Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Suggesting a "nice" book

[From my Metro Now column]

Being a lit-journalist has its advantages. Among these is the daily receipt of a number of attractive-looking books from a multitude of publishers. Given the 24-hour limit on one’s day, it isn’t humanly possible to read more than 3 per cent of these, but the others can be arranged like building blocks in innovative shapes. Alternately, you can remove the cover jackets of a few books, cut them up here and there and stitch the pieces back together in colourful collage patterns. These activities are good for one’s creative skills and improve hand-eye coordination.

But there are also disadvantages to working on the books beat, such as the constant danger of being assailed by recommendation requests. The most terrifying of these typically comes from an acquaintance who has been gaping at my bookshelves, and it goes:

“Suggest me a nice book.”

“Okay, but what sort of book exactly?” I ask, as my throat dries up and droplets of sweat gather on my forehead.

“Oh, any nice book.”

Such phrasing suggests that the asker is very open-minded about what he is willing to read, but this is usually far from the truth. The first problem is how to interpret the bland and unspecific word “nice” (a word that some people use as if it’s the only adjective in existence, but more on that in a future column). If I take it to mean a book that I personally enjoyed, it’s certain to cause trouble: experience tells me that a casual reader asking for a “nice” book is unlikely to warm to a title such as The Intimate Personal Histories of Cannibalistic Serial Killers. But why shouldn’t such a book – assuming that it’s well-written, informative and insightful – be categorised as “nice” too? Why should the word be used only for the Paulo Coelhos of the world? This seems like genre-discrimination of the worst sort. Cannibalistic serial killers deserve the same respect as cannibalistic motivational writers.

Another problem with the above request is that it invariably comes from people who are not habitual readers (in other words, they have read The Alchemist and two issues of Reader’s Digest in the past three years). Without being judgemental about these sub-humans, I have to say that giving them recommendations can be a hard task. Especially since they genuinely think of themselves as seasoned readers and have very firm ideas about what a worthwhile book should be.

But I still try.

“There’s a great new novel out. It’s all about this serial killer who...”

“Novel? Oh no no, sorry, I don’t read fiction.” (said derisively)

“No? How come?”

“Because it’s not real. I only read inspirational or motivational books.”

On hearing this familiar proclamation, I grit my teeth and explain, as politely as I can, that high-quality fiction can be more inspirational and motivational – more “real”, in fact – than a facile self-help book that sits in the non-fiction section of a bookstore and claims to solve all the reader’s problems. Whereupon the recommendation-seeker looks at me as if I were something that had just crawled out of her kitchen drain. So I mutter something vague under my breath, excuse myself and get back to playing building blocks, which in the final analysis is the only thing a book-reviewer is good for.


  1. I'm a regular reader of your blog but haven't left comments yet. Great post!
    By the way, do I detect a certain "author discrimination" against Mr.Coelho?

  2. "Whereupon the recommendation-seeker looks at me as if I were something that had just crawled out of her kitchen drain."

    Some writers these days use she and her as the universal third-person singular pronouns. I don't know if you're one of them, but if you're not, do you lucky bastard only get asked by girls?!?

  3. rajk: nothing against Coelho as such (though I didn't particularly care for the two books of his that I've read), but he's a useful soft target for this sort of rant.

    the priest: nope, I'm just an equal-opportunity offender - since I had used a "he" earlier in the column ("Such phrasing suggests that the asker is very open-minded about what he is willing to read"), I decided to balance it with a "her" subsequently. Of course, you're free to assume that the recommendation-seeker underwent an impromptu sex-change during our conversation!

  4. Completely agree with you on this. Even on Paulo Coelho :)

    Also, have you noticed that people who classify the hardy boys as literature, are also in the habit of asking you who your favourite author is, as if, it's as simple as pinning down a favourite ice cream flavour. I personally hate that question a lot more

  5. You lucky bastard, Jai - do you only get asked by girls?!?

    Friend of mine used to be a major reader - scoffed often at the books I had and tried his darnedest to make me read "The Bhagwad Gita - As It Is". That's the only book he read. But he read it often. Three-four times a month or so.

