Second Thoughts – Book Review

Title – Second Thoughts

Author – Navtej Sarna

Genre – Non-fiction

9th March 2018 (3)

I love books about books! You get introduced to new titles and new authors, or new books by authors you’ve already read before, as well as recollect books read years ago, or those you meant to read but forgot about and now that they’re in front of you, you can’t help picking them up. In “Second Thoughts”, Navtej Sarna introduces us to “literary pilgrims” – people who fall into any one or all of the categories below.

~Plan trips around places mentioned in books
~Travel to places where authors lived, visited frequently, worked at, or are buried in
~Visit local bookstores while on holiday
~Meet authors
Sarna is a travel writer cum bibliophile who has combined his profession and passion and travels around the world following his favorite books and authors, and getting acquainted with new ones on the way. This journey came about from “a desire to understand the mind of the writer and the process of literary creation. A curiosity to know what influenced the great characters and stories of literature, what part of reality was turned into fiction, or how successful fictional figures walk into real-life situations“. Travelling to unusual places is anyways part of Sarna’s job, which he has in turn converted to literary travel. His agenda involves carrying the right book in his bag wherever he goes – Baburnama to Kabul, Lost Horizon to Leh, Lermontov to Moscow – along with a journal to take down notes as he chases down famous literary haunts, pubs, or even graves.
Some of his engagements have been directly with his subjects – over drinks with Mario Vargas Llosa and Khushwant Singh, talks by Paul Theroux and Ian McEwan followed by conversation, or a walk in the garden with Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Other trips have been more tangential – a trip to Moscow to visit Tolstoy’s estate or to Hemingway’s house in Florida, the café in Cairo’s Tahrir square where Naghib Mahfouz had breakfast for decades, the lobby in Chelsea Hotel that Jack Kerouac frequented in New York, or Wodehouse’s school in Dulwich – now turned into a library, complete with his pipe, typewriter and personal books. The third kind of literary endeavors have been sourcing out book shops in each trip, and collecting books, like mementos, from around the world. From Tel Aviv to Toronto, and Boston to Bangalore, Sarna has hunted down bookstores and picked up books wherever he has been.
This is a fabulous collection of essays as Sarna takes us through his bookish life – travels all over the globe while following the footsteps of his favorite writers, personal interactions with so many of them, and when he isn’t travelling, just sitting beside his bookshelves and fondly recollecting which corner of the world each book came from. He calls his books the “travellers on my bookshelf” and they are what inspire him to be footloose and gather more “friends”. “The scholar sits easily with the humorist, the sharp eye gives a crucial edge to lyricism, the pungent jibe is softened with sudden sympathy“. He quotes Byron who called travel a “spiritual necessity” and considers him the “king of travellers on my bookshelf“.
“Second Thoughts” is Sarna’s tribute to the great masters – Michael Ondaatje, Truman Capote, Anton Chekov, Amos Oz, Omar Khayyam, and many others all feature here. The title itself is borrowed from a Jerome K Jerome book. A treasure trove for book lovers – each essay is filled with book titles and trivia about writers. I came across many books and authors I hadn’t read, along with new titles of authors I had read before, and a lot more books already read that fondly came back to mind and made me want to read them again. My only grouse is that there were hardly any women writers featured, with the exceptions of Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova and Rebecca Skloot. The bulk of the book comprises male writers, but the collection is still extraordinary. The cover is brilliant – a cheerful yellow reflecting the joy books brings to our lives. Give this one a go – it is a wonderful book to have in the personal library as well.
Rating – 5/5

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