( A talk given at senior school students of Nalanda International School, Vadodara on 9 July 2010)
Let’s start inauspiciously by giving a thought to some common ominous rumours regarding the future of the book and art of reading.We have been told that the art of reading and the book are either on their way out or they are dead already. People don’t read books these days. They watch the TV and surf the Net. For a change they go to watch movies. Books don’t figure much in their lives. Whatever they read is because they are compelled to read by the schools and colleges. They read nothing on their own.
Nothing can be far from truth.
In fact people buy more books than before and book publication and sales is a significant commercial activity. Apart from the fact that academic books are a big industry today, popular writers like JK Rowling, Stephanie Myer or Sidney Sheldon are millionaires and celebrities. Self-help books like the Chicken Soup series, or by Shiva Khera or Stephen Covey are extremely popular. Cook books, books on health and well-being, books on New Age spirituality are extremely popular. Books related to computers, management and finance are greatly in demand.
Just look at the underbelly or the underworld of publishing industry: piracy. In every metropolis in India today, we find street hawkers who sell pirated books. The books mentioned above, the bestsellers are out there on the footpath and youngsters buy and probably even read these books.
I remember when I was pursing my post-graduate studies in Baroda in the mid nineties, when you guys had just come into this world, I ran into the pirated books on such footpaths. Some of the popular books in those times were the book’s like Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1926), Eric Berne’s Games People Play (1964), Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave (1980) and Future Shock(1970), and David Reuben’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But were Afraid to Ask (1969). The books, I must confess, have left a deep imprint on my thinking. The fascination for Toffler and Transactional Analysis has not yet died down, even after fifteen years. When I find these are the books on the streets in pirated version today, I reassure myself that I haven’t grown very old yet.
The thing is, we read for various purposes. We usually read to obtain information and knowledge, and we read to satisfy our fantasizes and escape boredom. We read for entertainment. We also read out of curiosity.
The real problem with people who complain that youngsters don’t read is that youngsters don’t read what they want them to read. Youngsters don’t read Jane Austen or Shakespeare or Keats. They don’t read the classics. They read pulp and popular. They read Harry Potter, graphic novels and Twilight Saga. They fantasize about invisibility cloaks and dating a vampire. They read about secret identities and alter egos of the superheroes. School youngsters cannot identify with the world in the books they are taught in their usual literature courses.
One should realize that elders complaining about youth are merely engaging in an age old pastime, a game rather, in Eric Berne’s sense in his book Games People Play. To be more specific, it’s the game called ` Aint it Awful’. I refuse to participate in this grown up’s game of complaining. I will point out that the respected elders and teachers too have had their share of pulp and popular. Remember, Mills and Boons? Nancy Drew? Hardy Boys? Famous Five? Three Investigators? Comics? The popular stuff that we lapped up? I wonder if kids read it these days too.
Reading, unlike, television or films, involves a great amount of active imagination and participation. This is where its strength lies. We are no longer spectators; we become players in the game of reading. Unlike field sports or computer games, the game of reading takes place in solitude and within us. Reading is the adventure sport that is played inside our minds. For people who love to read are often people who like solitude.
Unlike TV or films or computer games, when a character or situation is described in the book, we create it in our minds and we do it in our own way. When we do it our way, who we are plays a great role in it. The heroes and villains become our heroes and villains, the heroes and villains within us, which are part of us. Reading brings out the hidden parts of our personality into play. We are implicated in the game and it is us who are at stake. We discover our own thoughts, ideas and imagination, we invent our own thoughts and imagination- we discover and invent ourselves.
Hence, the game of reading will never disappear.
As we grow up, the intention behind reading changes. We want something more than entertainment or information or satisfaction of fantasies. We are dealing with issues which cannot be solved by imagining invisibility cloaks and clandestine affairs with vampires. We read to search for the meaning of our life. We look for the books which help us understand our relationships with others and ourselves. We read to find out why people are the way they are and why we are the way we are.
As we grow up playing the same game, we tend to increase the difficulty level of that game.
Some of us learn to participate in more risky games of reading. Some of us, not all, graduate to `difficult’ books, the ones dealing with very abstract and complex ideas. the novels which are very experimental as they avoid the popular ways of story telling, poetry which makes no `sense’ at all because poetry does not make ` sense’ the way newspaper article makes sense or a text book makes sense. The difficult books are difficult because they demand more involvement, imagination, intelligence and concentration than Harry Potter or Twilight. They also challenge who we are. In this challenge, in this solitude, the books reveal who we are to ourselves. This is probably one of the biggest rewards of reading.
The reason why not many people read such books is because not many people care about such things or want to take up challenges and risks of confronting themselves .Such books can cause discomfort and make you feel sad. Not many people raise the difficulty level of the game they have been playing. They either give up the game or continue playing it at entry level.
I am here to coax you to raise the difficulty level of your reading because, as you know, more difficult a game is more fun it becomes. You don’t want to play today the same games you played in your kindergarten. The fun that you get out of a game is directly proportional to the challenge it poses. Same applies to the adventure sports of ideas and imagination, which the books are. All new games may be boring in the beginning but as you learn them, they turn out to be addictive.
I will end my talk with a short list of suggested reading. They are simply my personal favorites.You might have heard of them. Thankfully, you won’t be examined on these books, so that you can play around with them and even forget about them. I will mention their difficulty level too. Feel free to choose!
I) Difficulty level: Easy to Difficult
Short Stories of RK Narayan
Short Stories of Anton Chekhov
Short stories of O Henry
II) Difficulty Level: Difficult to Very Difficult
Short Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
JD Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Short Stories of JD Salinger
Short Stories of Franz Kafka
Kiran Nagarkar, Ravan and Eddie
Kiran Nagarkar, Cuckold
Milan Kundera, Laughable Loves
Italo Calvino, If On a Winter's Night A Traveller
III) Very Difficult -But who is scared?
Short Stories of Jorge Luis Borges
IV) For the Bravest of the Brave