    Also, the Chetan Bhagat books apparently come quite cheap. 100 bucks or so. Maybe you can keep a few copies and hand them around?

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  7. Totally agree. Nice usually equals some so-called motivational books about monks selling cars or gods calling up BPO workers. For such books, I usually suggest that people should burn the copies they have. So people who know me know better than to ask me for a 'nice' book to read.

    PS: I picked up Amir Hamza after your glowing review and have been have a blast reading it!

  8. “Because it’s not real. I only read inspirational or motivational books.”

    The best possible answer to that is to recommend Weight Loss by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Tell them it was inspirational enough to make you go on a diet and lose weight.

    Am totally sure that after reading the first five lines they will never ask for a recommendation again.

    And you seem to be better off that at least people read Coelho, in my case it is usually five point someone and the da vinci code ilk....

  9. Now, perhaps, after this column.. they'll stop asking for recommendations.

  10. nightwatchmen: how is someone reading only Coelho "better off"? (I loved The Da Vinci Code, by the way!)

    bluespriite: nope, I don't think they'd have the patience to read a blog post of this size (even a non-fiction one!).

    Diviya: heh, maybe I should recommend Amir Hamza, saying it's both inspirational and non-fiction.

    ashanka: yes, the "favourite author" (or favourite anything) question can be a real drag - but you can at least get away with mumbling a few names.

  11. what is your esteemed take on books on poetry? published or otherwise?

  12. Ashanka - I object. The Hardy Boys is Serious Literature.

  13. Agree with every letter that you typed. In fact, I feel book-lovers will love books despite the genre to which it belongs. I don't like categorizing reading tastes to "Fiction", "Motivational", "Romance" etc. A book is enjoyable for its literature and story-telling irrespective of the topic and the context.

    - Sangeetha

  14. have you tried suggesting a nice breezy little romance called "mrs. Dalloway"?

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  16. I was once asked for a recommendation by this young guy roaming around looking very lost at a bookstore here. Turned out he had read Five Point Someone and thought this book-reading stunt could be given another jolly try. I gave him Airport by Arthur Hailey -- he read the back cover and looked sceptical. I gave him an Agatha Christie -- he took one look and said he didn't read murder mysteries. Even The Inscrutable Americans didnt make it. I gave up, but now it strikes me I should have led him straight to Paulo Coelho. He would probably be a reader for life, given how prolific the gentleman is.

  17. Personally, my response to the "I don't read fiction" line is not so much to try and defend fiction but to roll with it and talk about good non-fiction. "You don't read novels? You want something serious and real? Ok. Have you read Schopenhauer?" That usually shuts them up.

  18. Reading is matter of personal likes and dislikes, kind of like your wardrobe. Recommending people anything to read is such an exercise in futility unless you are an authority on the subject matter. But hey you ranted on my favorite topic. Here in states books are readily available and readership is far more intense. But I love people who call themselves serious/compulsive reader and the last book they read was World is flat or some James Patterson sequel. And those who are interested in India in some deluded way will read Oprah recommended books like Eat, love and Pray or Deepak Chopra. Ever heard of Shashi Tharoor or Ed Luce people? Everytime some spiritual, motivational, romantic BS is shoved down my throat during book club discussions, I just close my eyes and pretend I don’t exist.

  19. Hmm... I have learned to preface any suggestions with "If you like (enter appropriate genre)..." Saves a lot of time in explanations.

  20. No problems with reading Da Vinci Code or liking it either, just that I have met far too many people who claim to "read books" and then go on to tell me why The Da Vinci code is the best book ever written.......

