Reading in times of Covid-19

I read in today’s (4 April 2020) Mint, the financial newspaper (unfortunately behind a paywall, so not giving the link), what different authors are reading during the current corona lockdown. That inspired me to make my own list. My region might not lift the lockdown so soon given that the government is going in for a phased exit. I have, therefore, a modified list.

Like many others I know, I am one who reads several books in parallel. These usually belong to different categories: banking, central banking, history, politics, economics, literary classics, current fiction, historical fiction, and those in my mother tongue, Malayalam. Sometimes I even plod through a simple French book, often a short story, a dictionary in hand, to improve my comfort with the language. Depending on my mood, I move from one to the other, pick up new ones, and sometimes even discard a few without completing.

So, here is a list of 12 books that are currently engaging my attention, and a few others waiting.

  1. The first is Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, a Sri Lankan writer. It is scheduled to be reviewed in the next meeting of Bibliothek, IIT Alumni Club’s book club. As the meeting will be on Zoom, like the last two ones, the next meeting might come much earlier than  expected. So, it is first on the list.
  2. War and Peace by Tolstoy. I had read Anna Karenina as a teenager, and shed copious tears, more for her husband, than for Anna herself. But, War and Peace, a much longer book, was something I could not go beyond some fifty pages.
  3. Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, another Russian master. My friend, Uday, told me many years back (almost 40) that if you have not read Brothers Karamazov (also by Dostoyevsky), I should consider myself illiterate. Now more determined, I am but starting with Crime and Punishment, and it will alternate with W&P for my reading time. I will hopefully follow it up with Uday’s other favourite, and on which he did his PhD at Oxford, Joyce’s Ulysses. This one book account for maximum number of failed attempts on my side.
  4. I first took up Marcel Proust’s six-volume Remembrance of Things Past when I was a member of Mumbai’s (then Bombay) Asiatic Library, which was next door to my office. After paying hefty fines for long, I returned it without completing. Now, I have been carrying all the six volumes on my kindle for the last many years. The more recent translations carry the title, In Search of Lost Time. But, I prefer the first, and the original in French, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, for long the tag line on my WhatsApp.
  5. There is more than one banking book in the pipeline. But, I am mentioning only one, Currency, Credit and Crisis (2019), by Patrick Honohan, Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland from 2009-15. He draws on experience as Governor and at the World Bank, to write about how a small country dealt with the financial crisis. I had read Honohan before, his articles, and like his style. I therefore did not hesitate before ordering it .
  6. I have always had a weakness for history. Not least because my father used to teach history from the age of 19 till 25, when he joined government service. His library was therefore, full of several history books. I am now into reading not only history, but also on the writing of history. I had read both EH Carr (What is History) and Gordon Childe (What Happened in History), both enduring classics, over thirty years back. That was more out of general interest. Now, there is a purpose :). I have started with Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft published first in 1946. In the pipeline are Collingwood’s Idea of History, Evans’s In Defence of History, and Gaddis’s Landscape of History.
  7. That brings me to another work of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which had one the Man Booker Prize, like its sequel, Bring up the Bodies. Also in the pipeline is her latest book, The Mirror & The Light. Wolf Hall is not easy reading, and I have been at it for quite some time.
  8. Robert Skidelsky’s Money and Governance (2019) traces the ideas in Economics since the beginning and outlines, based on his own teaching experience, how it is being challenged and reshaped, including the teaching of it, following the financial crisis of 2008.
  9. A book on Indian economy is almost always there on my list. I debated whether to read Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s Backstage first. But, having read a bad review by Rajrishi Singhal, I decided to keep it for later. Now that I have come across a good review (see here) by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the book came back into reckoning. In the meantime, Arvind Panagariya’s India Unlimited came to my notice, and I got a copy just a week before the lockdown. So, it will be first Panagariya followed by Montek, or both alternating.
  10. Sitting quietly on my table for the last many months is William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, on the East India Company, the first joint stock company in the world. It requires its own undivided attention. Hopefully, I will at least start reading it during the lockdown.
  11. The last two books are in Malayalam, of which one is Malabar Kalapam, by K. Madhavan Nair. It is on the events of 1921/22, variously referred to as Moplah Rebellion, Moplah Revolt, and Malabar Rebellion. Madhavan Nair, also the founding Managing Director of Mathrubhumi, was then the Secretary of the Pradesh Congress Committee. His book is therefore a first-hand account, but it was published only about five decades later in 1971. In the pipeline, are two other books in Malayalam, also on the same episode, and RH Hitchcock’s report on it, Peasant Revolt in Malabar – A History of the Malabar Rebellion. It would also be interesting to follow it up with Sir C. Sankaran Nair’s “Gandhi and Anarchy”, his critique of Gandhi’s stand on the Khilafat Movement.
  12. The last on the list, but one which I had started much earlier, is a facsimile edition of the first edition of O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, considered to be the first Malayalam novel ever published, and to have had the characteristics (whatever that means) of a novel. I had read the book as a teenager, but this is more out of curiosity, to see how the book would have appeared to someone who read it in the first few years since 1889 when it was first published. The compromises imposed by the limitations of printing technology in those days makes the book an interesting re-read.

Most of you might say, ouch, that is an awfully great deal. I feel setting high ambitions is the way to go. I know a lady in Delhi who reads one book in about one to two days. And there are many who one meets on the net, who set an annual challenge of about 150 books, and actually complete it. Hopefully, I will be able to complete all of them in about three months, during which time I might add a few and discard some, and also write on some of the books above, if not a detailed review.


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