A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz is much different from most works in the genre. It is an expansive work which spans a period of centuries, while giving us brief snapshots of what life would be like after humans almost annihilated themselves somewhere in the late 20th Century.

For some reason which is not specified in the book but is quite easy to guess, humanity is almost wiped out in an event what has been called “The Flame Deluge”,  a clear indication of a cataclysmic nuclear event. This is followed by the destruction of all written knowledge and the onset of the dark ages.

Through all this, the lamp of knowledge is kept barely alight by an order of monks in an abbey in the middle of nowhere. They revere Leibowitz, an engineer who managed to save some technical documents from the deluge. Now, its the mission of these monks to accumulate and preserve whatever knowledge could be salvaged, in the hopes that someday, humanity will again be able to understand the forgotten knowledge.

Its a story of this noble pursuit which plays itself out through the ages, from a feudal society to a spacefaring one. There are strong biblical references throughout the book, which don’t seem out of place. The Church has been portrayed as the preserver of knowledge, which  is admittedly a far cry from the Catholic Church in the medieval ages.

While the tenor of the book is one of hope, the end chooses to attribute greater significance to the destructive tendencies of our race. After millennia, humanity again makes the same mistakes and pushes the planet to the brink of destruction, having learnt nothing from (or indeed, forgotten) the last time it happened. The story ends with a handful of survivors setting off into deep space, to keep humanity alive, albeit in a faraway and strange planet.

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, by JRR Tolkien

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún is an English rendition of the Poetic Edda, through the writings of Snorri Sturluson in the 12th century. It’s a heroic tale of Sigurd (also known as Siegfried), a warrior held in high regard. The book has been edited by Christopher Tolkien, though the introduction by JRR is proof of a master philologist at play. It’s a little known fact that he taught Old Norse in his preliminary years as a professor. We all know him as the father of modern High Fantasy, he was in reality, much more. But I digress.

The tale contains many of the inspirations for Tolkien’s later works. Be it “the sword that was broken”, a feud between two brothers for a red-golden ring or the slaying of a mighty dragon jealously guarding a cursed treasure hoard, the Poetic Edda can be taken to be a great inspiration for the Lord of the Rings Saga. Indeed the name Middle-earth is a loose translation of Midgard, which denotes earth in Norse mythology. It’s a rich & rewarding book for any Tolkien fan opening the paths to Norse mythology for the uninitiated, while being a (very) loose historical account of Scandinavian & Germanaic history from the Age of Heroes.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

Here is a book which describes what keeps a human going in times of greatest despair, the likes of which humanity has seldom known. Its easy to look at instances of immense suffering from afar and exclaim: “Oh! Even death would be better.”
This is the exact line of thought that is irrevocably shattered once you read this book. No matter how degraded or miserable life becomes, it is still better than death. Of course it is very easy for me to write now, sitting comfortably in an air conditioned room, but this is the message of this book.
As is mentioned in the preface, what makes this book even more valuable in understanding human nature is that Mr Frankl was himself a trained psychologist.
And at the end of it, its a description of the human will to survive, whether through faith, or a belief of better times to come.

मधुशाला, by Harivansh Rai Bachchan

As soon as I read this poetry collection, the first thought that came to my mind was: Why is this not a part of our school curriculum?
I’d agree that a poetry collection about a मधुशाला (liquor tavern) is hardly suitable for the schoolchildren. But the way Mr Bachchan relates a मधुशाला with our day to day lives is nothing short of phenomenal. From not-so-oblique digs at communal differences to the powerlessness of man against an overpowering addiction, there is so much in these lines that even the best moral stories of our times fail to capture. All this and more, with reference to a मधुशाला.
Some of the many absolutely memorable lines of this composition are as follows:

मुसलमान औ’ हिन्दू है दो, एक, मगर, उनका प्याला,
एक, मगर, उनका मदिरालय, एक, मगर, उनकी हाला,
दोनों रहते एक न जब तक मस्जिद मन्दिर में जाते,
बैर बढ़ाते मस्जिद मन्दिर मेल कराती मधुशाला!

A Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince on Asteroid 325

The Little Prince is a story that starts on such a low note that its almost childlike in its innocence, a quality maintained throughout its length. However, it intermittently raises questions about how a child perceives the world differently than a grown-up, having a completely different weltanschauung. The Little Prince remains relevant even after seven decades of its publication.

Maybe the age at which its read matters a lot. Maybe it is best suited for the age at which we slowly leave childhood behind but are not yet grown-ups. This limbo is a place where this story would make the most sense. But then, maybe all should read it, even the grown-ups. For although the inner child might be in hibernation, I’d like to think, nay believe that the kid is still alive in every grown-up.

You can read the book for free here: http://papermine.com/pub/2005#cover