(Earlier rounds here.)
Is reading a book (by which I mean literary fiction) mandatory for leading a wise life?
Last year in a post on the Facebook page, I mentioned how there has never been a better time for books and people who like to read than the present time. Yet people keep complaining that nobody reads. Even though the evidence points to the contrary. A recent survey showed that millennials are out reading older Americans, and are buying more books rather than borrowing them. (Much to the publishers delight, you’d suppose.) Of course, if you walked around with your eyes open you'd not need a survey to see that.
Fact is that since reading became something that humans do, there have always been some people who “liked to read a lot” and many who didn’t. But is reading books necessary to lead a purposeful life? In my life I have come across many people who don’t read books (some don’t know how to read) and yet are living meaningful lives, even happy lives if that is what you prefer. After all, reading– especially reading for pleasure– is a privilege. (And obviously related to social class, but that is better left for some other forum.)
I am happy to note that Tim Parks recently shared similar sentiments in ‘Reading Upwards’.
“What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit.”
He also makes another point that I have made many times before that people who enjoy reading Chetan Bhagat/ Dan Brown aren’t going to move onto Manto/Shakespeare. That is a ruse of publishers who only seek a growing bottom line, yet control what people get to read.
That brings me to the second point: Now that the traditional publishing industry is, shall we still whisper it, moving towards an (inevitable?) end, what does it mean for the “world of books”?
I know people who bemoan the end of books as they know it, mostly those who claim to “read a lot”– those who have books lying around on the floor everywhere and so on. Some get to write about it– mostly white people, especially white men of a certain age who have benefited (not just monetarily) the most from the existing structure of the publishing industry. (I don't need to post hyperlinks to prove how whitest white and male dominated the world of publishing and published books really is, do I?). And then I see that people I know are in the process of writing or have written books– especially women of color– many, even a few years back, would have deemed the idea of getting published impossible. In part this is due to the rise of self-publishing and online literary magazines. (In traditional publishing/media the bias is still towards stories told from the point of view of a white person/or what they’d want to read.) Never in the history of human society have so many people written or are in the process of writing books. They may not be writing War and Peace but that may be simply because that’s not what they want to write– at least not in that form.
Which brings me to the most perplexing issue: what exactly is a book? Is it a place where stories live? Growing up in India, I learnt fairly early in life that stories weren’t imprisoned in books– they were free flowing long rhymes, and layered episodes which a person could narrate from memory for days, without a single piece of inked paper in sight. After all, stories have existed since before the invention of paper and the advent of the printing press. And these were truly democratic stories; every narrator would freely add to the existing framework and create something new, while staying close to the original text and its other versions. Consider the epic Ramayana and its several versions: each narrator would borrow from, critique, build on earlier versions and thus carry forward the story. A reason why the story has stayed alive for so long– a version exists to appeal to the sensibilities of every listener down the years.
As A.K. Ramanujan pointed out sometimes the real value of the story lies not in the fact that it resides in a book, but that someone is “really listening to the story” (see page 15 of his essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas").
And let’s not even get started on the gibberish regarding e-readers. All opposition simply confusing the medium for the message: books and e-readers are the medium, not the message. I am fortunate to have some members in my family who have never known a world without the internet. It helps keep my arrogance in check (“things as they were in my time are the way things should always be” that sort of things). For everyone else, here are some of the sanest words ever written on how we perceive any new technology:
“I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”