Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I read therefore I am

I see readers, and in their gestures the pleasure, responsibility and power that they derive from reading, that are common with mine. I am not alone. In my adolescence, whenever people mentioned my so-called passion for reading, I would always start to bristle. After all, to be known as a book lover — how grotesque. To my hypersensitive ears, it was like being called a eunuch or an old maid; one always hears that faint sneer of disdain and condescension mixed with pity. To be bookish is to be mousy, repressed, a shy wallflower, incapable of getting along with people, dreamy and poetic, helpless in the real world.
Shocking as it may seem, my real "love" isn't so much for reading as for pleasure — it merely happens that learning new things delights me, as do fast-paced stories, imaginative wordplay, and distinctive prose styles. Should I be congratulated for being a self-indulgent hedonist? I certainly wouldn't read books if they were boring, irrelevant and soporific — which is how most high school kids regard the classics of world literature. No, I read for excitement. Everything else is secondary.
It was in books that I encountered the universe: digested, classified, labelled and still formidable. Reading gave me an excuse for privacy, my bed late at night became my safest and most secluded place for reading, in that nebulous region between being awake and being asleep. Many nights I would turn on my bedside lamp and try both to reach the end of the book I was reading, and to delay the end as much as possible, going back a few pages, looking for a section I had enjoyed, checking details I thought had escaped me. In fact, I don't ever remember feeling lonely, my books were good company. The psychologist James Hillman argues that those who have read stories or had stories read to them in childhood "are in better shape or have a better prognosis than those to whom story must be introduced... Coming early with life it is already a perspective on life."
I never talked to anyone about my reading; the need to share came afterwards. Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge. Though I knew myself incapable of making up stories such as my favourite authors wrote, I felt that my opinions frequently coincided with theirs, and (to use Montaigne's phrase) "I took to trailing far behind them murmuring `Hear, Hear'." Later I was able to dissociate myself from their fiction; but in my childhood and much of my adolescence, most of what the book told me, however fantastical, was true at the time of my reading, and as tangible as the stuff of which the book itself was made. The world that revealed itself in the book and the book itself were never, at any price, to be divided. The contents of every book burned within it, blazed from it; located not merely in its binding or its pictures, they were enshrined in chapter headings and opening letters, paragraphs and lines. You did not read books through; you dwelt, abided between their lines and reopening them after an interval, surprised yourself at the spot where you halted. I think I read in at least two ways.
  • First, by following breathlessly, the events and the characters without stopping to notice the details, the quickening pace of reading sometimes hurtling the story beyond the last page — as when I read Vonnegut, Maugham, O'Henry or Salinger.
  • Secondly, by careful exploration, scrutinising the text to understand its ravelled meaning, finding pleasure in merely the sound of the words or the clues, which the words did not wish to reveal, or which I suspected was hidden deep in the story itself, something too terrible or too marvellous to be looked at.

The second kind of reading — which had something of the quality of reading stories — I discovered in Lewis Carroll, Vikram Seth, Vassanji, Tagore and Nabokov. Reading, to me, set one free, it gave one a freedom to explore thoughts and the world outside the context they lived in. This has its retributions in the political world we live in, from the banning of writers like Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen to the censorship of countless authors ranging from Neruda to Gorky over the years. But not only totalitarian governments fear reading. Readers are bullied in school yards and in colleges as much as in government offices and prisons.

Almost everywhere the community of readers has an ambiguous reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. Something in the relationship between a reader and a book is recognised as wise and fruitful, but is also seen as disdainfully exclusive and excluding, perhaps because the image of an individual curled up in a corner, seemingly oblivious of the grumblings of the world, suggests impenetrable privacy and a selfish eye along with a singular secretive action. "Books, you have too many books!" my mother would exclaim in frustration. I remember being called a dreamer once by a maternal uncle when he saw me reading, as if my silent activity contradicted their sense of what it meant to be productive or alive.
The popular fear of what a reader might do among the pages of a book is as ageless a fear as men have of what witches and alchemists do behind locked doors. The recent attack by vandals at the Bhandarkar Institute in Maharashtra, is yet another example of destruction of information, of books that demonstrators have no idea about in terms of value and content. Their pillaging convinced no one. Thus reality — harsh necessary reality — was seen to conflict irredeemably with the evasive dream world of books. Demotic regimes demand that we forget, and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries; totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they ban and threaten and censor; both, by and large, require that we become stupid and that we accept our degradation meekly, and therefore they encourage the consumption of pap. In such circumstances, readers cannot but be subversive.
Told that we are threatened with extinction, we, today's readers, have yet to learn what reading is. Like the act of reading itself, the history of reading jumps forward to our time — to me, to my experience as a reader — and then goes back to an early page in a distant foreign century. It skips chapters, browses, selects, re-reads, refuses to follow conventional order. Paradoxically, the fear that opposes reading to active life, that urged my mother to request me from collecting way too many books that might not amount to much, recognises a solemn truth: "You cannot embark on life, that one-off coach ride, once again when it is over," writes the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in The White Castle, "but if you have a book in your hand, no matter how complex or difficult to understand the book may be, when you have finished it, you can, if you wish, go back to the beginning, read it again, and thus understand that which is difficult and , with it, understand life as well." PRIYA BALASUBRAMANIAM The Hindu Literary Review Sunday, Aug 01, 2004

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