What you read is as much a subjective choice as what you eat and wear, whom you befriend. So now and then, when a reader asks me to recommend books for him to read, I am left paralysed

One of the hazards of being a columnist is that, now and then, a reader asks me to recommend books. And I am left paralysed. It’s hard enough to determine what books my friends might appreciate, but to provide a reading list to a complete stranger? Impossible, and to show you why, let me give you a scenario: You stop a man in the street and ask him, “Can you tell me what clothes I should wear?” And when he hurries away because he thinks you’re bonkers, you pursue him, crying out, “Can you also tell me what food I should eat?”

What you read is as much a subjective choice as what you eat and wear, who you live with and befriend. Since we speak of ‘tastes’ in reading, a culinary analogy may not be inappropriate. Let’s say you’re new in town and you ask me to recommend a restaurant. Obviously, my first question to you would be: What kind of food are you looking for? My advice would depend on whether you prefer South Indian, Italian, Japanese, Arabian, Mexican... your budget, where you live, how far you’re prepared to travel to eat... a whole host of such factors. Why should it be any different with books? First, you specify your preferences: non-fiction, poetry, adventure, mystery, romance; pulp, porn, highbrow or inspirational stuff; Indian, European, African, South American authors; philosophy, science, travel, and so on. And then you look for guidance from — who, me? The Internet, I was going to say.

Earlier this month a reader pleaded with me to “share a few books you’ve been reading” — share the titles, presumably, and not the books themselves. I hedged the issue by asking him about his likes, to which he replied, “I prefer reading books which I can relate to.” Well said. It should a prescription for all my petitioners in future: read what you can relate to, and don’t rely on me since I may not relate to the same things you do. This particular reader mentioned that the last two books he had read were by Osho and Rohinton Mistry, which just goes to show you how unpredictable a person’s tastes can be.

I am taken aback by the confidence with which some readers place their trust in my judgement, and I keep trying to guess their objectives. Are they searching for books that would improve their language, their knowledge or their morals? Sadly, I can be of no help whatsoever in fulfilling any of these aims. Another guess: because they like my writing and they think it is inspired by the authors I read, they conclude that they would also like the authors I read. This is a precarious line of thought, which might end in disappointment. I could mention books that have stimulated, enriched or entertained me, but I can’t guarantee that they will have a similar effect on the rest of the world. It’s like how Jeeves retires with an “improving book” that Bertie wouldn’t touch with a bargepole (and more’s the pity if you have no idea who I’m talking about).

There is only one category of person for whom you can authoritatively choose books: the very young. The poor things have no option but to read what you foist on them. But it would be an insult to you, my readers, to treat you like children in their formative years. Before I draw up a ‘must-read list’ (I hate that phrase and concept) for you, I must know you inside out: Have you newly migrated to the reading kingdom or are you a long-time resident? How do you lean, politically speaking? Are you a cynic, a romantic, a pessimist, a pragmatist? Are you looking for useful tips or just a good laugh? What stage of life are you at, what experiences have you been through? Have your tastes changed with age? Do books occupy the core of your existence or do they sort of float about wispily at the periphery?

Actually, I don’t believe you need to borrow another’s tastes; read widely and wildly, and you will automatically develop your own. Don’t be shy of declaring your preferences, even if they get you branded as outdated or lowbrow. Here’s a delicate point: should you bite off more than you can chew? I’m referring to books that (can I say this without sounding snooty?) go above your head (no I can’t). You could try ploughing through them, but ask yourself, is it worth the effort? Misreading them — or worse, pretending to have read them — can be acutely embarrassing. Look at what celebs reply when asked what they’re currently reading. Some actor, out to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face, will mention an ‘important’ book and then, in a dazzling display of stupidity, describe it to us. For instance, he might say, “I recently read the modern classic called Catch 22. It is very inspiring because it tells us about the brave American soldiers who gave their lives for their country.” I swear I’ve read quotes very like this one.

Readers, be warned. If you give me that classic line “Read any good books lately?” my response would be, “What do you mean by ‘good’?” Or else I might end our chat abruptly with two little words: “Read mine.”

(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)