Top picks from David Davidar's bookshelf
Co-founder of Aleph Book Company, David Davidar spends much time fussing over the quality of books. That exacting approach to words is reflected in his own novels. He has just edited A Case of Indian Marvels, an anthology of stories by young Indian writers. Here are some of his favourite books of fiction by international writers.
The Lord of the Rings By J. R. R. Tolkien, HarperCollins
This quest novel transcends fantasy to become an immortal work of literature. It is perhaps the greatest feat of fictional world-building by a contemporary writer. There’s a reason why this work of genius has sold over 150 million copies and was named the best British novel of all time by the BBC. Once you enter Tolkien’s universe, it’s practically impossible to leave.
Things Fall Apart By Chinua Achebe, Penguin UK
Just as the previous novel is very long, the Nigerian writer’s book is very short. But the world of Okonkwo is no less compelling. One of the first modern African novels, it is, among other things, a critique of colonialism.
To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee, RHUK
Arguably the most beloved contemporary novel yet written (readers of the New York Times certainly seemed to think so, picking it as the greatest novel of the past 125 years), this searing tale about race and inequality in the Depression-era South is exquisite. Set in a fictional town and narrated by a precocious six-year-old, nicknamed Scout, this is a harrowing story about a black man accused of raping a white woman, and defended by Scout’s father, a lawyer called Atticus Finch. Despite the weight of its subject matter, Lee’s novel is infused with warmth and humour that balance the pathos.
One Hundred Years of Solitude By Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Penguin India
The Colombian writer’s magnum opus about the magical village of Macondo, is my favourite contemporary novel—I must have read it a couple of dozen times and it never palls. It has one of the best-known opening lines in modern literature: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Waiting for the Barbarians By J. M. Coetzee, RHUK
The South African novelist has written more famous books (The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace) but this early one about an unnamed magistrate in a remote, dusty frontier town in Africa is a personal favourite. Disgusted with his imperial masters, the protagonist finally rebels against the injustices of Empire, an act that will change his life forever. The prose is glorious, not as stripped down as Coetzee’s later works.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being By Milan Kundera, Faber & Faber
Why the Czech maestro hasn’t yet been given the Nobel Prize for Literature is a complete mystery to me. This novel—about a bunch of characters in the throes of love, sex and madness, with the revolutionary fervour of the 1968 Prague Spring as a backdrop—is his best work.
The Love of a Good Woman By Alice Munro, RHUK
Although the stories from every phase of Munro’s career are quite extraordinary, my favourite is this collection—one of the later books in her oeuvre. As with most of her work, the stories are set in small-town Canada, where Munro was born and spent most of her life. The book won two of North America’s top literary awards.
Collected Fictions By Jorge Luis Borges, Penguin
Rather than pick any of his vaunted collections (The Garden of Forking Paths, The Aleph, etc) as a favourite, I chose Borges’ collected stories—translated and edited by Andrew Hurley. The Aleph, about a magical object that contains the world within it, inspired the name of my publishing house. Enough said.
Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, RHUS
Of all the translations of the Russian maven, this recent one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is my favourite. Chekhov is almost universally acknowledged as the father of the modern short story and this translation brings out his genius quite brilliantly. The Lady with a Little Dog, The Ravine, The Black Monk, Gooseberries and Chekhov’s own favourite The Student— are all peerless.
1Q84 By Haruki Murakami, RHUK
Most would pick A Wild Sheep Chase or Kafka on the Shore as this Japanese wizard’s masterpiece, but in my opinion his gigantic 21st-century offering is his greatest yet. Despite its bulk, I found this epic about assassins, writers, religious communes and general craziness, almost unputdownable. Murakami is another perennial contender for the Nobel Prize and I wish they would give it to him soon.