I am a voracious and never-say-die reader. I read and read and read. Even in my expeditions I carry huge caches of books for the days when we will be tent bound due bad weather. My personal library exceeds few thousands easily and it keeps growing every month. I borrow books from every library and friends possible and at any given time you will find at least 2 – 3 books on my bedside table. I like to read few books parallel simultaneously. So here comes a post on the kind of fiction titles I like. I would write more posts on my books for sure.
There are great books and there are great book titles and then there are great books with great titles. Like a person, books are known by the titles first and then by the names of the authors. Though most often the titles do not necessarily tell us anything about the story contained within, they do ideally give us a hint to the general mood of the story. A hint, a faint clue as to what we might hope to expect. It’s another case altogether that many times the clue is misleading and the story is entirely different. Some titles are downright direct and are names of the central character or the location. Some titles are description of the character, location, or seasons through which the story flows. Among all sorts of titles I like the evocative ones the most. Those titles that ignite my imaginations into instant flow of thoughts even before I have registered the author’s name or have had any further clue to the central plot. Few titles have this unique quality of transporting the beholder into a different land. The following are a list of 20 such books (out of my favorites), along with the authors without any order of preference whatsoever. The criteria for inclusion being that these are all in English and I have personally read them. Please suggest more such titles so that the list can grow.
1. And Quiet Flows the Don – Mikhail Sholokhov. This book is often compared to War & Peace in terms of its dealing with the Russian life through traumatic times. A true classic and a must read for those who wish to understand the Russian psyche better. I had heard the title much before I came across the book and realized its actual plot. To me till then, and even now, it evokes the visual image of a mist floating and flowing over a silently running river.
2. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell. This is the only book title in the world with more than three words, which Google throws up the moment you type in the first word. This shows the popularity of this one time novelist’s work that has spewed an entire genre of writing. It literally came out of a hospital. Based on the backdrop of the American Civil War, Gone with the Wind is a vigorous romantic tale of two lovers. Can you imagine that our gallant heroine of indomitable will, Scarlett was initially named ‘Pansy’! It is one of the top 20 bestselling fiction books of all times and continues to sell like hot cup cakes even today. I had a tough time sieving through the winding narrative and the romantic overtures but I doggedly pursued my mission since I wanted to have this book under my belt and finally finished it only as recently as in 2008. I am yet to see the movie though. This title to me has always stood as my life’s ethos. I am forever going off with the wind, and as many of my friends say that I am usually gone with the wind and mostly I do go to places where there is nothing more besides the snow and the wind. This title evokes within me my wanton and free spirit.
3. Sound of Music – Google wise, this is even more amazing. I typed out ‘S’ with a forlorn hope that my name would pop out and instead it was… you guessed it right. The original title of this book was, in transliteration, ‘The Story of the Trapp Family Singers’. Thank god for some creative juice in the writer’s mind who adopted the original into the most famous musical play of all times. I had seen the movie in my pre-teen days and had fallen in love not only with the music and the dazzling Julie Andrews but primarily with the Austrian landscape. At 15 when I first arrived in Salzburg to learn the basics of mountain craft, I was certain that I would find dancing girls and women through the alpine meadows. My son-of-a-gun instructor had other plans though. I grew up with music in my genes since my mother was and still is a die-hard music exponent. Never has any other title mingled the two loves of my life in so right a proportion, mountains with music and of course not to forget the dancing Mademoiselles.
4. Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy. Till I actually read this book I lived under the misconception that it was named ‘Far from the maddening crowd’. I love solitude and intentionally avoid crowded places. I find people maddening and madding. This title seemed tailor made for me. I still remember the day when I found this book at the age of 13 in our school library and had to fight tooth and nail with the scowling librarian that I could and would read the book in question. I did not. I just kept it under my pillow and dreamt of places where I could escape to from the madding crowd. I read it few years later when I had to dissect it as a part of my curriculum in a school I never attended in reality. It was my first brush with Mr. Hardy and for some odd reason felt that he was the inspiration for ‘Humpty’ of ‘Dumpty’ fame. I fell in love with Mr. Hardy and learned of the fictional Wessex County. I read several Hardy novels thereafter and though ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ caught my fancy more, the title of FFTMC remains the most charming and evocative of all. But it remains a mystery to me till today why he gave this name to an otherwise skewered tale of hopeless and absurd romance. Though from the point of view of evocative titles, this is clearly a winner.
5. The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller. I read this 1992 vintage classic only around 2003 after being literally bullied by my elder brother who is settled in Italy. His sympathy for the heroine is justified since she is an Italian beauty with a yearning heart frozen in the immortal sixties of America. By the time I read this book, the movie had already released, breaking box office records and starred my favorite pair of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Yet I did not see it since I was by then so enamored by the book that I wished to visit Iowa and the covered bridges in real life first. And to find a beautiful Italian (since Italian women are charming, mysterious and timeless indeed) Donna if possible. What I discovered was the true spirit and soul of America as the founding fathers had envisioned, besides the covered bridges of course and the compulsory, you-can’t-miss-it John Wayne Museum. Even though I have seen and walked across many of the bridges, the title still evokes in my mind places of intense mystery bridging gaps over time and space of forgotten lands.
6. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What can I say? In my not-so-impressive literary fiction readership repertoire, Gabriel Garcia Marquez stands out as my most favorite author of all times. I know this is an erroneous statement from a lexicographer’s point of view, since favorite is and can only be favorite; no need to add ‘most’ or ‘least’. But with GGM I am willing to break every rule. I had lived with this title for several years without knowing the name of the author. I finally read it during an expedition and forgot all about the climb and the mountains around. Of course I climbed the mountain but I returned a transformed man. On return I gobbled up every bit of GGM’s work, anything and everything that was available in English language. Since then I have read OHYS perhaps five times at least. Along with his ‘Love in the times of Cholera’ OHYS remains within the top ten books of my life. In this epic saga told through several generations of the Buendi family in the mythical town of Macondo in Latin America we go through an amazing variety of cast and characters, situations and events that not only defy logic but imagination as well. GGM once honestly agreed that he got this story in a vision since it is not humanly possible to imagine such a story in its entirety. My love for solitude and self-companionship is legendary and this title will always remain among my favorite.
7. All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque. Who would imagine that the content of such a peacefully evocative title would be all about war and its miseries! I read this book before joining the Indian Armed Forces. Having grown up with a steady diet of Commando Comics that had WW I & II stories in all its glory I immediately empathized with the protagonists and their agonies. It’s a powerful book and must be read by all who would wish to know what war does to the participants from a human point of view. I read several of EMR’s books post reading AQOTWF but none could evoke my senses as this one. The title spews entire dreams in my mind, I would love to find that western front where all is quiet and peace prevails forever.
8. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie. Originally titled ‘Ten Little Niggers’ this book is supposedly ranked as the seventh most best selling work of fiction of all times. That’s an astounding achievement for a crime fiction book by an English dame that doesn’t have an immortal central detective protagonist. This book might never be included in a serious literary genre list but from my personal point of view, the title is a real winner. It tells about our future, about the future of all that exists today since one day, there would be none. I find it mysterious, prophesying, gripping and spellbinding. If any of you haven’t yet read this book, then please do. I read this novel first on a train journey from my duty station to home and had finished it at one go non-stop. I can’t readily think of any other book that had ever gripped me with an equal intensity.
9. How the Steel Was Tempered – Nikolai Ostrovsky. I read this book purely provoked by the title that for some reason evoked within me the image of a naked Samurai sword. It’s a tremendously powerful work based on the author’s own life and chronicles the rise of socialism in the early twentieth century Russia. Whenever I heard the title I saw a dismembered pair of naked hands, gripping a Samurai sword, holding it aloft over a naked flame of sheer intensity. When I read the book I could feel a deep connect between my earlier vision and the underlying theme of the fiction.
10. For Whom the Bells Toll – Ernest Hemingway. Often listed among the all time best sellers this book is frequently cited as Hemingway’ finest work of literature. The title had preceded my reading the book by several years. It evoked within me a lofty grass covered green hill by the sea side that has a covered bell tower right at the top, which is tolling melodiously as it swings to and fro in sync with the invisible breeze. I wouldn’t see any living human or animal, nothing at all anywhere within the visible horizon. The bell is simply tolling without any obvious purport or design. Borrowed from a composition of John Donne called ‘Devotions upon Emergent Occasions’ Hemingway made this title and the tale immortal in his inimitable style of prose. It is a forceful story of one Robert Jordan’s experience in the Spanish Civil War. This is a biographical novel though and the book is repeatedly cited as the best form of story-telling that has ever been crafted in English language.
11. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas. The title of this landmark in literary fiction for some reason simply sounds mischievous. It is now synonymous with ‘three friends’ any triplet, anything that is a depiction of a trio, and always with a mischievous or naughty connotation. I will really be surprised if there’s even one among my readers who haven’t read this all time classic, if not in totality at least in some abridged version. To those who haven’t read this book it might come as a surprise that the ‘three musketeers’ are not the protagonists of this story, they are rather friends of the central character. With strange names as Athos, Aramis and Porthos their antics are even stranger and downright hilarious. Their motto: one for all and all for one is perhaps the underlying ethos of every military force in the world. A must read for all young people and those young at heart. Throughout my life I have been a member of many elite ‘3 musketeers’ group, each landing me in deeper and deeper of you know what.
