You Haven’t Lived Until You’ve Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven’t lived until you’ve read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet… it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?
This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I’ve tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It’s been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I’ll write a Part 2. For now – 

1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It’s the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean… and, a tiger. A survival’s tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.

Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 
A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war – the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.
The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He’d sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else’s appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Which books would you qualify this way?

On ageing in fantasy and reading The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Oh, sweet fantasy, how I have missed you.)

“She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free. What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it.”

Having taken a long hiatus from this blog, it’s weird to jump back into book-blogging, but a lot has happened that I want to write about, and a lot of reading has filled me with reviewer-ly inspiration. Before I begin, I have yet to read the final installment of the Earthsea books, the one titled The Other Wind, and I would appreciate staying spoiler-free. The Earthsea Cycle is a series of four (actually, six) books set in an alternate universe called Earthsea. It consists of a vast archipelago and the boundless sea surrounding it, is culturally quite unlike our world and is filled with magic.
Each of the four main books is a coming-of-age tale and the creation story of its hero. The first book is entitled The Wizard of Earthsea and it tells us about the tumultuous childhood of one of the greatest wizards of all time, a boy named Ged. The second book follows Ged on an adventure which introduces us to Le Guin’s second hero, a woman named Tenar. In what is perhaps the greatest fantasy book I have read, Le Guin brings out the darker sides of magic and the role women and witches play in fantasy through the character of Tenar. The third book is a prince’s journey, a story which deals with death, the history of war and chivalry. And the fourth book, a rather more mature tale, follows a young abused child and is an examination of feminism and patriarchy. The Earthsea books taken together are brilliant for many reasons – the extent of racial diversity, an entire cast of coloured characters is the most significantly noticeable. Over the course of the series, Le Guin also consciously makes feminism one of the prominent themes, scrutinizes gender roles and identities, and creates brilliant women characters. But my favourite thing in her books is something I had mentioned in initial musings in a Goodreads review – how gracefully all her characters age. Woven into all the books in the Earthsea cycle is the theme of age. 
Ageing is something I find sorely missing in fantasy tales. Nearly all of my favourite fantasy comprises coming of age stories – be it series like Harry Potter, the Bartimaeus trilogy, His Dark Materials, and even standalone books like Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. However, very few of them follow the main characters through into their adulthood. Some take a big leap into the future, like the Harry Potter series, but fail to show the many little middles which make up a life. We have immortality, and with it, characters opting out of immortality in order to live their short lives, but we don’t see them in action. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ends not with a wizened old slayer, but a sprightly twenty-something with a whole future ahead of her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the older children just disappear. Even Peter Pan, which is about (not) growing up, doesn’t really do more than bring out the contrasts between youth and adulthood. 
Fantasy tends to deal with the big facts of life – birth, death, love, evil; it’s quite surprising then that it neglects to write about growing old. But the process is important. It’s a fact of matter. People age. Wizards grow old, as do witches, and the growth changes them, like it changes us. The boy is not the wobbly old man he grew up into, and though knowing the boy will help you understand the man, there is so much more to him. It is when you’re growing up that life reveals to you just how wily it can be; which maybe why teenagers are so difficult, and the twenties are depressing times. 
People around me are always telling me how they don’t recognize themselves anymore, or how choices made three years ago fail to make sense now. Or how you’d never imagined growing up that you’d end up this way but it’s so obvious now that you are. I wish more stories evoked that feeling, and brought out the sheer normalcy of change. And the change only accelerates with time. I’m nothing like the girl who started this blog six years ago, I’m unimaginably altered. I lose interest in many book characters because they have failed to alter in that way, because they seem a little too similar. I mean, is reality always as neat as Rowling writes it. Does a boy good at Herbology become a professor of Herbology? And all those high school couples make it, and all their children are good friends, and life is wrapped up in glitter-paper with a big fat pink bow on it. 
It often wonder about all the young adult heroes from stories I have liked, whatever happened to Lyra Belaqua after the events of His Dark Materials? Can I have a new book with her all grown up? And one with her as an old woman too? I can think of only one other example of such an ageing main character, and that is Christopher Chant from the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. Yet no one has done it quite so substantially as Le Guin. I feel this theme might have been explored a lot more with superheroes. (Edit: I found a song and a kind of review of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the first two seconds of Googling, so there ought to be more.) In the Earthsea books, life, real bloody fleshy life, happens between two books. In every consecutive book, Ged has grown years older. And through the series, we learn about the years between the books only through how different he has become.
It’s a hook, a big beautiful hook. Once you get a taste of her style, wanting to find out what the characters will be like later becomes a very good reason to read the next book in the series. I went on an Earthsea spree, buying Kindle editions to save delivery time, though I don’t actually own a Kindle, and hence had to read on the cloud reader. Couple the maturity of her writing (the pet themes of sex and feminism, identity and bravery) with her vivid wordsmithery, add into the mix this trick, and you have a very clever set of books. Do read the series, especially if you love fantasy, but even otherwise.