My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:

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The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.

***

Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

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19 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on December 21, 2012 at 3:32 am

    Great post Himadri.

    You now have me thinking about my ideal bookshelf. I must give this some time and thought. I completely agree on the Complete Works of Shakespeare. If I were stuck on a desert island and could only have a single book, that would be the one. I think that I might possibly get by upon that alone.

    Reply

  2. What? No Henry James! No Mark Twain! Believe me, o celebrated one, the Times shall hear about thsi oversight of your colonial bretheren. (O’Neil is hardly a sufficiency.)

    Reply

  3. Posted by Evie on December 21, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Lovey! No surprises, but a wonderful collection and I always love the passion in the way you write about your favourite books. I too will give my own bookshelf some thought. I shall also be inspired by your disregard for the rules!

    Reply

    • Hello Evie, given how long we’ve been contributing to the same messageboards, it would be pretty hard, I guess, for either of us to come up with surprises. I’d love to see what you come up with though – and see how many I could predict!

      I’m so glad you felt my passion for literature coming through. Given how many hours of my allotted span I have now spent writing about books on various parts of the net (and it’s a similar story with you as well, I know), we’d be crazy to do it if we didn’t feel a passion for it. Passion for literature is among that handful of things that keep us going through our various vicissitudes. (Wordsworthian word, that: you can’t use that word “vicissitude” without summoning up the ghost of Wordsworth.)

      See you round,
      Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by Erika W. on December 21, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    A very good selection. I’ve been blog-dormant for ages because in and out of hospital and still expecting shoulder surgery from a torn tendon…but i am becoming a human being again and will now settle down to my second mug of tea for the day and think of my 12 books list.

    So glad that you enjoy M R Jamnes. I read a snippy review of his ghost stories some months ago and promptly picked them from the shelf; just as good as I had always thought.

    My choice number #1 without needing any thought is “The Wynne Diaries”, all 3 volumes. My goodness. I almost know them by heart. Such honesty, and always making me aware that a woman 200 years ago is as alive to me as if she was born when I was. Different Attitudes quite often but the language could be today’s–no high “falutin” nonsense to try to place it in the past, as happens with fiction so often. I have even been on a research trek and found a letter her husband wrote on how he fell in love with her and also biographies of her naval descendants, plus a biography of her strange Italian “aunt” –luckily translated in to English or I would have been stumped.

    Have a wonderful and restful holiday,

    Erika W.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, I was wondering where you’d been! Lovely to see you again. really sorry to hear about your shoulder problems: my mother went through something similar lately, and, quite apart from the pain, it’s the various dealings with hospitals that can get really stressful. Hope it works out OK for you without too much stress.

      I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t even know about the Wynne Diaries, and had to look them up. And, having made that admission, it is obvious that I did not know about your fascination with these diaries. I think I ought to do a bit of research myself on them – just to get to know something about them, if nothing else. Fascinating. The depth of my ignorance never fails to astonish me.

      Have a very good break over Christmas and New Year,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Gowri on December 23, 2012 at 2:28 am

        Are those the Leslie Klinger annotated Sherlock Holmes that I see on your shelf? A set that no Sherlockian should be without. Now is the time to read ‘The Blue Carbuncle’. The notes in Klinger on whether a goose has a crop are so whimsically charming.

        Happy holidays, Himadri. (Can’t help wondering what brands of malt!)

      • They are, indeed, Leslie klinger’s annotated edition: they’re marvellus, aren’t they? Just the thing for a Sherlock Holmes obsessive!

        As for the brand of malt, I usually start with the lighter ones (Cragganmore, say) and, as the evening progresses, graduate to the peatier ones (Lagavulin, Caol Ila, etc.) If you start off with the Islays, your taste buds soon become incapable of taking in subtler flavours!

  5. A fascinating list, there. I wonder – what do you think of Ibsen’s “Love’s Comedy”? I recently saw a performance of it at the Orange Tree Theatre in London, and I was absolutely enthralled – but virtually every Ibsen enthusiast that I’ve spoken to since has been very dismissive about the play. I did think it was flawed in parts, but I also thought there were some truly excellent things in there.

