I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland. Surely there would be something eerie about a line of books were it not that familiarity has deadened our sense of it. Each is a mummified soul embalmed in cere-cloth and natron of leather and printer's ink. Each cover of a true book enfolds the concentrated essence of a man. The personalities of the writers have faded into the thinnest shadows, as their bodies into impalpable dust, yet here are their very spirits at your command.
If I were to die now (how I wish!), and in morbid delusion were to believe that what one does in one’s last minute would continue into one’s sojourn in hell or heaven (or any other other-worldly resort), I would pack my deathbed with a few wonderful books and if there remains some space which, I sincerely doubt, going by my list of what I consider good reading, I would stack a couple of pizzas – probably edgewise. I wish God and/or the Devil enjoy reading too, for reading in company can be at least thrice as exciting as reading alone. I wish they have a reading club or a grand reading room with the view of the ocean (don’t care whether it is milk and honey or pure brine). I would die (I think, I was doing that anyway) at the thought of having someone come up to me and say, “E, drop that. Read this. Woolf just wrote it. Isn’t she amazing!? Look at the beauty of it.”
So I read it and say, “But R, isn’t it something like in her essay ‘On being ill’?”
“No way, the style is different.”
And then we go about reading both pieces and I love to imagine being the one coming out right at the end of the debate!
Before I forget, it might be worth your earthly-while to read ACD’s Through the Magic Door.
I am not sure what my first book was. Quite likely (if I wish to believe that I haven’t changed over the decades), there wasn’t just one of them, but a few strewn over the place so that I never have to travel more than two steps to reach for a book. Beyond the Noddys and Tinkles, I poured over scores of Amar Chitra Kathas, which my cousin loved collecting and binding into volumes of several issues. This was one of the reasons I liked him. And then there were Enid Blytons.
My sister and I competed with each other in finishing the most number of books in a day, much to my mother’s ire for she thought that too much money was being spent in paying the library. Dad was the more book-loving types, though mom was the one who was always with a magazine in her hand. I knew dad liked fine books, but never remember seeing him read one. Frankly, I am unable to figure out who is the greater bibliophile.
Reading is rarely an activity worth noting till the age of 12-16. Until that phase, reading is primarily for fun and the joy of seeing colourful pictures or, as is the trend in current market-driven days, to being part of some hype-cycle (to borrow a term from IT market analysis). Pottermania is not a reflection of an increasing interest in reading. It is but a need to be part of a community and the happening world. Given that most people rushed to read the end before they chewed through the meat of the book, I doubt whether reading the book is what drives people to stay overnight outside the closed doors of a bookstore. Hence, I would consider it criminal for children to pick a Midsummer’s Night Dream and appreciate the play of words in there. They should enjoy the colours and possibility of the impossible which their adult lives will mercilessly shear off them.
I will be conscious about not spending time in telling you what is a good read, for that is a matter of one’s tastes and refinement, but there will be a lot of telling regarding the dying habit of reading.
Reading , or the form I refer to, is a derived pleasure, like making love. Unlike a scoop of Tiramisu or a Chopin (and I shall explain how), reading has to be deliberate. One must ponder over each word employed, each sentence stretched across the page to realize the entire pleasure that the writer intended to provide. A Chopin can be soothing when played in the background while you do something as mundane as hanging your clothes out. One cannot read Nabokov or Plath in such a casual manner.
Does every written work deserve that attention? I would answer that in two ways (and at times adopting both of them together):
If you feel it doesn’t, what are you doing with it while there are so many other tomes crying out to transport you to a differently beautiful world?
If you do not give it that attention, how else will you know that it doesn’t call for such deliberate focus?
While reading a piece one should reflect on the trinity. They are:
1. What is the writer trying to say/depict?
2. How would one normally say it?
3. What is the beauty of the way in which the author has said it?
If the patterns of ink on the page match the answer in my head for each of the above, I would rarely derive any pleasure from reading that work. The deviation from each of these in a piece is what, to me, raises my spirits and makes me cling on to the book longer. I would dwell on a sentence, read it again, pace the room and return to it, call a friend and share this with her, read it again, think of a few dozen scenarios where I could employ this sentence and then read it again. Again, like making love (except maybe the part of calling a friend, unless we are in an orgy). It is the element of surprise between what we think and what the author thought that makes me pull my legs up and under me and hold the book with greater reverence.
I still remember reading short stories by renowned British authors and then P.G.Wodehouse and enjoying the world they created. I would then enact some of the scenes I read and drift away into a life of very real characters. As Stephen King says, writing is telepathy, though I would like to point out the reading is more so.
I would forget about food or my carnal need of sleep, while holding a good book in my hands. Forgetting about food is a big deal for me, but good books were a much greater deal. Those were days without the Internet and cable TV. During hot afternoons when we were forbidden to venture out, we found the finest entertainment in a shelf full of books from which we would pull one and slide into our bed. Then we never compared notes or discussed writings. We simply read and felt an invisible streak of gold line our cloud-like spirit. It was the glow of having been in another world that we would carry on our visage and recognize the same on another fellow conspirator’s face. It was a rather silent crime to have escaped to a different space while our parents we were obediently behind closed doors.
Amongst friends we would share the books that we borrowed from libraries and establish our own private circulation. We would read for hours on end and though they were mostly Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews or The Three Investigators, they revealed to us a world we had only known to exist. Most of our initial reading informed us about the ways of the Americas, and we knew what a jalopy was and what a hot-dog was. Later, I evolved into Max Brand and Saki.
Reading like most enriching but non-profitable activities calls for the luxury of time and energy, and surprisingly in an age with gadgets to automate most of our tasks, there is a paucity for them. Here I recall Flaubert’s wonderful observation, which I had quoted in an earlier post, about spending one’s life reading and re-reading just 6 wonderful books and thereby realising a more fulfilling life.
I do not recall when I became so involved in books, but it surely wasn’t during my school days. Even our English teachers in school taught us what was necessary to score at least 80% in exams (nowadays, I hear people get 98% which appears so absurd). I would have preferred if they had sat with us and encouraged us to enjoy the language employed and the imagery created. The trinity I mention above was something I created on the spur of the moment while trying to explain to a dear friend why a particular author was wonderful. That is when I realized that it is applicable to any sincere reading process.
I am overjoyed to find fellow lovers (readers) who appreciate the pleasures of reading. I enjoyed reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer. She enthralls the reader with the joy of reading and how she herself derives immense pleasure by going over each line in the passages she quotes. Please do find time to purchase this book and a few others by Michael Dirda on this subject.
What I seem to miss nowadays is the joy that one gains from patient reading and newer joy in re-reading. People want to either watch the television or listen to their iPods, get on Orkut and read scraps written in SMSese. My uncle would read every single line (except maybe the advertisements) of The Hindu. He used to say that there is a lot to learn from the fine writing that was contained therein. Reading has become a chore or a ceremonious vacation which needs to be announced and scheduled in one’s calendar. Young children seem to do very little of reading outside of their school syllabus, and even that is summarized in what they call “guides”. Reading literature and fine works of the masters is the only way civilization can be nurtured to productive evolution. The finesse that reading grants is not easily available through other modes of entertainment, and reading is not mere entertainment. I really wish there were more libraries than malls. I wish schools could encourage the habit of reading. I wish parents could sit with their wards and burst open the world of magic to them that comes from the simple turning of a page after thorough reading. Reading is the cheapest way to travel all across the universe and back and being rewarded with a richer mind than before embarking on that journey.