It’s a hot afternoon, and I am sitting somewhere by the Arabian Sea, listening to the sounds of the waves crash and recede. The beach is barely 200 metres away but the view is half obscured by a crowd of coconut trees. The wind is swishing through the leaves and their rustling along with the sound of the breaking of waves is sending me into a pleasant siesta. But I have a book in hand that I intended to finish before the year is out, and I must return to it.
Slowly, a sense of déjà vu washes over me. I was somewhere in this coastal belt in 2015, too, at this very time. The books in my Kindle on that trip had consumed me and I had had this same feeling of impatience that I needed to complete them before returning to normal life.
Being an editor in the publishing world means that I am forever reading and mulling over somebody’s writing. So when it comes to reading for pleasure, my choices are often dictated by what I am working on.
This year, as I edited two historical novels, I felt I needed to read more in that genre. As a children’s books editor, new books in this space appear often in my reading lists. Surprisingly, editors hit reading humps too, and for a while no book seems right, none that one can sink into. At those times, I have turned to peers and reviews for recommendations, and tried to figure why certain books are able to pull readers in, what makes them stand out and why should we read what others are reading.
For some reason, in 2016, I decided to keep a record of every book I read. In a long reading life, this is something I have never done. Books have come and gone, and I have only relied on my memory to tell me if I have read one or not. But in this age of record-keeping and sharing, why not for once, see what I have been reading? At the end of the year, this list is also a record of what led me to pick some of these books. What the further purpose of this exercise was, I am not too sure. But I stuck to it diligently, updating the title and author of each book that I completed in a list.
Unforgettable but not lovable
Now, checking my 2016 reading list, I see that I was reading at this time, on some other beach, the four books by Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan series. I started reading them out of curiosity, to see what about them was making everyone gush and enthuse. And sure enough, once I started, I found I could not stop either.
As a reader, I am not particularly disciplined, and reading an author continuously over four books or an entire series at a go is something I don’t do often. But while reading Ferrante, I was in a landscape surrounded by startling blue waters, glinting sunlight, the soft sea breeze turning into fierce mid-day heat and days that died away through spectacular sunsets, and in this alternate world, I read and read, vacuuming up each book and moving on to the next. I remember reading late into the night while all around there was an eerie night silence and only the sound of the sea roaring and being unable to stop myself from finding out about the lives of Lila and Lenu.
Did I love the books with as much ferocity as I read them? Surprisingly, no. I said this later at many fashionable literary lunches and to friends who all looked at me a bit strangely.
I found the books disturbing, deeply political and feminist and the lives within them described grittily, unvarnished by any attempt at prettiness. They were honest books that looked unflinchingly at the characters. And yet I found myself unable to love them.
But that is perhaps the weirdness of books. There are some you can’t tear yourself away from, and their nooks and crannies remain etched in the mind – yet one can’t quite love them fully or even conditionally. Yet in 2016, when a journalist claimed to unmask the person behind Ferrante’s pseudonym, I was quite unaffected. If an author wishes to remain hidden, then the work carries a certain flavour. Why, as a reader, would I want to play around with that?
A romantic interlude
Somewhere in the middle of the year, my list tells me, I hit a sudden spurt of reading light romances. Jojo Moyes was a good find and more than the book that became the movie, Me Before You, the one I liked was The One Plus One. For some reason two of my friends and I read these almost together, passing the books from one to another as we got done, and there was joy in this sharing, not unlike passing around a box of chocolates while watching a late-night movie.
The other book I finally read and one that had been on my to-read list for a while, was Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer. I had read the first few pages of this book standing in a corner of a bookstore a year or so ago. When it was time to go, for no reason at all, I had put the book back on its shelf thinking I would get to it later. I never did, till it came up for discussion in our book club. I found a copy of the book in the local library and proceeded to gobble it down, finishing it in almost one go.
I have now forgotten the names of the main characters, but the story was refreshing, if not a bit unbelievable. And there remained with me the sense of satisfaction at having lain my hands on something I started and then left midway.
But as I scan my list, I now find quite a number of books that were quite the opposite of these breezy reads. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi was an unrelenting look at the imminence of death. It was talked about widely even before publication, and I had already read his piece in the New York Times, “How Long Have I Got Left?”. His erudition and ability to look at his life and condition even as he knows he is in the last year of his young life, makes this a deeply sad book that never devolves into unnecessary sentimentality.
There were a few others I read that went into the dark soul of man and our destiny. I discovered Yoko Ogawa, the Japanese writer, with her Hotel Iris. A slim book that I picked up from the library, it managed to hold plenty of horrors ranging from sado-masochism to a love affair bordering on paedophilia.
In fact, I now find many books and authors on this list that I had meant to read for many years and did not get around to doing so. More of Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and the one I just completed – Stoner by John Williams. The last has an interesting publishing history, one that occurs rarely.
First published in the 1960s, the book had received moderate praise and sales. But in 2003, it was reissued by Vintage and went on to become a huge success, mostly in Europe. A quiet novel, set in an American university about a teacher named William Stoner, it has no grand storyline and is about the life of its protagonist from birth to death. It’s an undistinguished life on the surface, and yet when the story of this life is told, it is full of heartbreak, thwarted ambitions, intense joy and quiet bravery. One can see why the book appealed to so many years after it was published. There’s something timeless about all that it speaks of and the sense of life being a struggle that we have no choice but to submit to, works across time and place.
And the delightful stuff
And finally, the lure of reading crime and Young Adult fiction remained unchallenged. During a particularly bad slump time, I read the utterly delightful Flora and Ulysses by Kate Dicammillio. Similarly, when I needed to get my mind off real life, along came Rick Riordan and his super awesome Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor. Oh come on, who doesn’t like a talking sword that sings top 50 pop songs in battle and has the hots for that “hot spear”. Just read it, and it will all become clear.
I galloped my way through a number of Agatha Christies this year, simply because my teenage son was reading them and I realised that there are many I had read and forgotten or just not read. And the one I finally plucked up the courage to pick up? Curtains, Poirot’s last case. I have chickened out from reading it thus far but I think I am grown up enough to handle the book’s ending now.
A welcome discovery of a new (for me) crime writer was Tana French with her Broken Harbour. She is such a gifted writer and her gradual building of the tension and the resolution in this book was sharply done. She had my husband and I searching the shelves of Bangalore’s Blossoms bookstore for more by her. Sadly, there’s not much available and buying the Kindle versions would be a less strenuous option.
So here I am now, back at the beach, digesting a particularly large lunch that has probably decimated the nearby fish population significantly. The caretaker’s wife, where we are now staying, plied us with four different types and preparations and we nodded and ate, stopping only to make appreciative noises. After this, all that remains is to open the book I am halfway through now –Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday – yes, I know fish seems to be a recurring motif in my life right now.
And what other pattern did I find in my book-reading year, now that I look back? That there is always time to go hunting for that half-read book you meant to finish. To go pick up books and authors you have heard of and find out for yourself why you should read them. Get together with other readers and don’t hold back your opinions. Share your books. Visit bookstores and libraries because the hidden gems are easier to come by when you go looking for them, instead of from reading lists and websites.
And that there should always be some fish – fish in the sea, and fish in the books in our shelves – and may the next year bring with it many many days in which to enjoy both.
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh edits books for children and adults.