    Completely agree with you with respect to A Long Day’s Journey Into Night – recently, I watched Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and was struck by the similarities between the two – and also by how, despite Chekhov being far bleaker and unforgiving, it was O’Neill’s play that had a deeper impact upon me.

    And Yeats, well, he’s beautiful beyond words. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, or “Sailing to Byzantium”… with those lines “A lonely impulse of delight…”, or “Monuments of unaging intellect” – they affect me like little else ever has. “No Second Troy” is also among my favourites.

    Reply

    • Hello Gautam,

      Sorry for the late reply, but I have been offline for about a couple of weeks now.

      Despite being a big Ibsen fan, and despite living not too far from Richmond, I missed Love’s Comedy: the weeks before Christmas were articularly fraught, I’m afraid. It was written just before Brand and Peer Gynt, those two epic verse dramas that were intended to e read rather than performed. But despite this, both Brand and Peer Gynt are dramatic in nature, and, in cut down versions (they’re both too long to be performed on a single evening) they hold the stage very well. But from what I remember of my reading of Love’s Comedy, its qualities are more poetic than dramatic. This does, of course, ake translation problematic. It is available in the Oxford Ibsen (edited by James McFarlane), but otherwise, it’s rarely translated: Michael Meyer omitted it when he translated what he considered to be Ibsen’s major plays. I’d have been interested to have seen how it worked on stage, and ‘m sorry I missed it.

      I must say I find Long Day’s Journey into Night at least as bleak as anything by Chekhov: by the end of O’Neill’s play, we’re in the depths of the night, in an utter darkness that s both literal and metaphorical. I really don’t know why I should be drawn so powerfully to a play so utterly bleak as this. I suppose the very intensity of these characters’ feelings for each other somehow mitigates the hopelessness of it all.

      And yes – Yeats’ lines do haunt the mind … Even when (as is frequently the case with Yeats) I’m not entirely sure what he was on about! It’s hard to pick a favourite poem from so rich a treasure-house, but “The Tower” is certainly one of them. I just love that anguished passion of those opening lines!

      Reply

  6. Posted by severalfourmany on February 6, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    I have tried reading Tagore several times without much luck. I seem to be missing something. Glad to run across someone that knows and values his work. What is it that puts him on your shelf with Shakespeare? Does one need to read Bengali or does some of it come through in translation? What is missing in the translations? Where should I start if I want to get some sense of this in English?

    Reply

    • I really don’t know whether it is possible to appreciate Tagore’s poetry without Bengali. Lyric poetry is virtually untranslatable, I feel, as so much of its effect depends on the sounds and rhythms of the words used. For instance, imagine coming across something like this:

      Oh, how I would love a glass of wine
      That has been chilled for a long time in a deep cellar.
      Its taste would be redolent of flowers, and of the countryside,
      It would taste of dancing and merrymaking in the sun,
      And of songs from the South of France.

      Would you have guessed from that that the original reads like this?

      O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
      Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
      Tasting of Flora and the country green,
      Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

      I hesitate to speak about the available translations of Tagore’s poetry. Tagore’s own prose translations, with their pseudo-Biblical diction, seem portentious and often lugubrious, and convey nothing of the light-footed virtuosity of the originals. There have been other translations since (Ketaki Kushari Dyson, William Radice, Joe Winter) that have been much admired, but I personally cannot really speak of them, since they were clearly not aimed at me. I do know that there are readers who respond to these translations, but I find it hard to imagine how I would have reacted to them had I not known the originals.

      (In what spare time I have, I enjoy having a go at translating some of these poems myself: I certainly won’t make any claims for them, but I find it enjoyable being brought so close to these works. However, the sounds of Bengali do not have any equivalent in English.)

      Tagore is often thought of as an Eastern mystic, and the impact he made for a while in the Western world is often considered a bit of a fad. In reality, his poetry is wide ranging. He wrote prolifically for some sixty or more years, and he never repeated himself: he was constantly trying out new themes and new styles. I am not unacquainted with poetry in English, but I really cannot think of any other poet who could boast so large a body of work, of so wide a range, and whose works display so consistently high a quality. Mysticism is certainly one element in some of his work, but it is not by any means the principal element overall.

