Readers Write In #265: Why read fiction?

Posted on September 10, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

This piece shall be in response to a question that has been put to me numerous times by my group of friends that predominantly consist of people who have not been bitten by the reading bug yet.

“Why do I have to read? When there is a glut of content that the internet can give me any time, why do I have to break my back sitting and reading a book?”

I have faced this question a lot of times and the first time I really felt inclined to answer it, was when I had completed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, some seven years ago. I was possessed by the ghost of Charles Bovary then as a result of which I replied at once with the serenity of a hermit,

“Reading makes me forgive everyone. It helps me empathize even with the insane, the borderline psychotics and even the most sinister minds in the world”.

The answer I gave was strongly backed by a very puerile perception that since I was able to empathize with Emma who in spite of having been blessed with a loving husband and a comfortable existence, subjected herself to adultery and consequent ruin, I would be able to forgive every single wrong-doer in the world. I know the answer looks far-fetched now but for a few days under the influence of the book my senses were under suspended animation and I could not have done better.

***

Some years back, to the same question, I had found a different answer when I was under the spell of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was a ‘magical realist’ novel. The reason why I found the book addictive was because the book appealed to a centre in my brain whose existence I never knew until I read the novel. Before reading ‘One Hundred Years’ I was of the firm belief that one cannot draw himself to reading a book, unless one of its characters has some traits that resemble that of the reader. Every novel I used to believe should look like the reader himself had been installed to operate in a different universe. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger was one such novel for me which appealed to a lot of readers around the world solely because Holden Caulfield, its protagonist acted in some ways, exactly as their own adolescent alter-ego.

When I started ‘One Hundred Years’, I felt I was in for a disappointment since there were too many characters and lot of story in it and the author did not seem to care about delineating his characters enough to make us root for them. To be precise, the novel did not have anything that conformed to the rule-book of classic literature but when I was halfway through it, I was shocked to find that I could not pull myself out of the strings through which the book had stuck me to its web. As mentioned earlier, there was some unknown centre in my brain that must have responded to the call of the book and I still descend into a reverie whenever I think about it.

”Alright it appealed to your brain but so what? How did it make you feel better? Did it make you any wiser or help you look at life better?”

***

 “Reading, in many ways kindles my imagination”

I know I start evasively but I am sure I can build my case from here. Whenever I read a novel, I am very much part of the storytelling as much as the writer is. The writer directs me to create ‘his’ world inside ‘my’ head and the onus of executing his directions is totally with ‘me’. When Kalki describes Arulmozhivarman as ‘a muscular warrior blessed with enchanting beauty and charisma’, he does not sculpt his image and display it to me like an Agra doll-hawker. It is my duty to construct it based on his instructions and when I imagine a slim Sivaji Ganesan (of the Manohara days) for the role, the job is only half done. Since he is described to be muscular, I have to develop my image of him further by adding a few pounds to his biceps that fit neatly on either side of an inflated chest. Now the figure of Arulmozhivarman is neither Kalki’s nor Sivaji Ganesan’s altogether. I chiseled him myself into a distinctive figure whom you cannot replicate or find anywhere else. If Kalki is a distinctive creator, so am I.

The writer in general,does not simply invite you into his head and make you look at things the same way he has been seeing them so far. Just like how your wife’s invitation to place your palm on her belly to sense the baby’s movements and behaviour does not give you instantly a live-visual of what is inside the womb akin to what we saw in Endhiran’s pre-interval scene, an author’s work of fiction is just a set of guiding instructions on how to interpret the world that is inside him. The task of realizing his vision is completely yours.

***

I know, not one explanation I have given above can fully answer the question. But it is important to note that at the end of every novel I finish, I have always felt to my satisfaction, that my capacity to be empathetic to people a tad inflated than what it had been before. With a cultivated habit of reading fiction, my imagination-engine has learnt to function with lesser friction and smoke and my ability to derive joys from simple things and events sharpened and better tuned to the vagaries of time and destiny.

But there might still be people who can ask, ‘Ivlo book padichu enna kilicha?’ (‘What have you achieved by reading so much?’) and I know I cannot answer that question better than what I have done so far. If this question appears in an examination paper for sixteen marks, I am sure I will not get more than four or five. But as I said earlier, the writer can do only so much. The onus of passing me in the examination rests with the reader.