The Eternal Question –

On this 23rd year celebration of the World Book Day, I want revisit an old question, a question which has been asked to me and to many other readers, more times than I can recollect and a question, which till date, I struggle to find an apt answer for! For every reader, convinced of the sacrosanct nature of words and their power, nothing is more difficult to answer than to explain, Why do we read? Why do we read so much? Why do we read so many books? Why do we read the same books so many times? Why do we read?

Neil Gaiman, in his remarkable essay on “Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” describes reading as “getaway drug”. The urge to know what happened next keeps the reader going and in the process forces them to read new words and exposes them to new worlds and new thoughts! He further says that reading builds empathy in the world. The reader is forced to create a world of his/her own out of the prose and that investment in building this world and characters creates a connection and thus empathy, something which does not exist in a cinematic medium. L.M. Montgomery, writing several years before Gaiman, made the same succinct observation about books being kind of a addiction. She wrote about being “book drunkard” and about books having the same temptation to her that alcohol has to a drunkard and further, a temptation that cannot be resisted! Rebecca Solnit said reading allowed her to build and then disappear into her imaginative world, in her essay “Flight” in the book The Faraway Nearby. William Nicholson in Shadowland, took a bit of a different route when he called out that “We read to know we’re not alone”. And Kafka of course took it to a whole new reasoning when he wrote to a friend that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770

There are many others who say many of these things and more and wiser minds than mine have tried to better understand the “addiction” to books and reading! So when I am asked, why do I read? I feel stumped, ill qualified and overawed at thought of explaining something that is fundamentally inexplicable until experienced by self! I have observed and I could be absolutely in the wrong here, that most deep readers, have had a childhood which was had limited or completely devoid of companionship. Children need companions, people their age or atleast people who understand them to keep loneliness and confusion at bay! In the absence of that, if you are lucky, you may get books handed to you by a sensitive and intuitive adult, and after that, you find a world which is really no comparison for the everyday dull life. You never need friends, because your mind is populated with a host of them and this circle is ever enlarging! You find that your emotions and your vulnerabilities are not unique and you are not a freak, but just someone going through the motions of “growing up”. You may also find yourself doing better at school, or at minimum knowing more than most around you, giving you a bit of early edge!  All of this may happen if you are fortunate enough to discover books, via an adult or school library or a friend or some other means! Once you are hooked as child to reading, then of course, the “addiction” comes in easily. Though to be fair, I have had friends who have taken to books as an adult and become equally obsessed converts to power of books, but when you start early, like all arts, it’s easier and you do not realize that this has become a “habit” or a “hobby” or how much words mean to you; as Scout Finch recounted “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing”. Either way, once the “addiction” develops, you can, as reader never really rest, your imagination is far too much of an exciting place and you keep adding on to it, because, real life just cannot keep pace and you need sustenance for your intellect.

Child Reading
Mother & Child Reading a Story by Carlton Alfred Smith

You also discover reading widely without actually realizing until much later, that this has had a significant impact on developing your “skill sets”. More than a decade ago, in an attempt to get through to one of best Graduate School of this geography, I discovered the blessing of the power of reading. Having graduated with Honors in English Literature, I was convinced that if I wanted to keep reading, I needed to stop pursuing Literature, academically. In a 180 degree career switch, I decided to go for a graduate degree in International Politics and to get through to the said Graduate School, one had to write an admission test, of 5 essay answers on various questions of International Politics and pass it with a rank among the top 50. The entrance examination is held countrywide and at any given moment, more than 20,000 student attempt to crack the code! That day in the the examination hall, surrounded by the most brilliant peers who had first class undergraduate degrees in Politics and Economics, I felt out of depth, like never before. However the question paper seemed simple enough and the question which to me cinched my attempt was to compare the Western Allied powers war against the Taliban regime’s with the Anglo Afghanistan wars of 19th century. Everyone knew enough about Taliban and the Allied forces. CNN and BBC had brought the war inside our houses. But what of the Anglo-Afghanistan wars? Unlike my peers, I had read “The Far Pavilions” by MM Kaye, an author whose family had served the British Raj and the Afghan wars with distinction and whose authentic accounts can be relied upon. I had not only read it once but several time and I could fill the examination pages with copious reference to Dost Mohammad and the shameful British retreat of 1842 and so forth! Needless to say, I not only got the admission, but thrived in my double Masters! My peers with all their first class degrees in relevant subject did not and I discovered many of my classmates, some who have been my best friends for years now, too did not have the requisite subject undergraduate degrees, but had spent their young lives, reading and reading voraciously! Later when I entered the corporate world, I found much to my amazement, my colleagues struggling to find the right words for the right emails/presentation, while I could easily find the right word to sound, enthusiastic, assertive or diplomatic all over emails as the situation desired! So much so at one point, one of the senior leaders, used to call me in to review his really important emails for better presentation! Finally the more I read, the more I find myself becoming a more sensitive, more tolerant and more humane person! This is I know is sweeping generalization, but I find people who read to relatively kinder than their peers. Of course there are a number of exceptions, and I must mention as footnote, that one of most selfish person, I have the unfortunate honor of calling a relative, is also a voracious reader. However, despite this, I do feel that reading liberates the mind and the soul!

