Thirteen Books You Should’ve Read But Probably Haven’t!
Part One: Non-Fiction
1. The Koran Interpreted by A. J. Arberry. The sacred book of Islam, this is also the supreme masterpiece of Arabic literature and deserves to be read for that reason alone as well as for the fact that it is considered the last and final communication from the Divine to mankind by over one-fifth of the world’s population. Though the original Arabic is, in truth, untranslatable this attempt by Professor Arberry is considered to be the best effort by many experts of the Arabic language (though some may find his rendering of it into a slightly archaic English a tad difficult; for these, I can recommend Thomas Cleary’s selection, The Essential Koran, translated into beautifully simple American English, instead.) My personal favourite sections are Chapter 93 (The Forenoon), Chapter 53 (The Star), Chapter 12 (Joseph) and the verse known as the Light Verse or the Parable of Light (24:35).
2. The Fight by Norman Mailer. Mailer was one of the greatest American writers of the Twentieth century—and also one of the most outspoken!—and this, his journalistic account of the boxing match in Zaire (now the Congo) for the Heavyweight Championship of the World between an aging Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) and the fearsome George Foreman, a fight dubbed, “The Rumble in the Jungle”, is his best book as far as I am concerned. Mailer is bewitched by Ali and his descriptive writing is as beguiling as Ali’s boxing skills. He follows Ali from a few months before the Fight itself and provides us with a detailed and insightful look into the mind of ‘the Greatest’ as the big fight approaches with passages filled with beauty, pathos, and humour. The chapters which describe the actual fight itself only occupy a small portion of this book as Mailer regales us with his views on many things from the politics of Africa to psychoanalysis of Ali and the Civil Rights movement in the USA, but these chapters which deal with the boxing match are unforgettable. Mailer obviously understood the finer points of the art of pugilism and his analysis of the fight game and its rules, as first defined by the Marquis of Queensbury, is mesmerising. This is, without doubt, the greatest sports-book that I’ve ever read.
3. Surely, You’re Joking Mr. Feynman? by Richard Feynman. Scientists are often thought of as brilliant but boring, solitary, and sober individuals possessed of gravitas by Joe Public but Feynman was none of these things except the first. A genius of the highest order, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for ground-breaking work in the field of Quantum Electro-Dynamics and, in this book, he describes with wonderful wit and humour episodes from his life from his childhood as an inquisitive schoolboy to his adventures in South America, his work on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, his poignant love affair and first marriage which ended with the death of his wife from cancer, his subsequent affairs, his passion for bongo drums, a penchant for visiting strip bars where he would do some of his scientific thinking and, throughout the book, simple and beautiful explanations of various fields of physics and science in general as well as mathematics. This book should be made required reading in all science departments in every school in the world. Truly inspirational.
4. Gődel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hoftstadter. This Pulitzer-Prize winning work is unique and unlike any other book I’ve ever read. Astonishingly difficult and heavy-going in places and yet gripping and enjoyable throughout, filled with puns, word-play, alliteration and visual tricks and puzzles, it explores the relationship between Mathematics, Art and Music in an attempt to understand how human intelligence works and, the author being a computer scientist, how this knowledge could be used to produce artificial intelligence in computers. It is an adventure through a vast spectrum of human learning and has to be experienced to be believed.
5. The English by Jeremy Paxman. The controversial BBC journalist and newsreader turns his famous acerbic wit to exploring the history of the English people and what makes them the way they are. With separate chapters dealing with various facets of English life and “English-ness” including the institution of the public school, royalty, the idea of the English gentleman, English food, language, politics, sport, and so forth, this is one of the most entertaining social science books with each page filled with thrilling facts and tidbits of information perfect for impressing your friends at a dinner party. Although there is much humour in the book and a light touch, other parts are very poignant. For example it is very difficult to read the account of the Imperial poet Rudyard Kipling’s reaction at the news of the death of his short-sighted son in the Great War without being moved. This book is very well-written and also exceptionally well researched. If you want to discover the secrets of the English—read this book! (Though it needs to be updated to include the last decade or so.)
