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.
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?”