If you haven't read Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar's thought provoking and hugely successful book, The Art of Choosing, then I would highly recommend it (if you're into non-fiction trendspotting books), Of course I speak only from the experience of having read a good review in nothing less than the New York Times and having watched a TED Talk. But the review, combined with an interview of the charming woman, made the book sound very promising...and soon enough, it seems to reached the front display in Indian bookstores as well.
But this was not what I was looking for as I browsed my way through a Landmark store this afternoon. I was in search of the perfect gift for a friend who is currently into Indian writing in English. No dearth of books in this genre, you would think, rightly, in fact a plethora of choices. What used to be a short dusty shelf of books by a handful of authors has now grown to an entire section in the bookstore, with women writers dominating the colourful spines. Writers in translation, chick-lit from a variety of perspectives and age ranges, right from college romances to older women in search of themselves, more serious investigations into life and learning and loss, and a whole variety of other themes. "Preferably stories set in pre-Independence India," she had said, "and maybe, southern India?"
Having recently been introduced to Usha K R's writing through an evocatively titled story, "A Girl and a River", I thought a book by her might do the trick and satisfy my choosy friend. I chanced upon her latest title, "Monkey Man", also, like the former, set in her home city of Bangalore but in more contemporary times, exploring issues that force consideration following the rapid modernisation that has transformed the city. My friend Mahrookh had enormously enjoyed "A Girl and a River", a story about a childhood lost to family tempers amid the political turmoil of the early twentieth century, so the author seemed to be a safe bet. This, along with Ali Sethi's "The Wish Maker" rounded off the purchases...well, almost. I also ended up buying two more books, for myself--"Blindness" by Jose Saramago, of whose writing I have heard so much, and a random pick, "The Yacoubian Building", an urban tale by an Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswamy, a first-time read for me.
It's always exciting to discover a writer that has not come to you by recommendation or by fame, but instead has lain quietly waiting to be read, the book selling purely on the strength of the cover blurb and a certain "atmosphere" conveyed by the cover design. You might pick up the book with a little bit of trepidation, but something tells you--maybe it is the font of the title, or the colours used on the jacket, or the grammatical structure of the opening line--that it is going to be a good read.
While I do often file away notes from the Hindu Literary Review or the NYT Review of Books about "must reads", I usually end up buying the unknown, the unrecommended, the less recognised titles--and then, a few months later, I find these names on the fame list. At this point I must confess I do feel a certain vindication for having "found" the author on my own!
So then, how does one go about choosing a book--for oneself or for another? If you want to go beyond the usual suspects and find that something different, then you do have to spend some time picking things off the shelf, smelling them, noting the nuances of the typography of title and text, letting the sound of the first few lines (and then a few here and there sampled from the inner pages) play in your inner ear, and waiting a moment or two to see if the story feels like it is going to "catch" a hook in your brain. And most times, it works. Well, it's worked for me. That's how I "found" Boman Desai's "Memory of Elephants" and Ursula Le Guin's "Changing Planes". And a host of others who will no doubt find a space on this blog.