For all of my adult life, there are certain questions, that I have been repeatedly asked – How can you read the same book twice? or How can you spend hours on end of your time reading the same book again? And the best question of them all Do you not get bored reading the same thing again? Don’t you want to do something more fun in life?
As an obsessed and confessed book lover, I find these questions, alternately amusing, irritating and mind numbing, depending on the mood I am. I cannot quite understand why anyone, just about anyone would wonder at the whole miracle of books and reading. Books are our gateway to knowledge, they provide us with an escape from everything that is mundane and ordinary and distressing and entertain us while enlarging our minds. I remember those horrific days of my adolescent and then teen years when my family and I were living in halfway houses after my father’s declaration of bankruptcy following which we had lost everything we owned, but the books I had, because they were considered of little or no monetary value. Those books kept me going for those hellish 10 years, comforting me, giving me hope and showing me places, where I could disappear and find relief from the unceasing nightmare of destitution, poverty and legal quagmire! Recently when I read Rebecca Sonlit’s The Faraway Nearby and how as a child she “took up imaginative residence for many years” in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I knew exactly what she meant. I understood when she wrote:
These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtences we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time.
Thank Heavens for those books, from Austen to Dickens to Dumas to Doyle to Kaye who kept me sane and banished all the trauma of a life falling apart. If today, doctors say that I do not need therapy for those horrific years, it is simply because, I had books to keep me thinking and take my mind away on flight of distant lands and events.
Years later, I applied for Graduate program, switching from an undergraduate degree of English to the field of International Politics, that too in one of the premier universities, a feat that was considered a near impossible task and I was told by many that there was no way I will be able to ace the mandatory admission exam for the program. I distinctly remember entering the examination hall and realizing that I was surrounded by University toppers and record holders from some of best colleges of the country with degrees in Political Science, Economics and History and other related subjects of International Politics while here I was trying and testing myself against them with an honors in English. The question paper contained 10 questions of which we had to attempt 5. One particular question stands out in my memory as a testimony to my love for reading and how these books support me when least expected. The question was to describe in detail the Anglo- Afghan relations of 19th century and compare any common trends in the then Taliban-American conflict. The latter was then a much debated subject and almost anyone with some remote understanding of current affairs could write pages and pages on the matter. The first part was more tricky. However to me, that was the easiest of all the questions I had attempted. I had grown up on the diet of Kim by Rudyard Kipling and by MM Kaye, the former focusing on the Great Game of 19th century with Afghanistan and England as the key player and the latter describing in detail and setting the backdrop of the novel, the three Anglo Afghan Wars. I never stopped scribbling till the very end and the results were obvious. I cracked the entrance and went on to get a Masters and an M.Phil from the University in International Politics and none of those undergraduate acers were with me in the class. Much later one of my professors in the my graduate degree class shared that he had never seen such a comprehensive understanding of the Anglo Afghan crisis and while some of my political ideas where debatable, the in-depth grasp of the matter was something he believed I should be proud off and one of the reasons why I was of the selected 40 of the 100,000 students who had applied.
Most importantly, in books I find thoughts to open my mind, people I should be more sensitive to and places I need to visit. I am filled with worlds and people and ideas without once leaving the comfort of my bed and my mind is forced to think thoughts which it would either never think or more easily ignore. As C.S. Lewis observed in his 1961 book, An Experiment in Criticism:
Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented.
Books in short seem to make a better, more aware individual!
Considering the vast merit that books and reading brings, I am constantly and disappointingly surprised at the caviler treatment books and readers are meted out. Couple of years ago, on a way to an official offsite, one of the junior team members seeing me reading in the bus, approached me and asked me what I was reading. We soon started chatting about books and then she shared something that nearly broke my heart. During high school years, this team member had developed a habit of reading and had started buying books. However her mother apparently threatened her with stopping all her pocket money if she bought books, because they have very little re-sale value. One could argue that she could have continued reading by borrowing from libraries etc. but my point is if that is the kind of support young readers receive from their homes, there is very little future for reading. More worrisome is the fact, by depriving young children of books, we are potentially missing out on a huge opportunity to raise complete, sensitive and intelligent adults.
Besides this of course, is the usual belief of readers equaling nerds equal to having no life! I have forgotten the number of time I have been asked how can you read a book again and again? Don’t you have a life? How can you spend your weekend reading? What most do not seem to understand, that there are books for every reason and every season and reading books is like meeting friends, old and new! For instance, after a bad day at work, I resort to what I call my “comfort” books – Jane Austen, Saki and Terry Pratchett. On the other hand, if I am in a leisurely mood and all is right with the world, there is Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Arthur Conan Doyle, J K Rowling, Oscar Wilde, A S Byatt and George Orwell. On a long vacation, I tackle, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, etc. The list is endless but this is not about the list. It’s about the fact that there are books we all (I am referring to the reading population) go back to time after time, because we have developed a special bond with them. The characters of these books are our friends, confidants and comrades who sooth us and entertain us. These books are our partners in our life journey and hence many of them are casted as classics.
I do not know how many of you feel a sheer, reasonless joy when you pick up one of your favorite comfort books from the your shelves and run your hands over its much thumbed pages; I love this feeling, even more so, when I have not read the book for a while. I love the anticipation of trying to reach a particular chapter that I especially enjoy, from a novel I have read so many times. Like when I re-read Pride and Prejudice, I actually wait to reach the part where Elizabeth Bennett along with Mr and Mrs Gardiner set off on a tour of Derbyshire. Or even the part when Wickham and Lydia return to the Bennett household after their elopement. I read through the entire book, just in anticipation that I am still to read my favorite parts! This joy, this delight, how does one make a non-reader ever appreciate or understand?
I am not sure if reading is like being in an exclusive club, though I see this analogy being used commonly enough, but I do know one thing, in the words of JK Rowling “that something magical does happen when you open a book”! Something that cannot be quite expressed in words, but have to be experienced for real! Despite all our reading and command over the language and grammar, most readers will not be able to express the absolute awe and magnificence one feels, when reading something written by someone else, maybe from different time and culture, but which speaks to the truth, which only you understand or takes you to a place you never thought existed! There is nothing like that feeling of “Ah! So I am not alone!” or “God! I never thought of that!” What more can I say to elucidate the brilliance of books and reading, except Read on….just read on!