6. One Soldier’s War in Chechnya by Arkady Babchenko. This book is terrifying and harrowing. I found myself unable to sleep at times whilst I was reading it for it describes, in disgusting and often horrifying detail, the realities of war in the modern era. It is a memoir of a young Russian soldier who is sent to the Caucasus to fight against the Chechens and it is brutal. I used to have a fairly romanticised view of war—developed by reading accounts of warfare in novels by writers who’d never seen a single battle and by watching Hollywoodised versions of what warfare is like—and thought of the soldier’s life as a glamorous one. I even flirted at University with the idea of joining the Army after graduation. Reading this book made me glad I had listened to my friends who told me not to enlist. The best compliment I can pay this book is to say that, in my view, anyone who reads it from cover to cover—if you can force yourself to for so brutal and shocking are its contents—will become a pacifist like I have become. A shocking memoir but one which all young people should be made to read.
7. Muhammad: His Life based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings. Of all the major religious figures of history more is known about Prophet Muhammad than any other and the biographical material available in the languages of the Islamic world, particularly Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu, is vast. English language biographies of the Prophet are far fewer in number though quite a few have been published since the twentieth century. Without a shadow of doubt, by far the most readable and superior is this superlative effort by Dr. Lings. He has trawled through the vast Arabic biographical literature from the past millennium to produce a wonderful, award-winning, biography which has become definitive. His biography brings the Messenger to life and one feels as if one is actually there, in seventh century Arabia, as one reads this work. Who can read the account of the Battle of Badr and not feel thrilled or read of the Ascension and not be awed or of the travails faced by him in Taif, where he was stoned for preaching the Oneness of God, and not weep? Magisterial.
Part Two: Fiction
8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Among fantasy fans, Tolkien’s magnum opus has a stature akin almost to that of scripture and, despite more than a half-century of imitations, stands alone as the primus inter pares of fantasy fiction. It is one of my favourite books and I have read it countless times. Its evocation of a more honourable, traditional, heroic world has resonance for many and I believe explains its enduring popularity in this post-modern, morally-confused era. The most thrilling aspect of this mammoth work though is its gripping story which tells the tale of Frodo Baggins’ journey—along with the other members of the Fellowship—to destroy the magical Ring in the fires of volcanic Mount Doom whence it was forged. Tolkien attempted to create ‘an English myth’ based on the Nordic sagas and it can be safely assumed that he has succeeded. Those of you who have only had exposure to these tales via the award-winning cinematic trilogy by Peter Jackson should read the books. Magnificent as the films were, the books are something else altogether.
9. Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov. To write a review of Ada is almost impossible except to say that it is the book in which Nabokov, the greatest prose stylist in English, uses his mastery of the language and his great knowledge of European literary history to his greatest extent and evidently enjoys himself! The whole book is choc-a-bloc with word-play, literary puzzles, allusions to other works, hidden quotations, alliteration, streams of consciousness, history, science fiction, dollops of French, helpings of Russian, laces of Latin, poetry, catalogues of erotica, and many many other things…this is a literature lover`s delight but requires great concentration; however, the dedicated reader will be delighted and rewarded like he or she has never been before. This is Nabokov at his literary peak (better even than in his more famous Lolita). Rarely can any writer of English have written prose of this calibre. Awe-inspiring is the only word I can think of to describe it.
The plot, as it is, deals with the love story between Ada and Van Veen, who happen to be first cousins, from their initial meeting as young teenagers to their old age and eventual death and is set in a parallel world to Earth called Antiterra which is similar to—yet different in some geographical and historical aspects—to our own Earth (or Terra). This is a remarkable achievement and a huge one.
10. Madame by Antoni Libera. This work by Polish critic Libera tells a wonderfully evocative tale about school life and the grim reality of living under Communist rule. Above all though, it is a heart-warming tale of amour-fou.
