We are going to start off by outlining a list of books for beginners – for folks who haven’t managed to read beyond 5 novels in their lifetime and can recall with excruciating detail the extent of pain they faced in finishing those 5 bloody novels. The defining metric for book-selection for this group is un-put-down-ability. Style, language, richness of prose, plot depth etc. be damned. There needs to be enough meat in each page for one to flip over to the next. Everything else can come later.
- Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: A plot that you might have heard of, a book that moves at a devilish pace, with enough plot turns to keep you reading late into the night. What’s not to like.
- If Tomorrow Comes, by Sidney Sheldon: A con artist story with brilliantly constructed cons; with a lady protagonist to boot.
- Kane and Abel: Slightly slower-paced than the other books in this list. But when the plot lines are this rich, one can go adjust to the slower pace.
- Windmills of the Gods: Another one from Sidney Sheldon, a classic thriller that rattles by while you catch your breath. The plot lines are predictable but still worth following.
- Ice Station Zebra from Alistair Maclean: Alistair Maclean books are similar to James Bond novels. Enough said. There are a number of other Alistair Maclean books that are frightfully pacy.
- Shall we Tell the President by Jeffrey Archer: Fast-paced, well-written.
- Godfather by Mario Puzo: Someone somewhere is right now planning to make the 1056thmovie made from this novel.
Moving on, I have given a set of books, based on genre here. I would strongly recommend readers to ignore this at any point of time and pick up books that catch their fancy and try them. Putting tick next to a reading list is the worst approach to follow towards reading.
- Sidney Sheldon - Rage of Angels: There is a Tamil movie that has been made on this story. Movie buffs try to find the name of the movie.
- Jeffrey Archer - The Prodigal Daughter: Pleasant read; strictly not great. JA has also written a few collections of short-stories that are very interesting.
- John Grisham - Firm, Pelican Brief, Partner, Runaway Jury: All the plot lines are based on law firms. If legal drama is your thing, you have found your manna. Quite a few have been made into movies. Firm and Pelican Brief were among the early books. My favourites are Partner and Runaway Jury. Runaway Jury is an outstanding tale (even the movie is pretty decent)
- Agatha Christie: Anything that has Hercule Poirot can be read at least once.
- Mario Puzo: The man who gave us Godfather absolutely owns this genre. No one writes about the Mafia better than Mario Puzo. If you think Nayagan or Sarkar or Company are decent movies, you will absolutely love Mario Puzo.
- Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children, Shame: Every year, literary boffins get together and select a book to foist the booker prize on. Recently, they got together to select the best among the books that have got a booker. Midnight’s Children got that award – Booker of Booker. Magic realism is not really my thing, but even I quite enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the parallels with Indian politics. Salman Rushdie has a way of picking the right metaphor that will leave you savouring his books long after you have completed them. Some ideas that he has planted have you thinking about them for a while. Any book by Salman Rushdie is a slightly higher-effort read though.
- Chetan Bhagat: Mr. Bhagat is decent without ever threatening to be great. The opposite of Salman Rushdie or PG Wodehouse. For these stalwarts, the English language is to be toyed with, to be played around to derive joy from. For Mr. Bhagat, the language is merely a tool convey a story. You almost feel like Mr. Bhagat has written some portions of his novels as expansions from power point slides. For all that, he picks plot lines we can connect with and weaves ideas around them well. He is what I would call an ‘ideas’ author, rather than a ‘language’ author. If you can stop being a language snob and let go of Bhagat-envy, you can actually enjoy his books. (A little confession due here – I suffer from both)
- Aravind Adiga: I have read only ‘The White Tiger’ but fell in love with the author based on just that. It is to my discredit that I have not read any of his other books. Fabulous writer. Uses the language brilliantly and there are few wasted words in the prose. The various strands of ‘The White Tiger’ were so brilliantly spun that I was breathless with praise by the end of it.
- Ashish Taseer’s: “The way things were” is also a very good read.
- Palace of Illusions: The best in the genre, by a distance. Streets ahead of the rest of the competition (the gap is almost as wide as 2IIM and the rest of the field in online CAT preparation. Bing!). I must confess that I have a weakness for the Mahabharatha. I consider it the greatest story ever written. Even so, this book is really well constructed and damn well-written. I hate books where the author does not care enough about the language. When you read a novel, you expect tighter prose than when you read a newspaper or a blog and on this count, this novel delivers. (The same cannot be said of other authors of this genre, barring perhaps Kavita Kane)
- Karna’s wife: Within the Mahabharatha, my favourite character is Karna. So, it was no surprise that I liked this book. Kavita Kane cares about the way her chapters are constructed. The plot is critical, but in a book where there cannot be too many surprises it is probably crucial that the author use the language well. Kavita Kane succeeds in doing that.
