The 21 Days Lockdown is bad for the economy but it is good for a lot of other things. It has revived our eco-systems. You can hear the birds in downtown Mumbai. Wild animals are venturing onto urban roads. The skies are clear like they were only in the 80s. Old ways of family interaction are reviving. There is only so much you can do with mobile and so family members are talking to each other regularly. Evenings are beautiful with indoor games and Antakshari once again into vogue. Cooking is getting a major fillip with this lockdown. New and wonderful recipes are to be seen all around. We are cleaning up our houses, our cupboards, things which no longer get done, as the pace of life has become so fast. In short, this lockdown has given us the time to rethink our lives, to slow down and meditate on why we do, what we do.
Like natural eco-systems, this is a great time for the revival of literature too. It also tells us about the connection between the two. Literature is a pleasure which can seldom be had in the kind of city life that we are leading these days. It needs patience, it needs time. It is an acquired pleasure. Unless you are willing to sit down and relax and take it at a pace much slower than our life has become, literature won’t reveal its secrets to you. It does not give you the gist of it all in bulleted points. It only gestures towards the meaning of life and existence, to the aesthetic and the beautiful in life.
The modern life has made sure that literature is one of its biggest casualties. With internet and attention spans coming down heavily, literature has exited from the lives of most of us. But this lockdown is a time to catch up with literature, one of the greatest creations of human civilization and culture. Here, I am suggesting 21 greatest books of all time to read in the category of literature. They are all great classics. No such list is or can be exhaustive. Someone else will obviously come up with a different list. Literature is so vast, happily so, that no one can claim to have read all the classics, not even Harold Bloom. This is a list which I think you should read in these days. It is a deeply personal list but in my years of reading I have tried to be as diverse as possible, at least in literature. This list contains works from Russian, American, English, Japanese, Bangla, Hindi, French, Italian and German literature.
- War and Peace – Lev Tolstoy
Popularly acclaimed as the greatest novel ever written, this masterpiece of Russian literature is the greatest creation of Lev Tolstoy. He tells the story of Napoleon’s attack on Russia, but through the historical story he also presents the culture and civilization of Russia to us. The world of ‘War and Peace’ is a wonderfully complex universe with so many characters spun so effortlessly into the story that it feels as if someone just recorded the reality. Reading this book is one of the things you do before you die.
- Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Orhan Pamuk distinguishes between two kinds of writers: naïve and the sentimentalist writers. Tolstoy is said to be the sentimentalist: the author who educates himself too much and with great talent but great delibration he creates great literature for you. He needs much preparation, much reading, much training to do it. On the other hand is the naïve writer: like Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Such a writer is born with talent. He has an innate art of story telling and does not need much preparation or training for it. Crime and Punishment is such a work. It is the story of a ‘rational crime’ in which the famous hero Raskolnikov murders an old rich woman, arguing with himself that the old woman does not need the money at all, while he does and he can do a lot of good with it and since the old woman is going to die anyways soon, it is only ‘rational’ to kill her and grab her property. Needless to say, things don’t turn out to be so like that and the rest of the story is the story of repentance. It is a tour de force like none else. I started this long tome and could not put it down. Except sleeping and eating, finished it practically one sitting.
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn is another of the greats coming out of Russia. But he came during an especially hard time, when the communists were ruling Russia and were destroying its culture, society, economy and much else. This work tells the story of one day in the life of a concentration camp of the communists and how hard life in that camp is. The communists thrust everyone who disagreed with them into concentration camps and made the inmates do the slave labor. The engine of Soviet economy, for a long time, ran on these prisons, these concentration camps. This book depicts life in such a camp. It is not one of the worst, but one of the best ones and life in it is so hard and so unimaginable for anyone who has not experienced the communist system that it brings the extent of the disaster that communism was, to us.
- Walden – Henry David Thoreau
There are books which are remembered for what they are. There are books which start traditions, great traditions which spawn hundreds of other writers across the generations inspiring millions of readers and writers. Thoreau was such a writer. Walden is such a book. It is a book of an inner retreat inside one’s own individuality and also into Nature. It gives us a tradition of Nature writing which is deeply meaningful to human beings too. Thoreau in this transcendental writing started a tradition which later gave some of the greatest authors that I love: Loren Eiseley, Bernd Heinrich, E. O. Wilson etc. Cannot be missed.
