Friday, July 9, 2010

The Book in the Age of Facebook:The Game of Reading in Twenty-first Century

( 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
            Poems of WH Auden and WB Yeats
            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
            Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
            Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
            James Joyce: Ulysses
            James Joyce: Dubliners
            Poems of TS Eliot, Ted Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Arun Kolatkar

 IV) For the Bravest of the Brave

            James Joyce: Finnegans Wake


Unknown said...

well said.

Nachi said...

very well put indeed. nothing could be farther from the truth when it comes to reading. ever since the damn printing press was invented and the first copy of the bible was printed, books are here to stay.

on a personal note, i like the feel and smell of the pages. the texture of the print when i read. that adds so much more to the reading experience. gazing into a bright screen is just not the same.

ps: i am surprised though, none of the Russians featured on your list. also, Toffler's Future Shock!! that's a classic!!


Sachin C. Ketkar said...

Thanks Prof Salat and Nachi! I felt the school kids liked the talk-at least they werent bored by it
@Nachi-Chekhov is a Russian.......I did not want to make the list too long. I mentioned about Toffler etc in the talk.

Anushree Dixit said...

i absolutely agree with whatever you reminded me of a poem that we had in school. i dont remember the name of the poem or the poet. there the poet asks the parents to remove the idiot box, and in its place install a bookshelf with interesting books.
the impressions that books create on our mind can never be created by anything else. the best thing is that we can go back to them whenever we want. ofcourse these days tata sky and all have recording facilities which makes this 'going back and forth' possible....but at the end of the day books are books..

Unknown said...

Very well said. I'm 23. I've been reading classics like Shakespeare and Bronte for a while now and they're my absolute favorites. I've also read the other 'popular' books and was surprised to find how bland they felt. I couldn't /didn't feel the book. There was no complexity of thought, no original ideas. I assure you, sir, that the young generation hasn't stopped reading, they never will. Internet and TV are fine, there are a lot of incredible movies and shows. But, books will always be special. And, yes, I'd much rather use the Internet to buy the books I can't find in my hometown than watch stupid reality shows and sitcoms.
P.S. Great article. Would love to get more book recommendations.