Set in 1960s Warsaw it follows our protagonist-narrator, a precocious sixth form student (equivalent to a Grade 12 student in our system), as he attempts to woo his new headmistress and French teacher whilst surviving the torments of school-life under a strict ideological regime where conformity is the rule and any diversions from the Party line can be detrimental to one’s career prospects. Despite this setting the book is very funny. Our hero—never named but one assumes the novel is semi-autobiographical—is an intellectual, as well as a talented musician (thanks to this novel I discovered the music of Ray Charles!) and the 400 pages that follow his intellectual adventures are a delight as he begins his hopeless quest to try and conquer the ice-cold and unapproachable Madame. Francophiles will especially like this novel as will fans of literary works and those who enjoy great prose and hopeless romantics and also fans of political sagas, theatre, Greek tragedies, and budding young intellectuals. The most enjoyable and well-written novel I’ve read in many a year.
11. Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. This is a difficult book but a necessary one and, I have no hesitation in saying, a brilliant one. The book is full of some extraordinary ideas and incisive commentary on humanity in the late 20th century, especially that of European society. The ending—the book goes into (very plausible) hard science fiction territory though this is by no means a science fiction novel—the erudition of the writer, his eye for detail, and his twin obsessions of sex and violence, his ability to be brave enough to write what he sees without any thought for political correctness is breathtaking and—despite the occasional Islamophobia and contempt he portrays for organised religion in general—his racism, makes this book essential reading. This book has more important and accurate things to say about the human condition of contemporary European Man than any number of dry academic essays on sociology and anthropology you can care to read. Understand Houllebecq and you understand what people nowadays really care about and think. I don’t think I’d like the man but to ignore him and what he is saying would be to do so at our own peril.
12. Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. I finished this masterpiece with mixed feelings because the book was so beautiful, the characters so real, the experiences of the protagonists finding so many echoes in my own life (and I’m sure in that of most British Asians whether first, second or third generation), the prose so ravishing that I didn’t really want it to end.
Initially, I started this book a year ago but it is not an easy book to read, the writing is so detailed, descriptive, ornate and choc-a-bloc full of metaphor after metaphor, simile upon simile, that one is forced to take one’s time. At that time, I was too mentally tired to make the effort required. This time though, I put my other reading on hold and gave the book my undivided attention. I’m glad I did! The language of the book is so luscious, so beautiful, that for aficionados of prose style it alone is sufficient reason to read it. If we then add to it a realistic, contemporarily-relevant plot, wonderfully realised main characters, and a great gift for putting images on the page, this book becomes a must-read. The central plot follows the lives of a family of Pakistanis in a Northern England town for a year after the main protagonist’s brother and his lover are murdered by the girl’s brothers out of ‘honour’. The two main characters around whom the novel revolves are Shamas, a libertine, cultural-only Muslim, secretly a Communist, and his deeply pious, conservative, wife, Kaukab, the matriarch and daughter of a cleric. Aslam has really succeeded in portraying the lives, dreams, and fears of immigrant Pakistanis in the UK. That he does it with magical prose is icing on the cake.
However, no book is perfect and a slight criticism is that, at times, he overdoes the ornate language piling metaphor upon metaphor in his vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of England. This minor quibble aside, it is, without doubt, the best-written novel I’ve ever read by an Asian writer and propels him instantly into the top tier of prose stylists next to the Nabokovs, Joyces, Burgesses, and Henry Millers of the world.
13. The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst. Many people will have heard of Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty as it won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2006 and was subsequently made into a popular and critically-acclaimed television mini-series by the BBC. This earlier novel, though touching on many of the same themes that the writer explores in all his books including that of the more famous latter work already mentioned, is set in the UK and, largely, in Brussels and follows the life of an English teacher and his obsession with an adolescent student whom he tutors. This novel, like all the author’s work, is magnificently written and presents a prose stylist at the peak of his art. It is more immediate and touching than Line of Beauty and more heart-breaking, having about it the poignancy of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice with which it shares many other similarities aside from plot.