- The Call of the Wild – Jack London
If there is one book that I so photographically remember from my childhood it is this. curiously, the copy that I read had no illustrations, and yet the description of London about the natural and wild world of the northernmost parts of North America brings to us a world so raw, so wild and so natural that you can never forget it. It is a story of just animals. Of wolves and no others. And through the eyes of these wildest of wild creatures, we come to know the allure that the cold, frigid areas of northern Canada are. There is no other book like this.
- Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
Steinbeck is one of the most ‘socialist’ of writers that I have included in this list. Though he was a socialist in his early days, after he got the Nobel, he turned ‘traitor’ and supported many ideas which were perceived to be on the Right side of matters. However, he is different in this list because his works are basically about men and men and nothing else. No Nature and no transcendentalism but the naked world of men and his miseries. Even then he invokes some of the most heart rending and most sympathetic portrayals of the working class of America. Of Mice and Men, depicting the destitute world of the Dust Bowl Generation of America is one such work. Not to be missed.
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Harper Lee wrote just one book in her life. (A second book she released only 40 years later.) But what a book it was! It rightly holds its reputation as one of the most stirring works to ever come out of America. It is such an innocent story which is so forceful with the truth it has to deliver that the story practically tells itself. It is the story of how the Civil Rights Movement in America started with the Blacks claiming their rightful place in the world. It is the story of how for the first time a white lawyer fought for a black man. The best part of the book is: it seldom tries to teach you anything. It seldom attempts to castigate ‘racism’ in clear ideological terms, or create a theory of ‘discrimination’ and ‘injustice’. It never pretends to be more than a story, a story of a simple but great deed, the symbolic favor that a white community made towards the blacks: that for justice, race differences can be overlooked. It was a small gesture and did not save the wrongly accused black man, but it showed America that race boundaries were about to be broken. It is as wonderful a story as it can get. Not to be missed.
- The Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger
Perhaps the most unexpected on this list. Salinger also wrote very little. He was a classic recluse and anti-social man who rarely met anyone. The world that this work depicts is not a good world. It is world of a sexually frustrated young boy, but more than that it depicts, in a searing portrayal, the moral decrepitude of a spiritually diminished civilization. I am not sure whether even Salinger was aware of what he was depicting, but this is what it is. Read it, to know what happens to a society which has given up spiritual dimension.
- Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
Japanese give us strange things in practically every sphere. They are a different lot. Snow Country, like Japanese language and poetry is a haiku like portrayal of the Japanese landscape as well as the Japanese people. Half-modernist, half-traditional it mixes the depiction of the enchantingly beautiful landscape of Japan with the tumultuous inner lives of a defeated but rich, cultured and accomplished people. No other work in world literature is like the world that Kawabata depicts.
- The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki
Tanizaki was more traditional than Kawabata. He tells the story of Japan through three generations in this legendary masterpiece. It tells the story of three generations of pre-war, mid-war and post-war Japan and how their aesthetic, political and cultural sensibilities clashed with each other. It is also a depiction of a traditional world fast coming undone, not in poverty and dirt, but in modernism and moral squalor.
- Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
How can I miss Austen in this list? Austen made my childhood wonderful. She depicted the society of England in late 18th and early 19th centuries, a society which was as rich as one can get, as cultured as England ever got, and yet happy with its own petty comings and goings, contented in the local, the banal and the mundane. Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, depicts a world which is a petty little universe, completely self-contented and completely occupied with its own slow rhythm of life. The neatness of her universe is unreal and enchanting. The greatest tragedy that happens in the universe of Austen is that someone falls down and bruises her ankle. The highest pleasure that one can get is to marry someone who she has been desiring for a long time. But it its closed little universe, it is so contenting that it makes you yearn for such a universe. You will regret a beautiful experience in your life if you miss this.
- Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
If Austen depicted a world closed unto itself, Dickens depicted a world which was as open as one could get in those times. If Austen depicted a world in which tragedy was conspicuous by absence, Dickens portrayed one in which tragedy had the centre stage. Dickens depicts the underbelly of Britain and of London at its heydays. He depicts the orphans, the homeless of the city. He depicts the crime scenes, and everything bad that happens there. But his world is also full of hope. It is not like the modern novel with no hope and just the portrayal of dirt and slime in life. It is a world where suffering can be and is cathartic. Read this to know, how suffering is also a great experience of life.