12. Winter of our Discontent – John Steinbeck. This is the last classic JS penned and according to me his best. The title is taken from a line of Shakespeare’s Richard III hence we can call it an amalgamation of the British and the Yankees. It is a bitter sweet story of a man’s ideological turmoil against the burgeoning societies rule and law-bending ethics. Rarely have a man’s struggle through his life been depicted so vividly. Even before I read this book, I always loved to say out the title loud in my mind. I love winter and cold air though not so fond of discontent, I love the way it gels with the rest. If a blizzard keeps you homebound and you have a nice warm hearth by a blazing fireplace with a Labrador curled at your feet, then do pick up this book and you will find yourself journeying with the protagonist.
13. Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach. I am a professional mariner and I love to watch seagulls in full flight or frolic. They are beautiful, pristine and peace evocating. And we all know Dr Livingstone’s exploratory work in Africa, till then a literal dark continent. Combining these two elements, RB came out with a book of astonishing insight and inspiration that is among the all time best-selling books of its genre. I believe a gift should be timeless and books are the best gift that I can give. When a friend receives a book from me, it is an indication of acceptance. The top three books that I gift to my friends are Alchemist, Prophet and JLS. One per head of course. I keep going back to JLS from time to time for its sheer simplicity and intense narrative, about a seagull’s struggle and never-say-die spirit to soar beyond all hope and failures. It is a book that inspires me. It proves Bach’s genius in dealing with the subject through a bird. A must read for everyone who can read English. To me it will always evoke my own free spirit and flights into unknown lands.
14. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain. Undoubtedly, one of the finest works of modern English literature by one of the giants. Mark Twain is among my favorite authors and his inimitable humor and eye for details come in full force in this remarkable story. The word ‘adventure’ in the title was enough for me to let my imaginations run really wild and Huck Finn has such a phonetic mystery that I had read this book much before it came up as a part of my school curriculum. All those who have watched me grow up say that my exploits and I do have an uncanny resemblance to Huck Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer.
15. Where Eagles Dare – Alistair MacLean. There was a stage in my life when I swore by AM and everything he had penned. There’s not a book he wrote that I haven’t read. I even read few of the imitations but finally gave up when I soared to similar high and cold places and somehow the heroic charms of the Second World War spies and soldiers did not seem so romantic any more. Nevertheless they were fantastic tales and did spur my thoughts to places I wouldn’t have ventured into otherwise. Among all the titles, WED stands apart in my mind as supreme. By choice I go to places where Eagles soar and angels fear to tread therefore making me a fool who dares. This book sums up my life in the shortest possible way.
16. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde. Though not his finest work, OW is probably known for this than the others. It’s a thin book telling the story of a painter and his model a young man by the name of Dorian Gray. This graphic title somehow in my mind has always seemed elusive. As if we are looking at this person through a veil of gossamer and therefore a hint of mystery. I love mystery. To me it also has a black connotation. It is dark, it is subdued and obfuscated. I have been a lifelong follower of all things occult and mystifying… I had to fall in love with this title, though I can’t say the same for the book in itself.
17. Diamonds are Forever – Ian Fleming. I want to be James Bond in my next life. I wish I was in this one. Ask any woman and she will tell you what this title evokes in her mind. This is an incredibly haunting title from an astounding writer who created perhaps the most desirable male fictional character of all time. The title charters me away into the African diamond mines and to countless adventures that those diamonds ensued in their trails. Though the book is not such a good read and the movie has such technical glitches that in today’s world I don’t think anyone will watch it more than fifteen minutes even though Sean Connery and his Scottish accent is as alluring as ever. But for this title De Beers would not be in business and so many suitors would still be on the right side of bankruptcy.
18. The Spy who came in from the cold – John Le Carr. Espionage and cold, a deadly combination and among my favorites for those precise reasons. This book single-handedly brought the cold war and espionage into every person’s living room. A pioneering and brilliant book that hasn’t lost its sheen though the technology of this book is totally outdated in today’s world.
19. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini. This title evokes an image of an endless desert with blazing sun baking everything in sight. It is not a pleasant image but I like such hardships and somehow it also sounds timeless and boundless. A modern day bestseller, it is a radiant portrayal of strife-ridden life in Afghanistan.
20. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera. MK is one of my top authors and of all his books this one is a clear winner by its title. I have no idea what it really evokes in me other than the exact feeling that the title dictates, and that is a very good feeling indeed. It is a complicated story of a man and a woman torn between love and guilt, passion and emotion. I won’t advice my young readers to read it though but those of you above 20 should read it. You may not like it but you won’t be able to help falling in love with MK.
In terms of authors represented in the above list we have obvious missing links for the likes of Albert Camus, Salman Rushdie, several of our contemporary Indian authors, Jane Eyre, D H Lawrence, etc. But as I have mentioned before these were picked purely on the strengths of their evocative titles in my mind. And of course there are many more such titles but I restricted the list to 20 that comes readily to mind. You are free to add to this list. Cheers