  21. Another most awkward question in social gatherings -
    'What's your most recent read'?
    Now, if the questioner isn't exactly widely read, it is very likely that he expects you to mention a recently published bestseller (say a Freakonomics or a World is Flat ). If your reply isn't one of these (or even worse, if you haven't read these), you move a few rungs down in his estimation.

    When a colleague asked me the dreaded question recently, I replied that I read a Wodehouse over the weekend. He rejoined -
    'Wodehouse? I thought he's read mainly by high school kids'

    Exasperating :(

  22. "In other words, they have read The Alchemist and two issues of Reader’s Digest in the past three years"

    So,I met someone recently and since she was an English major,conversation veered towards books.
    "Do you like to read?"
    "Oh ya"
    "Who are you favorite authors?"
    "I hate Paulo Coelho!"
    "Oh yeah?"
    I know precisely what cards to play.I continue with some name dropping of the likes of Calvino, Bartheleme ,Kawabata etc. She looks bemused.
    After a while she asks me-
    "Have you read Chetan Bhagat?"
    "Chetan who?"
    "I love you!"

  23. General comment: can't understand this recent phenomenon of people posting a comment (especially an interesting comment) and then deleting it afterwards. A new virus in the blogosphere? Anyway, have re-posted one here.

  24. ...just that I have met far too many people who claim to "read books" and then go on to tell me why The Da Vinci code is the best book ever written.......

    nightwatchmen: I think you might enjoy this old post.

    straight curves: naughty, naughty. As you know, my excuse that I have no understanding of poetry has come in very handy in recent times.

    Shrabonti: the guy was clearly hitting on you. You should simply have given him your telephone number - chances are he would have been able to read that.

    Falsie: you're back! With a reference to Schopenhauer, no less. Incidentally I've spent most of the last week catching up on Richard Dawkins' earlier works - Climbing Mount Improbable, The Blind Watchmaker, etc. Perhaps I should recommend that to enthusiastic seekers of Coelhoesque non-fiction: "Want to know all about the complex mutual interdependence between figs and fig wasps? Or how the human eye evolved? This is for you. And by the way, there is no God."

  25. This is one of the first times I'm reading a blog post, and definitely the first time I've been motivated enough to leave a comment! Jabberwock and all you others, wow, I didn't so many people like this existed - yes, it is honestly so exasperating when people come home and say give me a "nice" book, "anything that's nice" - and then proceed to shoot down all my suggestions! and shrikanth too, i totally agree - especially since I'm an Eng Lit student, I get the dirtiest of looks when I say I haven't read the latest bestsellers!

  26. Jai
    Wish we could edit comments on blogger
    guess one can't edit typos without deleting and reposting...

  27. have you tried suggesting a nice breezy little romance called "mrs. Dalloway"?

    Sumit: that's an idea! Maybe I could pass it off as a "stream-of-consciousness non-fiction". That would sound impressive to someone who's fond of Coelho.

    daily poppycock: careful - most people I know (many of whom comment here) wouldn't think of Shashi Tharoor as someone who has interesting or original things to say about India. But I agree that "recommending anything to read is such an exercise in futility", and I would add "even if you are an authority on the subject matter" (whatever one means by "authority").

    Shrikanth: yes, that's the other side of the coin: people who have a very limited view of literature (and I know I'm descending here into just the kind of snobbery I dislike) being patronising towards authors like Wodehouse, or Tolkien, or comics, or displaying genre snobbery. It's frequently happened that a friend who has read maybe three full books in his life has sneered condescendingly on seeing me read, says, a graphic novel.

  28. Shrikanth: I wasn't talking about your comment this time. Or about double-posts, which happen often on Blogger - can't help those.

    Nisha: welcome, and sympathies. But do also try to find time for popular bestsellers (the ones you can develop a taste for, that is) - studying English formally can be quite restricting otherwise.

  29. Hmm, so citing Tharoor can get me in trouble with literati. Jabberwock, you said blogging and commenting comprise opinion pornography. I took it as a golden chance, thanks for warning about the consequences though.

