Did it knock your socks off?
Recently, I was meeting with some writers for an evening of good food, conversation, and some critique and the discussion meandered to, as it almost always does, great literature. What is great literature? Are there any great writers working today? Will we know now or will it emerge after we're all dead and gone? I mean, seriously, did Jane Austen know that she would be such a hit and Mr. Darcy such a well-known hottie when she wrote Pride and Prejudice?
I don't believe in great literature and I'm not interested in the longevity of a book. I'm interested in the "did it knock my socks off" factor. Life's too short to drink bad wine and read bad books - but I'm now old enough and mature enough to know that someone's shit is someone's great novel. I have friends who adore Rushdie - I don't get him. I love Ayn Rand and I have friends who think she was full of shit.
So, what books did knock my socks off?
I started to read at an early age but I really started to read and absorb what I read as a teenager. My first love is still Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I can still read it and get shivers when I read Howard Roark's speech in the end. I fell in love with We the Living and Atlas Shrugged...who is John Galt? anyone?
I'm Indian and R.K. Narayan is required reading for any self-respecting Indian writer - all his Malgudi books are still a favorite. His books are a part of my childhood and remind me of delicious mangoes - they show me what a good writer can do with words and they inspire me.
Then there is Catch-22. Joseph Heller might not have written any other brilliant or even half-decent book, butCatch-22 is amazing - a book that makes you laugh, cry, and think all at the same time. This is the book I go back to whenever I'm tired, unhappy, hitting writer's block.... And it's all better because who can resist Yossarian?
Okay, maybe this is not for my age group but Harry Potter knocked my socks off. The last book, and I got it the day it was released, was magic. I loved the whole series. I read it to my kids and I watch the movies. And some day, when I'm mature enough, I will write a children's book that will knock Harry Potter's socks off...somehow I don't think that will happen.
And last but not the least, there is V.S. Naipaul and the very amazing A House for Mr. Biswas. I think Naipaul is one of the most amazing writers of our time - I read his books with a certain amount of awe because the way he tells a story is so effortless, that it's stunning.
Books have a way of becoming part of our lives. I re-read a book and I can remember exactly how I was feeling when I first read the book. Each time I read We the Living by Ayn Rand, I remember that time, nearly fifteen years ago when I was reading it in a bus in Hyderabad, crying my heart out. Whenever I read Catch-22, I remember the conversations I had with an old friend of mine because we read the book together.
There are just so many books that have touched me in many different ways - some because they were funny, some because they broke my heart, and some because they inspired me - but in my book, the definition of a great book is still a book that entertains. I'll leave the great literature debate to the critics and other readers and writers - I just want a book to take me somewhere else and knock my socks off.