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Can we judge books?

india Updated: Oct 06, 2009 23:00 IST
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By the time you read this, you’ve set off to buy Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s novel set in Tudor England, or Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, a spooky story set in post-World War II England, or Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze set in a mid-19th century English asylum, or JM Coetzee’s Summertime, about a biographer researching on the late writer JM Coetzee, or Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, set in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia.

One of them has already won the 2009 Man Booker Award. With that will come a two thumbs up that will convince us that his or her book is a damn fine one. To a lesser extent, the books already shortlisted will also be recommended reading for all of us. I have total respect for the choice(s) made by the Booker jury. It’s still one of the best ways to go about things — rather than the squabble between readers over whether Ian McEwan’s 1998 Booker-winning Amsterdam is better than his 1997 non-Booker-winning Enduring Love. I have no issue with Booker decisions, or those by juries of other awards. And no, I don’t only read books set in my own surroundings of history or geography. Most of my favourite books have nothing to do with India.

But I am a bit puzzled about the practice of Indian editions of books available here — including those originally published in India — of overwhelmingly carrying blurbs and lines of praise from foreign reviews. The edition will have a roster from the Times, London, the New York Times, the Independent, or other such worthy publication. The desi lines of praise about a desi edition of even a desi book don’t seem to matter much.

Is this because Indian readers of books in English have no clue about what’s a good book and what’s a crap one until we are told by the ‘only real experts’ who are published in Western papers? Or is it because our publishers know that what really matters for us desi book-buyers is what the verdict is from London-New York.

Either way, there may be a case to try out a novel experiment: print a smattering of blurbs from Indian reviews along with the foreign ones. They may also be able to win the hearts and wallets of Indian book-buyers. Who knows, maybe an Indian blurb can provide a different and equally engaging hookline for many of us who are not necessarily bewitched by the NYT bestseller list or other sacred recommendations.