I used to be one of those people who strictly only read one book at a time. It was my way of immersing myself in a particular book, of creating a specific frame of mind with which to inhabit the world I was reading. In fact, I used to find it impossible to understand how others could dip in and out of a few books at the same time, and still absorb each one fully.
Over the last few years, however, I’ve discovered the joy of reading a few books at once. It began with strict delineations of what I could “read together” – a novel and a graphic novel, for instance, because I justified to myself that the way I read was different. This then expanded to deciding particular genres or types of books could be read at once without detracting from each other. An anthology of short stories and a nonfiction title, or a children’s book and literary fiction.
But soon, I realised that I was picking up a different book based on how I felt at a particular time. Some titles I was reading just did not fit a particular frame of mind I was in, and instead of forcing myself to finish that specific book, it felt more natural to read something that felt right for the moment.
One night, I saw the assortment of titles piled up next to my bed, all of which I was currently reading. And it struck me that those books were a snapshot of a particular phase in my life; a collection of specific moods and feelings and thoughts I had subconsciously given form to with my books.
Last week, I celebrated my birthday so I couldn’t help but take a glance at the bedside pile of books I’m currently reading, wondering what they might say about me at this particular point in my life.
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (Vintage Books, 2010): This is one of the books I began reading as part of this column, a title listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It is also my first book by Byatt, and while I initially found her dense prose a little difficult to warm up to, the beguiling darkness of this story has begun to draw me in.
While named for the children’s books that form the backbone of the book’s plot, there is little that is light or childish about this novel, as Byatt draws on World War I, the lives of children, children’s book authors and the dark depths of many family lives.
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (Michael Joseph, 2017): I absolutely love stories about alternate dimensions and time travel. So when I heard about this novel where our version of current reality is positioned as the alternate, dystopian universe to a “better” version of humanity, I was sold. I’ve just begun reading it, but I’m already hooked!
A Million Worlds With You by Claudia Gray (HarperTeen, 2016): I have a love/hate relationship with young adult fiction trilogies, because even when they fail to quite connect, I almost always feel compelled to finish all three books – because I just have to know what happens!
I read the first book in Gray’s Firebird trilogy, A Thousand Pieces Of You, two years ago. While I had some pretty big issues with it, I’ve somehow convinced myself that I need to know how it ends. Of course, the fact that this series also deals with alternate dimensions might have something to do with that.
The One Hundred Nights Of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (Little, Brown & Co, 2016) : I loved Greenberg’s debut graphic novel The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth (Little, Brown & Co, 2013), and eagerly dove into this follow-up, which continues her exploration of how stories are formed and told.
In One Hundred Nights Of Hero, though, I discovered a power and inspiration that has had me re-reading it again and again, flipping it open to particular segments every few days for the last several weeks. It would be too simplistic to label it a feminist fairy tale because it is that but also so much more. It is a story about stories, about how important and precious they are, and how important it is for everyone to be able to create, remember, and tell their own stories. I see this one sitting by my bed for a long time to come – when I’m not convincing my friends to read it, that is.
Mother, Where’s My Country: Looking For Light In The Darkness Of Manipur by Anubha Bhonsle (Speaking Tiger Books, 2016): I had the privilege of getting to know Indian journalist Bhonsle during a fellowship we both attended last year. As someone who has reported extensively on politics, gender and human rights, her thoughts and insights on these subjects have been invaluable to my own intellectual growth.
In her powerful debut nonfiction book, Bhonsle writes about the history and politics of Manipur, a state in India’s north-east that rarely gets much coverage in global media – a state battling insurgencies, ethnic rivalries, corruption and violence. Some parts of the book are extremely specific, while others are searing in their sad familiarity. Too often, conflict zones are discussed in abstract, macro terms. Bhonsle’s book, while not always easy to read, necessarily takes an intensely human view.
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, 2010): This memoir on King’s work process keeps my love for writing fresh whenever I lack inspiration. For all his acclaim as a master of horror fiction, he is warm, funny and very practical in this book.
He doesn’t romanticise the idea of being a writer, but neither does he fail to capture the joy and magic of the journey. I’ve thumbed through this book countless times, and still find new inspiration within its pages.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Bantam Classics, 1981): A few months ago, my cousin asked me for help with her literature studies. Ever up for a chance to analyse books, I said yes – only to discover that one of her compulsory novels is Wuthering Heights.
If there’s ever a book of acclaim that I’d gladly never read again, it’s probably this one, with its moody atmosphere, unlikable characters, and depressing plot. And yet here I am, trying to get through it, a few pages at a time, without falling into despair.
What books are you currently reading, and what do you think they say about you? Tell us at email@example.com.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.