time at Battle School is, frankly, awful. A large part of the reason for my distaste is that it contradicts Ender's Game in so many ways that the result is terribly sloppy. Card used minor contradictions well in Ender's Shadow as an illustration of how perspective shapes narrative; Bean's perspectives are different from Ender's. I doubt that's what he was trying with this book; it looks much more like lazy writing and editing.
UPDATE: Apparently, the novella I disliked so much was the original version of Ender's game that Card wrote; he later expanded it into the widely-read novel. Much of my criticism is then unjustified, but I still think the novel is far better. In my defense, the book never makes this clear; I had the impression that Card cut down the novel so he could include it in this collection to add cohesiveness.

Currently Reading:
Nothing! (Stifles a sob, and uses the hem of the sack-cloth robe to wipe ash out of his eye.) I'm completely book-deprived in Brunei now, but I'll be back in India early next week. I can't wait to do some serious reading!

Books that have had an impact on me:
I have no idea where to begin answering this. I think I'll pick some of the more unusual ones; most of these have affected my reading, rather than being life-changing. So, in chronological order:

The first has to be the Bible, and it would be even if I were going in order of importance. It didn't just affect my reading, though it did that too. When I was little, my family would read out stories to me from various children's adaptations of the Bible, but at family prayers, they would often read aloud from the King James version. I've heard it described as the only translation of any work that's a stylistic improvement on the original, and I can believe it. Even when I couldn't understand all the words, I was mesmerised by their rhythm and flow. I think that was the first time I realized that writing could do more than tell a story; good writing could sound good. To this day, the King James (or Authorised) version is my favourite, and the one I find easiest to memorise - the words just sink into your consciousness.

From around the same time, I'll list Enid Blyton's Noddy series. I was 3, and my sister Nisha - 5 years older than I - would read to me when my parents weren't around. (My parents being doctors, that happened fairly often.) I loved the adventures of Noddy, Big Ears, Tessie Bear, and the rest of the gang, and I kept pestering Nisha to read to me even when it wasn't convenient - when she was busy, or when her friends were around. Partly out of exasperation, but mostly because she enjoyed it, she taught me how to read so I could entertain myself. The first words I remember reading are "See Spot Run", and Nisha kept me at it until I could read Mr. Plod and Little Noddy by myself. I have both Noddy and Nisha to thank for a lifetime of pleasure.

Fast forward a few years, till I reach the second grade. I spent that year in Coimbatore with my grandmother, when my parents were in England. I was 6 and she was 71, so we didn't really have too much reading material in common; most of her children's books had been given away years ago. While rooting around in a cupboard, I found an illustrated edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, and it captured my imagination. Of course, I didn't understand any of it, but when I dug deeper, I found a modern retelling. I've forgotten the title and author, but the stories - The Sword in The Stone, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Balin and the Stroke Dolorous, The Quest for The Holy Grail - enthralled me. I spent longer with the Arthurian cycle than with my schoolbooks; that was the beginning of my fascination with legend and myth. It probably paved the way for all the Fantasy and Science Fiction I read, as well.

In the fourth grade, I was bored and cranky when recovering from a bad bout of fever. The head of my mother's department at the time, Dr. Valerie Major from Wales, lent her The Hobbit to keep me occupied. I loved it so much that she sent me her precious copy of The Lord of the Rings a couple of days later. That started a life-long love affair with Tolkien, and fantasy in general; I've read the Rings trilogy 21 times so far, and the rest of the middle-earth canon fairly often.

Readers Digest is a magazine, not a book, but I'm going to include it anyway. We've subscribed to the magazine for as long as I can remember, and the arrival of each new issue was one of the events of the month. The whole family would fight over who got to read it first; I usually won. (Being the youngest has advantages!) The quality of the magazine was a lot higher then, and I would read and re-read every issue several times. For many years, whenever I had nothing to do, I would while away a few hours with an old Readers Digest out of the collection. In those days, the contents were printed on the front cover, and I can still close my eyes and picture some of my favourite issues. Readers Digest made me a much more discriminating reader - I consciously thought about why I liked Penny Porter's regular articles about her ranch, and why I often disliked the 'Drama in Real Life' feature, why an article about shipping in the South China Sea might unexpectedly stay in my memory, and the story of a murder investigation would not. 'Test Your Own Word Power' probably improved my vocabulary, so that's another way Readers Digests had an impact.