- 1984 – George Orwell
Not much introduction is needed for 1984. It was written in 1948 and depicted how a commie dominated world would look like in 1984, with the digits reversed. It imagined of a world which had been completely dominated by the Communist Party and in which the commie propaganda machine reigns supreme. It is a sad depiction of how humanity suffers and ultimately dies under a totalitarian regime like the communist regime of Russia was at that time. This was an important book for me, because along with Doctor Zhivago of Boris Pasternak, it was this book which made me an anti-communist from a communist. It has this proselytizing potential.
- The Razor’s Edge – Somersat Maugham
Maugham walked on both worlds, the material world of the West, and the spiritual world of the East, probably reflecting the inner emptiness of a material civilization which subconsciously demands the spiritual truth in life. The journey of its central character is the journey that many Westerners took in search of meaning in an age in which the Biblical system of belief had broken down in the West and technology and its gifts were unable to satisfy the inner needs of man. India is walking currently the opposite path. This book can serve as a warning of what happens to a society which has managed to destroy its traditional structures. If India loses its, there will be no spiritual fountainhead for Indians to go to, the luxury which the hero of this novel had.
- The Bend in the River – V S Naipaul
The most hauntingly beautiful of all fiction of Naipaul, this work depicts Africa at its most raw and most traditional. It tells the story of the countryside of Zaire, at the bend which the Congo River takes. Naipaul is famous for not taking sides, for depicting the truth of a placed and a people without caring of what political tag his detractors will slap on him. In modern times, it becomes impossible to depict the truth, even in a story, for the fear of appearing ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘xenophobic’, ‘chauvinist’ or ‘patriarchal’. The authors who are aware of these ‘discriminations’ rarely manage to say anything for fear of being called one of these horrible things. Naipaul thrown all caution to winds, and depicts the story of Africa as it should be. This is his most beautiful literary creation.
- Kapal Kundala – Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya
Bankim Chandra is more famous for Anandmath, but Kapal Kundala was the first work of Bankim Chandra that I read and it also is the most haunting. It depicts an urge which is not different from the urge that is shown in the works of Jack London. It shows the conflicting urge within many of us: the urge that on one hand takes us towards the crowds, the culture and the civilization of the city and the benefits that it confers upon us and on the other hand the urge to self-isolate, to go close to Nature, to turn inwards, to meditate and contemplate. Kapal Kundala is the story of the girl who was born on a solitary island in the Sunderbans and then for her love she goes to the city. But the city does not suit her and she gets depressed very soon. At last, it does not hold, and she goes back to the island to live the life of isolation. It is a story which will never stop haunting me.
- Anand Math – Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya
Nothing much needs to be said about this great work of Bankim Chandra. This is the work which depicted the independence struggle of India, independence from all our colonialists, the Christian, as well as the Muslim. It depicts the freedom struggle of India with purely Hindu point of view in which the saints and sadhus lead the fight against adharma. It is a book which galvanized a generation and connected us to our roots and still does so. Every Hindu must read this.
- Ram Ki Shakti Puja – Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’
One of the hardest on the list, and the only poetic work, it is the unforgettable creation of Nirala, the greatest of the Hindi poets who depicts a scene from the Ramayana with a poetic genius that was and still remains unmatched.
- The Rebel – Albert Camus
Camus is the best that has come out of France. France has been modern before any other country or culture on earth. And most of it is disturbing and just that. What Camus does is to reflect his contemporary society with a post-religious world nihilistic outlook and asks some of the most important existential questions which face humanity. The Rebel reflects all of this is a very short piece.
- The Cloven Viscount – Italo Calvino
Calvino is one of the few magical realists that I have come to love. I hate the genre, but Calvino is beautiful. In The Cloven Viscount he depicts through his inimitable style what happens when we desire to eliminate one side of life: when we try to eliminate all evil and keep all good; when we try to eliminate all poverty and keep only prosperity; when we try to eliminate all hardships and keep only pleasures. There is no other way to describe the sheer absurdity which the world has been attempting ever since Christianity came on to the scene. No other book will depict it as well as this one does.
- The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
Kafka also depicts the modern world but shows how the concrete jungle of modern civilization can make a modern man feel, stymied and belittled. It is a tragic-comical story with modernist trope but which reflects one of the most important realities of the modern life. Kafka is never missed in any list like this. How could I?