    But I disagree with your take on Authority. For instance; Einstein is an authority on many aspects of theoretical physics. Anyone with intense thought, analysis, handwork, observation can become somewhat of an authority on certain matters. But agreed in the field of art and literature the concept of authority loses its meaning or becomes relative.

    I consider your views somewhat of an authority on the Texas Chainsaw genre :) of novels and movies (solely because I know nothing about it). My relative ignorance makes you an authority.

    BTW, I was struggling what to recommend in book club when my turn comes. Now I know Coelho :)

  30. slightly out of topic but could you PLEASE review the new batman movie?? I would love to read your take on it

  31. OK, not "nice", but can you rec some bad-ass Desi sci-fi? Preferably a reinventing of some classic Hindu tale, where the characters swear and smoke and are like Han Solo and Sholay Jai's love child. That would make my day. Nay, month!

    *dodges projectiles and wrath*

    Can I also recommend a book to you? I'd love to hear your take on Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, which is basically what I just requested, except written by a non-Desi. Sigh, one of my fave books!

    *dodges more projectiles*

    I second the request for you to review Batman.

    Agreed that Coelho is lame.

  32. Hi,

    I've been checking out your blog. I'm a book reviewer too (amongst other things) and I am going to be spending a couple of months in Delhi next year. Can you recommend some good bookstores?

  33. Come on now, it's not that hard. I once got a chance for minding a second hand book store for a charity mela. I am sure the low prices helped but I did end up selling a lot of books. You can usually tell what kind of a book would a person like or atleast is likely to pay a bit for.
    But I did use some really bizarre reasons too... Like, we had a collection of some rather old National Geographics, and most people would look at them and know they wouldn't read them and put them back. So, I ended up selling quite a few by asking people to pick up anniversaries and birthday editions. :)

  34. I agree 100% with you. It is virtually impossible to recommend books for folks who think Coelho and Dan Brown write great literature.

  35. daily poppycock: I was talking about "authority" only in the present context (book-reviewing/recommending), not in the context of physics or any other discipline. My point is that, sure, it always helps to have a strong knowledge base as a book-reviewer or film-reviewer, but that definitely doesn't give you a foolproof insight into what someone else (who has a different set of tastes, or a different attitude to reading) will like.

    Ashanka: haven't seen it yet, but even when I do I doubt I'll be reviewing it (unless I have a blinding new insight to offer that I haven't read about anywhere else, or unless I just want to make a tangential comment on a particular scene).

  36. PPCC: I take it you've read Samit's Gameworld trilogy? Great fun, with a few references to Indian mythology and such - details here. I think I hae reviews of the first two books on my blog as well.

    diacritic: given the rate at which bookstores are shutting down/being relocated these days, it's probably better if you check with me again later, when you're about to reach Delhi. But generally speaking: Midland's, The Book Shop, Fact and Fiction.

  37. I'm hopelessly curious to find out which two Coelho books you have managed to read through.

  38. "..equal-opportunity offender.."
    not again, Oye Mr Singhhhuu!
    Just a few days back, we bust this image, didnt we?
    Just a few days back,we established once and for all , and infact, extracted a confession from your esteemed self that what you are, is, infact, a "soft-target offender".
    You admitted that though you claim to be an "equal-opportunity offender", you wouldnt really offend the ones that could return the favour in a violent fashion, didnt you?

    The whole point we wished to make in that embroglio was that your self-image of equal-opp offender is, basically, an illusion. And, for once, you actually admitted it.

    Ofcourse, not everyone would have read that comment space so you can continue to peddle your image in your posts - but doesnt your conscience wake up once in a while?

  39. Anon 1: The Alchemist (naturally!) and another one called "Warrior of Light and Darkness" or something such (too lazy to look it up), which I had to write a 200-word short on.

    Anon 2: always entertaining to read your rants (and to see how closely you study everything I write). As usual you've got it wrong though. I'm a soft-target offender in the context discussed in those earlier posts, but an equal-opportunity offender in contexts where I don't have to worry about my safety.