      It is hard to pinpoint central themes or styles when both vary across so wide a range. But throughout is an extraordinary ear for rhythms and sonorities. (When Tagore visited Prague, Janáček heard him recite his poetry in Bengali, and was fascinated by the sound of the language – which, as he described it, consisted of generally soft consonants carried by long, melodic vowel sounds. Janáček later made a setting for male voice choir of a translation into Czech of a Tagore poem – “The Wandering Madman”.) One recurring theme in his poetry is grief – often a reawakened grief for a past loss. There is one poem especially, very famous in Bengal, in which he finds a picture of someone who had been close to him, and meditates on the nature of her continued presence in his mind despite her physical absence from the world: one has to go back to Wordsworth’s sonnet “Surprised by Joy” to find so searing a depiction of grief. And yet, Tagore’s poem ends in lines of ecstatic joy. But just about everything in the poem is conveyed by the sounds and rhythms of the language, defying the potential translator to do their best.

      The Bengali language as it is spoken now owes everything to Tagore, who used the full range of expression from the literary Sanskrit-based language to the more demotic forms. Tagore’s body of poetry is to the Bengali language what the King James Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are to English: suddenly, there seemed no limit to what the Bengali language could express, or to the nuances it could communicate.

      I am afraid after all this I haven’t answered your question. You could certainly try the existing translations, but as, I suspect, with other great lyric poets – Heine, Pushkin, Leopardi – even the best translation can be no more than a pale shadow of the original works.

      (Tagore also wrote novels, plays, essays, and short stories, but was primarily a poet and as a songwriter. His short stories are variable, but at their best, they are very fine indeed. William Radice’s collection for Penguin is a good place to start. I believe there’s also a translation somewhere of his short novel NastanirThe Broken Nest – which formed the basis of Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata.)

      Reply

      • Posted by severalfourmany on February 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm

        Thank you! Excellent reply. I have never been able to figure out why he was so well regarded, never being able to see it myself. This was a big help. While I cannot read it for myself I can now at least imagine what others are reading.

  7. Posted by rahul on August 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Nice list, but I think Hesse should be in the list. He wrote the only positive novel ever, The glass bead game that offers a view of life from the intellectual’s side.

    Reply

    • Hello Rahul, and welcome. Any list of favourites is necessarily a personal list, since no list, no matter how large, could hope to encompass all that is of high quality; and no individual reader could hope to appreciate to an adequate degree all that is worthy of appreciation. Having read Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game, Hesse, I must admit, is not among my personal favourites, but it is very likely that there is much that I missed.

      Having said that, I am intrigued by your characterisation of The Glass Bead Game as “the only positive novel ever”. I am not entirely sure what you mean by this. “Positive” in what sense? That it depicts an oprtimistic view of life? I can think of any number of novels that does that. That it asserts life as a thing of value? Once again, it is hardly unique in doing so.

      But however you define “positive” in this context, I’d be interested to know why you think the quality of being “positive” is a crtiterion of literary merit.

      I am also unsure what you mean when you say it “offers a view of life from the intellectual’s side”. Most novelists who write serious novels are intellectual to some degree: they would not be writing serious novels otherwise. Is there some aspect to the intellectual aspect of this novel you find particularly worthy of notice?

      (I do not ask these as rhetorical questions, by the way: I am genuinely interested in what you mean.)

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  8. Posted by kumud biswas on May 10, 2015 at 12:17 am

    I may be pardoned for my gratuitous comment in non-Brit English – My first choice ‘Don Quixote’ I expected to find here.

    Reply

    • Hello, and thank you for that.

      My list was intended very much as a personal list- I.e. while many ofthe books in there are indeed among the foremost works of literature, that is not the only criterion of selection: some are in the simply because they resonate with me very strongly, or because I have a strong nostalgic attachment to them.

      Don Quixote is certainly amongst the foremost works of world literature: by coincidence, I started adding it again in the last few days (it’ll be my 4th reading). However, there are a great many books that are among the finest, and it would be impossible trying to squeeze them all into a short list.

      Reply

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