- I read books by Ashok Banker, Anand Neelakandan and Amish Tripathi as well. I did not find them as good as the two books mentioned above.
Humour and Satire
- Not a Penny more, not a penny less by Jeffrey Archer: Great fable, well told.
- PG Wodehouse:
“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
“At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.”
“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
“Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”
I am a massive fan. To read more about the man, click here.
My wife has gently hinted on occasion that if I continued to go overboard on praising Wodehouse, I might be considered a bore. But we must keep two things in mind here
1) Men have risked life and limb to get us to where we are. Should I really worry about “being called a bore.”?
2) There is no such thing as going overboard while praising Wodehouse.
For the love of God, do not read PG Wodehouse because it might help you in Reading Comprehension for CAT. The man marveled in the exercise of creating an alternate world, and if you have decided to be a part of that alternate world the least you can do is to leave such mundane thoughts as cracking CAT somewhere far far away.
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Immense. The man who gave us the trilogy in four parts (of five books) is a genius. Someone Else’s Problem, Total Perspective Vortex, Kakrafoon’s curse of telepathy can all be created only by a mind of particularly devilish genius. Reading a part of this series might make you better at enjoying humour across genres of writing. For a long time, I found myself being unmoved by passages that others found outrageously funny. PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams changed that. Now I am the guy who laughs out loud in a Shatabdi and follows it up with a sheepish grin.
(Edit: This might help you not just with RC. There is a grammar section in there as well)
- Catch-22 by Joesph Heller: My most favourite book of all time. A friend of mine asked me to have a go at this while in college and I just did not get it. I was not much of a reader, and the satire was completely lost on me. When I read it much later, I absolutely fell in love with the book. Yossarian lives. I know people who I sometimes fondly think of as Colonel Cathcart. You will see many people who are impervious to absolutes during your MBA. I have read this book a number of times and I am sure I am going to read it a number of times in the future as well. I have even written about this – here and here.
India after Gandhi – Ramchandra Guha
This is the defining book for all things about Indian politics and Indian leaders in the period from 1940 to 1990. Ramchandra Guha is quite simply a marvellous historian. Luckily for us, he is also is a wonderful writer. A must-read for anyone who wants to have some idea of India’s political journey.
My respect for Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar shot up manifold after I read this book. We were incredibly lucky to have these giants in the period immediately after independence. What would the Country not give to have men like this right now?
- Freakanomics, Tipping Point, Blink, Fooled by Randomness, The Undercover Economist etc.: These and quite a few others are books based on a single theme. I always found these types of books to be brilliant till page number 50, very interesting till page 100 and spectacularly undramatic and repetitive from page number 150. Read 1 or 2 of these if you must. But they are not must-reads. And before you even start wondering, these books are not important for completing an MBA.
The deal with Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand readers fall into three categories –
1) The ones who are deeply impacted by the philosophy and thought process and cannot stop thinking about this for days on end. Apparently Alan Greenspan was a huge fan. So, this group is not limited to impressionable 20 somethings
2) Ones who do not see the point and think of it as modern-day capitalist babble that has been repackaged as new philosophical thought and
3) The ones who acknowledge that Atlas Shrugged is a decent ( if slightly repetitive) book and it is up to us to not make anything more out of it.
Read Atlas Shrugged if you can muster the time and patience. This the best book. If you are absolutely smitten by the book, read more.
I will follow up with a reading list that includes blogs, websites, and writers.
Now, on to the caveats. There are bound to be countless other books and authors who are even more fabulous than the ones I have mentioned here (except PG Wodehouse, there is no one more fabulous than the man). For all the pretentiousness in the title, this is merely a broad starting point.
PS: I just realized that I had not mentioned John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden). The more I read this post the more I feel that I have missed out on some gems. Kindly send in your thoughts on other interesting books. I will append those to the list.
About the Author:
Rajesh Balasubramanian runs 2IIM’s CAT program and handles more than half the classes for CAT preparation. He completed his Electrical engineering from IIT Madras in 2001 and PGDM from IIM Bangalore in 2003. He worked as an equity Research Analyst at Credit Suisse, London. This was an enriching experience, in a literal sense; and a soul-sapping experience otherwise. He finally quit his job in 2009 and joined 2IIM as director in 2010.