All Aboard Historical Thriller 'Finland Station' Author Aravind Adiga was not interested in stuffy classics or long, drawn-out historical accounts. But Edmund Wilson's history of socialism, To the Finland Station, proved to be anything but dull — it's electrifying.

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All Aboard Historical Thriller 'Finland Station'

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Writer Aravind Adiga is the author of "White Tiger." His darkly comic debut novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. When we asked him to recommend a book for our series You Must Read This, he picked a book published almost 70 years earlier.

Mr. ARAVIND ADIGA (Author, "White Tiger"): Every so often you come across a book of nonfiction that is more gripping in its plot and richer in its understanding of human beings than 1,000 novels put together. One such book is Edmund Wilson's "To the Finland Station."

"To the Finland Station," which was published in 1940, is called a classic and is described as a history of socialism. For these two reasons I avoided it for years, assuming that it would be stupendously boring. What a mistake that turned out to be.

This book is an intellectual thriller, a cliffhanger set in an underground world of revolutionaries and hunted men. It tells the story of a group of scholars on a quest for forbidden knowledge, a secret embedded in human history.

From the time of the Enlightenment, Wilson tells us, some radical thinkers became convinced that human beings, and not Divine Providence, shaped their own history. If you studied history - the rise and fall of kingdoms and the expansion and contraction of economies - you would find that behind the apparent chaos there was a meaning written out in code. And if this secret pattern, this cabala, were deciphered, it would tell you how to construct a new society, one that was based on justice, equality and freedom.

"To the Finland Station" is the story of the men who tried to break the code in human history, men like the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, the French historian Jules Michelet, the Russian nihilist Mikhail Bakunin and above all, it is the story of Karl Marx, the founder of communism.

In some ways, "To the Finland Station" reminds me of Dostoevsky's novel, "The Possessed," which is also the story of a group of revolutionaries who want to create a better society. Like Dostoevsky, Wilson has a real gift for physical descriptions, vivid anecdotes and drama. And he brings this group of eccentric, persecuted, visionary men to life so vividly, you are made to admire their compassion for the poor, to cringe at their fanaticism and to wonder at their perseverance in the face of poverty, persecution and exile.

You do not have to be sympathetic to socialism, as Edmund Wilson was, to fall in love with this book. "To the Finland Station" is, ultimately, a celebration of the power of ideas. I find in this book a sense of religious awe at the mystery of human ideas - how a strange, compelling thought is born, in the secrecy of libraries, to an eccentric; how it survives persecution and scorn; and how, at the unlikeliest of moments, it can seize the entire world and reshape it for better or for worse.

SIEGEL: That's author Aravind Adiga. His pick for You Must Read This is "To The Finland Station" by Edmund Wilson. For end-of-the-year book lists and more recommendations, you can go to npr.org.

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