But all of this does not really answer to why we read? For as a child starting out with Corduroy by Don Freeman and then slowing graduating to other books, I did not know, that I was seeking companionship or a liberal mind or even skills which will enable me later in life.  As a child the only thing, I understood was when I looked at my illustrated book and then looked out of the window, the illustrated world, seemed exactly what it was meant to show me – a bright, colored, happy world; a world that drew me in and kept my company and made everything so much more merry!  By the time, I realized consciously the power of the books and words; I knew that this is some secret, joyous habit that cannot be let go, at any cost! So like many I kept on and today, cannot even begin imagine a life devoid of books! But these are thing which a non-reading “Muggle” can hardly understand, so every time when I am asked why do you read, the answer that actually comes to me is “how can you not read?”


13 thoughts on “The Eternal Question –

  1. Why do I read, and what is the goal?
    My one word answer: wisdom.
    If I must add a second word: otherness.
    If I’m forced to expand, I defer to Harold Bloom’s book, How to Read and Why.
    In short, I much appreciate your posting and the catalyst for thought.

    1. I think Wisdom comes, whether we seek it or not, when we open a book! I must get Harold Bloom’s book. I am so sorry to say have not read it! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving me more food for thought! 🙂

  2. WOW! Brilliant essay!! and congratulations on your educational success! it’s a lot simpler for me, probably because i have a simple brain: civilization in large measure depends on reading; those who don’t are savages, for the most part… the only exceptions i can think of are those who, for one reason or another, have spent large amounts of time thinking deeply about philosophy, religion, science or the like; but even then, they tend to be pretty one-sided… nothing can beat reading, especially itinerant reading, for a 360 degree view of reality…

    1. M… really really make my day, with your kind words! 😀 I am with you on the nature of civilization and its evolution being dependent on books, and I am aligned with your thoughts of exceptions! But, I have a “but” here and this kind of contradicts what I wrote earlier, so maybe I need to go back and think a lot more….I mean Germany was the epitome of civilization and books were the mainstay of most German households and yet, look what happened between 1933 to 1945? There are similar examples, among the British that ruled India. Many were well read and schooled in Classics, but they turned a blind eye during the famines and went out of their way to change the lives miserable for their “brown skinned” brethren. I guess, the only way to explain is that, reading does not necessarily equate to internalization and until that process happens, maybe we are not really civilized but rather are holding o the veneer of it? I am not trying to be “difficult” here, but truly understand this “addiction” a little more! Thank You for your very insightful thoughts…..I need to go back and think over this a little more!

      1. you’re perfectly correct, of course… i tend to generalize things way too much; probably my attempts in my old age to make things seem better than they are… tx for the comeback…

      2. No! No! Please….I think you are very right in your thought and I go along with it! I think what we need to figure out and this may be outside the scope of our project, so to speak, that why certain people become such great people on reading books, while others, reading the same books, react very differently! P.S. and this is complete in isolation to our discussion here; Your age and experience are something, I really like to hear, because it gives me the advantage, of seeing things from a perspective, who has led a lot more life and done many more things than I have and who for sure knows more!!! So I really really appreciate your thoughts and because you are so much more wiser, I am more comfortable sharing aloud with you, because I know you will make me get on to the right track!!

  3. that’s very diplomatic… tx… BUT, he said… there’s nothing special about my opinions; and i’m not particularly wise; just brash… i just like to hammer out ideas and fool around with refractions of reality..

  4. Cirtnecce, that is awesome that reading helped you get into your master’s program!! It is true that reading affects our whole life, even when we least expect it to.

    For my part, I, too, grew up reading (Corduroy included!) and spent more time with books than with friends. A big turnaround for me was reading Sherlock Holmes around the age of 10… I was super timid and shy, but Holmes inspired me to have more self-confidence. Later on, I also discovered fandoms, which helped me connect with other readers. 🙂

    It’s just one example of how books helped me in life. Reading has always been part of my lifestyle, and I can’t imagine it ever changing.

    1. I agree, you never know when a book, or an event you read about many years back comes to your rescue! I too had a similar childhood; I was obese and awkward and brought along with it all other insecurities. My turn around came, when in grade 9, instead of going with the predefined course reading, my History teacher asked us to write an essay on The Great Depression, with references outside of the text book! I scored an A and after that I knew that it was more than an appearance which make things happen! I am so with you when you say that we cannot imagine life without books and reading! Thank You so much for stopping by and sharing! ;D

  5. Books have always been mirrors and windows for me. When I was young, I grew up in a small town and it was lovely to meet characters who were like me in books, as there weren’t many in my town. As I have grown older, I increasingly like to read about people who are different from me, as that is more and more interesting.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, for me Books opened up a whole new world beyond my immediate surroundings. It made me aware of how different people are and yet how very similar and this sensitivity is I think the biggest gift reading gave me!

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