Readers Write In #401: What Reading means to me

Posted on August 26, 2021

8


(by G Waugh)

“Yours is a very difficult job. Writing is not something everyone can do. I know there is so much effort behind every sentence you write. It is very hard to put together thoughts, feelings and ideas into sentences and bring them as a coherent whole”

My friend was telling me this some weeks back.

“There is something much more difficult than writing, Shekhar. More so in today’s time.”

Shekhar was puzzled, “What?”

I smiled, “To make people read what you have written”.

***

It was not until I was twenty one that I read my first book. My friend had marked the specifically ‘titillating’ paragraphs in the romantic portions of Chetan Bhagat’s Three Mistakes of Life and asked me to read. I don’t remember the exact names of the characters and for that age, I really liked the descriptions where the protagonist makes secret love with his girlfriend. Though I did not finish that book fully, I was coerced into reading Bhagat’s another book Five Point Someone the same year solely due to pressure from my friend.

The moment I finished reading my first ever novel, the satisfaction I gained from that ‘achievement’ felt really great. I moved among my friends with an air of a ‘well-read’ person and whenever I was introduced to girls, my acquaintance with Chetan Bhagat helped me a bit.

But the ‘stigma’ with respect to reading books continued to haunt me. Right from my childhood, reading was always considered something close to a physical ‘exercise’, an activity which you do only to achieve a purpose and run away from it, immediately after it was achieved. Reading a chapter in our textbooks was like sweating through a time-bound session on an electronic treadmill and counting the remainder of the pages time and again as and when some amount of progress was made, was a habit that continued well into my college days. The moment the chapter approached the closing portions, not even once had I had the patience to read the last paragraph and two-mark questions that were based on those last few lines were always lent to the teacher as his ‘commission’ for sitting through and correcting my answer paper.

Having been brought up in such an environment where you don’t read something unless it benefits you monetarily in the long run, whenever I see my friends repeatedly ‘forgetting’ to open the URLs of articles I share with them every now and then, I have had really no reason to feel angry or frustrated about, since this was how I was too, months before getting bitten by the reading bug.

***

But reading too, I often think nowadays is not quite a monolithic practice. There are some people who have had a cultivated habit of reading right from their teen years and even well into their forties, some of them have continued to read the same set of authors who had initially taught them how to read. These people have not wanted to progress beyond Sidney Sheldons or Jeffrey Archers or Kalkis because of only one reason-they have had no need to do so. Their perspectives on other general topics such as society, culture and politics have impressed me only on account of their inherent sincerity and my searches for what I consider as ‘original’ or ‘novel’ in them has always been in vain. I have sometimes in my early days of innocence committed the mistake of thrusting into their hands, books written by Dostevysky and V.S.Naipaul and Marquez and a few weeks later, it had always been embarrassing for me to receive the same copies back with expressions that used to range between admissions of defeat and polite refusals to pursue them further. 

***

And then there are a rare set of people who read almost everything that they come across- computers, literature, fiction, self-help, politics, history and whose list on Goodreads can be of great help to future generations of readers. I have had the chance to get introduced to a few of them, most of whom are political and whose reading zone have had a preponderance of political books. Needless to say, they have all been Marxists or rationalists belonging to the Periyarist tradition and they have continued to help me whenever I have had to quote or refer to the writings of these intellectual giants. Their inquisitiveness has often been contagious and some of them have had the credit of reading the same book twice or thrice in order to gain a complete and full-fledged understanding of the author’s ideas. These people it often surprises me are fueled with an inextinguishable passion and love for mankind and this love often translates into seething anger at exploitation in whatever form they take, every now and then. Some of these people are even ready to leave their jobs and livelihoods to fully plunge into service for mankind and only people like these have managed to mitigate human suffering all through history by selflessly dissolving into mass movements, rebellions and violent revolutions.

***

I have so far spoken about three sets of people distinguishing them based on their reading habit. The first category of people is the majority in our country which has modelled their reading habit based on what suits them monetarily or in other words their practical day-to-day needs. The second set approaches reading to a very great extent, from a diversionary point of view. The third one in my opinion reads only to suit a particular political end and their interest in multiple fields is very much derived from the fact that politics itself is a multi-disciplinary venture. To bring all these categories together, there is of course one cementing factor- all of these people read with more or less a short or a long term ‘goal’ in mind. If reading in future, due to some unforeseen circumstances does not help them attaining that particular ‘goal’, they may for all practical reasons, do away with the habit. Some of them and certainly not all, have already switched to the habit of ‘listening’ to books via new apps that help them a great deal in saving a lot of time.

Do I as a reader have anything at all to learn from all of them? Yes, the first category that reads to keep itself ‘saleable’ in the market is a category that wins the highest admiration from me for one big reason- I personally have a very terrible record of reading books that have the potential to help me at my workplace. I read those books only when the market holds me at gunpoint and threatens to excommunicate me on grounds of technical ineptness and declining employability. 

