The first part of The Dharma Dispatch reading list of 21 books during the Corona lockdown period includes 10 great works of fiction
A curated list of 21 books to read during the 21-day lockdown period to contain the spread of the Corona viru
We live in an unnecessarily super-connected world which has so dangerously rewired our brains and distorted our psyches that the virtue of solitude is now a thing of dread. It took a manmade Corona outbreak to reveal this truth hiding in plain sight…this dread of inhabiting in quietude with the Self. Just a generation ago, this quality was prized as an ideal of life; today, it has transformed into a source of Self-fear, which has unleashed a parallel pandemic of national, borderline insanity most notably in urban India, most notable on WhatsApp and social media.
The copious amounts of incredible ludicrousness generated incessantly on these platforms makes an eminent case for how we as a species seem to have abandoned even a modicum of rationality in our willing eagerness to drown ourselves underneath the tide of slavery to technology and actually revel in the byte-sized apology for what passes off as culture.
If all this sounds like an alarmist, sweeping generalization, it is because there is at least half a grain of truth in it.
An off-the-cuff observation shows how at a subliminal level, the Corona-induced nationwide lockdown has been regarded as an imprisonment of sorts. An imprisonment in one’s own home. This is not to decry the genuine concerns about going to work, business, to earn a living, etc. This is rather an appeal reconfigure and reconnect with the forgotten, but time-tested pursuits that still form the bedrock of and sustain civilisations. Doubtless, the actual pursuit depends entirely on one’s temperament which in turn shapes and guides one’s choice of the pursuit.
Because The Dharma Dispatch places a high value on the timeless pursuit of reading and writing for its own sake, we thought it would be consistent with our ideals to offer a reading list of 21 books during this 21-day lockdown period.
Without further ado, here is the list, which the interested reader will take delight in and we hope, finds it valuable and useful. All selections are picked from the annals of the West because…well, “let noble thoughts come to us from all directions.”
1. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus
One of the greatest classics of world literature by Christopher Marlowe, this drama is a powerful exploration of a superb range of human impulses using a simple theme: of a man who willingly makes a deal with the devil for satisfying every urge and whim within himself, and the consequences that follow. It is both a thrilling and highly disturbing play at many levels and makes you want to reach the innards of your own soul or if it were possible, use a mirror to view it.
2. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha
Widely regarded as one of the founding works of Western literature, Don Quixote also holds the distinction as the first modern novel. This brilliant narrative based on the adventures of a madman Don Quixote, who hails from La Mancha in Spain is epic in scope, treatment and impact. Interpreted as a tragedy, it is the sorry tale of a post-idealist world which sees virtue, nobility and chivalry as markers of insanity.
3. King Lear
Well...one could choose anything from Shakespeare with little or no loss in terms of literary quality or artistic enjoyment. However, in our subjective judgement, King Lear is Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. In Shaw's words, "No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear." Shakespeare shows us the seeds of this tragedy right away in the opening when Lear declares he'd give his kingdom to the daughter who loves him the most. A greater recipe for self-inflicted disaster cannot be found.
4. The Insulted and Humiliated
One of the lesser known but an extremely powerful and moving novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Insulted and Humiliated is a complex tale of expiative suffering, greed, cruel emotional manipulation and a reflective "victory" if such a thing exists. For unknown reasons, the work attracted a wide range of talented filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa who adapted the story in his Red Beard. Dostoevsky's trademark of digging into an emotion and exploring it intensely over several pages shines in this masterpiece. Tragic. Frustrating. Ennobling. Must-read.
5. Anna Karenina
It has been called as the greatest work of literature ever. An exaggeration no doubt but it's equally doubtless that Anna Karenina deserves a top spot in any "great works" list. The one quality that almost uniformly animates Russian literature is an epic dimension in characters, plot, politics and geography. Two things stand out immediately in Anna Karenina. Its epigraph:
1. Its epigraph: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay."
2. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," considered one of the greatest ever opening lines in literature, which has since become a proverb of sorts.
6. The Sherlock Holmes Corpus
The happy accident of a bored doctor who wrote detective stories while waiting for patients gave the world the immortal Sherlock Holmes. Nothing really needs to be added to the enduring popularity of Holmes except the fact that it is detective/crime fiction only superficially. Its innate merit lies in the manner in which Arthur Conan Doyle infuses it with an astonishing range of literary tropes. Read The Valley of Fear for example, to know what we mean.
7. Heart of Darkness
Another classic that will occupy any "best" lists. Strictly speaking, Heart of Darkness is a novella just over a hundred pages; hundred tightly-knit, brutally paced and vividly plotted pages. It took a semi-impoverished Polish immigrant, Joseph Conrad, who landed in England, took up a midlevel job at a Belgian "trading company," went to the dark heart of Congo, returned to England, and wrote one of the greatest novels in an alien language and gave its prose a new style. Despite knowing what we do about the horrors European colonialism inflicted o the globe, Heart of Darkness still doesn't make for easy reading. The aptness of the title is revealed almost at every level in the classic: the psychological, moral, ethical, human, and an economic "notion" that has darkness for its heart. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is based on this novel.
8. Grapes of Wrath
In our subjective assessment, Grapes of Wrath is one of those rare American novels to have an epic dimension to it. Which is understandable given the fact that the youngest country in the world is also the poorest civilisation. The epic dimension to John Steinbeck's novel doesn't arise because of said poverty of civilisation but despite it. Steinbeck chooses a slice of the Great Depression--the drought in the Dust Bowl--and gives it an epic dimension purely using his powers as a writer and hard work as a researcher who has done painstaking fieldwork in the area.
9. Darkness at Noon
A classic that has largely been forgotten but one which was highly influential in its time. The precocious and intense ex-communist and an original open mind, Arthur Koestler has done more service to strip the totalitarianism called Communism in this slim novel than many fat academic books put together. Partly autobiographical, Darkness at Noon has an eerie and frightening quality to it both in its narrative technique and the way the plot unfolds...akin to a leisurely exploration of evil while being personally interrogated by it. Chilling to say the least. And a must-read for the times we live in.
In a way, Alex Haley's masterpiece, Roots is akin to a companion volume to Heart of Darkness in that it tells the cruel and gut-wrenching tale of the White Man's wanton global blitzkrieg of slave trade. While the Arab Muslims heralded slave trade, the scientific West rationalized it as an act of benevolence. Roots ostensibly is fiction but transcends fiction. Perhaps the closest way to describe it is to draw a parallel to the protagonist Kunta Kinte's character with that of the eunuch Khwaja Jahan in Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa's Aavarana: the suffering and pain of an entire people encapsulated in the fate and travails of one person's life.
To be continued