Sophie's World is the only book on this list I don't love. That's putting it mildly; someone gave it to me in the eighth grade, and I hated it. It's a history of philosophy shoved badly into a novel, it just doesn't fit. Perhaps I was just too young, but the two parts seemed very badly interwoven; the philosophy was fairly good, but I detested the plot. Still, I enjoyed my first experience of philosophy, and came to read more. I also realized that a good plot wasn't as central to my enjoyment of a book as I had thought, which led to a significant increase in the amount of non-fiction I read.

To Kill a Mockingbird was a book my father often talked about, and we owned not one, but two copies. Strangely, then, I didn't read it until the ninth or tenth grade; as soon as I did, it became one of my favourites. Atticus Finch, Jem, and Scout are each among my most-loved fictional characters, and Atticus remains one of my role models. To Kill a Mockingbird is also on my list of books to read to children. (Yes, I maintain such a list. No, I've never written it down; when I find a book that would be appropriate, I make a mental note. No, I don't have children, nor will I in the near future, but I have lots of young cousins to read to.)

I discovered The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in BITS; BSL had copies of the first trilogy and part of the second. Not since Middle-earth has a world so rich been created; Stephen Donaldson portrays the land vividly and in exquisite detail. The themes are incredibly powerful - unbelief and leprosy and powerlessness, sacrifice, self-righteousness, guilt and despair, sin and redemption. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a compelling, complex hero, far removed from the one-dimensional characters found too often in fantasy.
I've long been an advocate of simplicity in writing, of never using a difficult word where an easy one would do. Donaldson, on the other hand, never hesitates to use an unusual word if it conveys his meaning best. I like to think I have a good vocabulary, but I used a dictionary as often in the two days it took me to read Lord Foul's Bane as I had in the preceding five years. Not once did I disagree with Donaldson's choice of words. His prose is both powerful and beautiful; this is high fantasy at its absolute best.

Important! I'd love to hear other people answer these questions; if you have a blog and haven't participated yet, consider yourself tagged. Leave a comment letting me know where to find your post. If you don't have a blog, answer the questions in a comment to this post. Feel free to write as much or as little as you choose.


ashvin said...

Count me among the half of your readers who were NOT bored to death by this post. Perhaps because I know the people mentioned, and share the same upbringing/cultural-literary-milieu as yours [I think I actually recognize the RD story about shipping/piracy in south-east-asia :) ]. Say hello to Nisha when you see her (I'm going to complain to my older sister, of the same name, for not reading to me!)

Nitish said...

Thanks, Ashvin; will say hi to Nisha tomorrow.

I was hoping to read your answers to the questions, btw.

Indu M said...

Nitish, you're welcome :-) And thank YOU for taking the time to do this!!

I actually enjoyed this post being this personal :-)Although I have no picture of most of the people mentioned here, what I can imagine is li'l nitish - always the precocious one, bumping into furniture, correcting everyone's grammar :-) Hope to see you soon (am joining IIMB this tuesday!)

Arun said...

Neat ... the first cross-blog meme I've seen. What I had to say. Not quite as detailed (or interesting) as yours.

Still got to read Lord Foul's Bane. Got it as a gift a few months back. And To Kill A Mocking bird is *amazing*.

Mediochre said...

time for a pooossssttt ?

m. said...

i nobly refrained for this long. post? :(


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Hema said...

hey there.just happened to trespass your blog and i must say , got hooked to this topic.A book i read recently was To Kill a Mocking Bird and i must frankly say that my mental note was -read this book if ever you have kids!
The God of Small Things is sheer poetry in the form of literature. The beauty of the language, rather than the story is captivating!..oh.looks like i would go on an on.!!

Hemamalini said...

hey there.just happened to trespass your blog and i must say , got hooked to this topic.A book i read recently was To Kill a Mocking Bird and i must frankly say that my mental note was -read this book if ever you have kids!
The God of Small Things is sheer poetry in the form of literature. The beauty of the language, rather than the story is captivating!..oh.looks like i would go on an on.!!

amit said...

i have not read any of the book you mentioned. I have heard of "How to..." so will try to find a copy and read....One thing just cant stop coming to my mind......what was I doing during my childhood? did i just waste my time or was there anything more important or interesting? I myself wont be a fair judge....but then if i try to be unbaised, then on what factors would I?