The second category that reads what I consider are ‘light’ books have often helped me personally whenever I have found myself stuck in a rut- I have spent months on reading and re-reading Dostevysky’s The Idiot without being able to get a hang on whatever was being discussed. During these months, I had even gone to the extent of shelving the reading habit altogether when one evening one dear friend of mine who belonged to this category did a great service to me by handing me a copy of P.G.Wodehouse’ s Something Fresh. Needless to say, this classic of Wodehouse restored all my ‘reading’ vitals and I was back to reading at least three books per month even during days of hectic office work.

The third category has in fact continued to cater to my very personal, internal need- to be able to be of some service to the society at large and to smother the feeling of guilt that envelopes me whenever I receive a parcel of sumptuous Behrouz Biriyani from a frail, perspiring, under-paid, duty-conscious delivery boy at home. Having not been a big fan of charity or of offering donations to the government during cyclones and floods, I have always considered my act of having weaned away at least ten of my friends from voting for the Hindutva camp as a ‘genuine’ achievement and as a great service to mankind. My numerous Facebook posts and oral debates that I used to engage in voluntarily that were mostly influenced by the Leftist books I had read then had contributed a great deal to this accomplishment of mine.

But is my reading habit, I am now trying to re-construct, only all of this? Is there something else really that fuels my passion to read? Do I read all of my books only with all these ‘goals’ in mind?  If that is the case, last week when my friend sent me a YouTube video that covered all the early, ideological influences that informed the formation of the Nazi movement, why did I refuse to watch it, despite being a big fan of the subject? What is it that prevents me from making YouTube videos with all the content that I have put together in these 70-odd essays I have written in this blog? A lot of my friends whenever I use to share my articles to them have responded by saying that they are willing to shed their ‘egos’ to learn from me only if I am ready to do a podcast or a ten minute video with the same content. Won’t after all doing a YouTube video give me more reach while saving me a lot of time? 

The answer is maybe I am a bit old-fashioned to give up the habit of reading or maybe I want to read solely, in fact for the pleasure of it. And I still cannot explain enough how much I have gained by locking myself up in a room with only a book in hand. A book is in fact very cheap company to have and you don’t have to pester someone to talk with you just because you are bored. When you have a fight with someone in your house but you have none else to talk to, you can move to your room with a book in your hand and the other person will think that you are genuinely upset with them. They might apologize on their own and you can thus resolve a conflict without losing too much of your ego.

But on a serious note, acquiring knowledge through reading has given me something that I haven’t achieved through any other means- the sense of accomplishment of having acquired something through and through my ‘own’ effort. Even if it has been only a nugget of information or a small piece of insight about something important, reading and knowing about it has often given me the satisfaction of earning a couple of notes through hard, manual labour. And using a book to know about historical stuff is in my opinion a far more reliable approach to understanding a crucial subject as that, compared with watching videos or listening to podcasts.

But to conclude, there is one more thing that I need to confess about reading apart from the crucial fact that reading and reading alone has contributed greatly to the improvement of my skills in articulation, both orally and in the written form. My habit of reading if I am not wrong has often stemmed from a crucial internal purpose that is so personal to me- to gain an understanding of ‘the big picture’ of wherever I live. I want to refer to Bertrand Russell here from the only self-help book The Conquest of Happiness I have read so far. “Each of us is in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire whatever he is to know of this strange planet… To ignore the opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theatre and not listening to the play. The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are foregoing one of the privileges life has to offer”.

***

I wouldn’t have read extensively about the Soviet Union had its collapse not vindicated the temporary ideological hegemony of the free-market over the socialist model. I wouldn’t have read about the free-market had it not played a role in transforming India’s economy and liberalizing its economic frontiers for the better or for the worse. I wouldn’t have read about liberalized economic frontiers had it not created and nurtured educational disciplines such as engineering and technology that ultimately ended up giving me a career even if it ruthlessly destroyed my favourite disciplines like the art and the humanities.

I wouldn’t have read literature or philosophy had I not suffered extraordinarily due to the vicissitudes of destiny right from the days of my graduation. I wouldn’t have read literature had I not met people who for all their flaws and deficiencies were creatures of great selflessness and brimming humanity. I wouldn’t have read Marxism even as much as I did had Gods punished sinners like the owners of my self-financing college who had no qualms in collecting massive ‘donations’ under the table all the while calling themselves ‘the builders of the nation through quality education’. I wouldn’t have studied Marxism or related disciplines had my colleagues been more vocal in confronting the team’s management in my corporate organization whenever they were asked to toil for additional hours for no fault of theirs. 

I don’t think whatever I have learned from my books and the details I have extracted from them have had the potential to form what is called ‘knowledge’ inside me without the application of my own individuality and personal experience. Regardless of whomever I have read, be it Marx or Camus or Jeyamohan, those things I had read that have had no compatibility or relation to my internal consciousness have only melted away unfortunately despite my gargantuan efforts in acquiring all of them.  But that is how I know, it can be and ‘the big picture’ I am after can only be achieved at such a bargain. After all, it is ‘my’ big picture and without me, it cannot make any sense to anyone.