    Also, you "extracted" a confession from me? Really?

    Note: no more comments on this subject please, else Delete Delete will happen. As you've correctly pointed out, I don't have a conscience in most matters. (Oops, there's another confession you've "extracted"!)

  40. Okay, I liked your post but it's not charitable to call people, even if they've read three books in their life and two of them Coelhos, sub-human. Okay, this may not be relevant but Ajay Jadeja once claimed to have read only book in his life and confessed to not liking it. Now, he may not be your favourite guy but he's a nice (ha, ha!) chappy, isn't he?

  41. edit (Ajay Jadeja once claimed to have read only ONE book in his life...)

  42. Am a compulsive book worm and trust me people come to me with similar ques. I love suggesting books but then now I know that people us this as a way to talk to me, they are not actually interested in reading books.

    BTW we can now add Chetan Bhagt books in "everyone has read them category"


  43. Anon: have deleted your last 2 comments as promised, but don't worry, I have them with me on email and will use at least one of them for my year-end comments post. I especially enjoy the angst and pomposity of the line "It is about the fact that someone - me - saw through your devious image-creation and managed to expose yourself to yourself...You need me more than the idiots who buy your self-propped image." You're like...the Joker to my Batman. I get it all now. Thanks!

  44. I came close to murdering a young 20 something who asked for a recommendation - I was reading Asimov and I tossed it across - he dismissed it as juvenile fantasy - after which, with no irony, he said he could read Harry Potter for the 10th time and not get bored. I now simply recommend The Brothers Karamazov to anyone who asks - I figure, either their sleep will improve, or they'll be very impressed with my ability to withstand soporofic texts

  45. Asimov is certainly a lot more than "juvenile fantasy". It's cosmic philosophy. Like say our own Vedas.

  46. I've recently moved from Calcutta (often mistook for Kolkata) to Gurgaon.

    Somebody earlier on asked you for a good bookstore. Being half a Bengali(I was born like this, what can i do?) I ask you is there any place in Delhi where you get good second hand books?

    You know those musty ol things that have (gasp!) already been read and hence are available for a throw away price?

  47. Slightly tangential, but I think you'd enjoy this: the Fowler brothers (H.W. & F.G., that is) on "nice".

    "Another set of words that may be said to come from below, since it owes its existence to the vast number of people who are incapable of appreciating fine shades of meaning, is exemplified by nice, awful, blooming. Words of this class fortunately never make their way, in their slang senses, into literature (except, of course, dialogue). The abuse of nice has gone on at any rate for over a century; the curious reader may find an interesting page upon it in the fourteenth chapter of Northanger Abbey (1803). But even now we do not talk in books of a nice day, only of a nice distinction. On the other hand, the slang use makes us shy in different degrees of writing the words in their legitimate sense: a nice distinction we write almost without qualms; an awful storm we think twice about; and as to a blooming girl, we hardly venture it nowadays. The most recent sufferer of this sort is perhaps chronic. It has been adopted by the masses, as far apart at least as in Yorkshire and in London, for a mere intensive, in the sense of remarkable. The next step is for it to be taken up in parody by people who know better; after which it may be expected to succeed awful."

  48. I had no idea my brother-in-law was asking YOU for book recommendations? (I am guessing it's my b-i-l, since that's the way his conversation goes with me about Music :p)

  49. I read your post. its really interesting post. I like reading books. carry your posting on books

  50. I have visited your blog for the first time and find it quite
    interesting. Keep posting.

  51. first visit here..from the link on cute puppies from a facebook profile.
    Like your take on Mr Coelho..and other opinions.
    I would love to hear what you think about the How to say NO, how to win friends category of 'selh help' books and yes also what you thought about the Dark Knight.
    I am a reader of all things legible..books/magazines/ bill boards/ instruction manuals..shall visit again..