If my memory serves me right, I think it is in his Summing Up that Somerset Maugham says how nice and useful it might have been if he had had someone to tell him what and whom to read. He was probably very conscious of making the most of his time and eager to profit by almost everything he read. I can understand his impatience, and presume that there are many readers who wish the same as he. As for me, I had never asked anyone for suggestions and recommendations of any sort, nor had I ever wanted a reader or critic to influence or guide my early literary explorations, and I still do not. I have chanced upon and chosen my authors as I have travelled across the world of literature.
Until my school days, I had read little or nothing in English outside of my curriculum. Occasional scans of some daily or the other was all that I might have done by way of reminding myself that English was not an alien language to me. Proof of my fundamental stability in the English language came to me in the form of a sudden yet unmistakable clarity and satisfaction that I experienced when I began reading works of popular fiction and some non-fiction stuff.
As I recall, James Hadley Chase was the first novelist that I picked up and stuck to for long enough to complete some 30-odd titles. Now, I only remember what those stories were like – racy, full of thrills, twists and turns – but I do not remember any one of them clearly enough to retell. I read almost all of them in quick succession, lapping them all up eagerly and hungrily. I got the kind of kicks anyone would expect from that kind of fiction, and I remember I liked the style. In short, James Hadley Chase must certainly have inspired me to read more, not necessarily of his own stories or of his kind of stories. Soon I tasted a bit of Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and wanted more of them. Moving swiftly into their worlds, I read most of their early novels, one right after the other almost to the exclusion of any other author. It was likewise with Alistair Maclean and Frederick Forsyth.
Although I would not strictly discriminate among authors by describing them in positive or negative terms, for almost all I have so far read are either reasonably or extraordinarily good writers, I did begin to develop a fondness for some. The list of my favourite writers would have right on top P G Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Somerset Maugham, to name just a few among my early and all-time favourites in fiction. Bertrand Russell has been the one I have admired the most among non-fiction writers, though I have derived enormous pleasure reading many philosophers, albeit sporadically and in small quantities, and a number of essayists of whom G K Chesterton readily comes to mind for warmth, humour and ingenuity.
Along the journey, I have read many best-selling authors – John Grisham, David Baldacci, Robin Cook, Ridley Pearson, James Patterson, to randomly name just a few. I have spent much time in their company and derived enjoyment and benefit. But a few names stand out: Anita Shreve, Ian McEwan, David Lodge, P D James, and Ruth Rendell.
Coming back to Maugham’s wish about having someone recommend what one should read, I really think there is something exciting and unpredictable in going about choosing authors to read and stumbling upon the unexpected. It has been my journey and I have stopped where I wanted to, lingered on and moved along. I have been happy all the way and will be happy as I stop for and savour new experiences.