The book and its reader — which possesses which

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While the world migrates to increasingly modern ways and modes of consuming words and ideas, it may be a good idea to take stock of the stack of books in the attic of your homes and minds...


I grew up reading R.K. Narayan, and was particularly fond of his essays. They were short essays, pen portraits of a particular type of person, collections of thoughts on everyday objects or terms – “Umbrellas”; “Our Dress”; “Next Sunday”. They didn’t hector or scream or try to win a point, though Narayan did have opinions. They didn’t necessarily have an introduction, five arguments, and a conclusion.


What happened to that genre of essay? Now every essay must establish a point, argue indignantly, inform earnestly, explain lucidly. Its title must read “Why so-and-so was a very important thing” or “How such-and-such country became a haven for innovators” or “Why we need a new way of looking at this-or-that”. This includes stuff I’ve written and will continue to write, for it has its place. But I also want to read some of the kinds of things I grew up with. So maybe, I thought to myself, I should try writing it.


If I had to muse on something, books would be the first and most obvious choice. Much more of what I know (or think I know) in this world is from reading than from experience. The experience grows, of course, with age, but for an academic like me, the reading is likely to remain the greater contributor. I am part of a sizeable transnational tribe whose members will wax eloquent about books and language and all kinds of things that enable them to interact with the world while being safely insulated from it. I am the sort of person who only gives books as birthday presents, because what else are you supposed to do?


A lot of what I read is decided — inadvertently — by others. When I go to my parents’ place, my father’s room is guaranteed to have a couple of new books. Books chosen by his book club, books he has come across at the launches that seem to be sprouting everywhere, books picked up at an airport, a residual habit of his touring days. In Ahmedabad, where we live, my wife brings home a couple of books from the campus library every other week. Like a schoolboy who’s more interested in his benchmate’s tiffin box than his own, I start browsing through them more or less immediately. Sometimes I read an entire book; at other times I read bits and pieces over many days, until one day she returns it, and I forget about it.


But much of this reading happens in a sort of daze. Often, these days, I don’t remember the title — sometimes even the name of the author — of a book I’ve read the previous week. Part of it is because of that now-familiar phenomenon, the enormous amount of stuff hurled at us through our many screens, for which “information overload” seems too tame a name (“information pollution”, maybe?). But it’s also because in my other life (okay, in my only life) I am reading academic books and papers everyday. I enjoy those too, of course, or I wouldn’t have chosen my current career. But they demand a very different kind of reading. I can’t curl up with them on the sofa with my dog for company. I’ve got to sit at a desk, pencil or highlighter in hand, and extract, distil, or otherwise prise out the point of the paper. What’s the argument? What’s the contribution to the literature, to theory? Does this detail convince? Do the sources look reliable?


Every text, then, is in dialogue with a vast body of texts which I am also supposed to be familiar with.


This inevitably has an effect on how I engage with the non-academic texts I encounter. Too often, the spell is broken by my intrusive mind. Sometimes I think I know where the passage is going, and feel like skipping ahead. Sometimes I want to stop and look something up. At other times I think, okay, I’ve got a taste of this book, it’s not exceptional anyway, so let me move on to another.


There’s also a huge difference between how I read as a child and how I read now. As a child I read the same books multiple times, and in some cases I could remember which part of the page a particular sentence appeared on. Now I read far too many reviews. I know what the latest novels are, who’s won what prize, how many hours a day the author writes and where he or she studied, what the word on the critics’ street is, but rarely end up actually reading the books. This is one of the reasons I’m ambivalent about literary festivals and book talks.


Book-lovers are given to composing panegyrics on the feel of the page, the heft of a physical book, all the while lamenting the soullessness of e-books. So I’ll skip that part. In India, at least, the physical book is here to stay for a while. But I must mention one thing that I miss, and that’s an ineffable quality that older printing techniques used to have. The page would actually absorb the ink, whereas in most contemporary books there is a thin, somewhat shiny layer of ink seemingly on the surface of the book. I don’t know the technicalities, but think inkjet versus laser, or matte versus glossy. It was not only easier on the eye, it made the words seem somehow more solid.


But books are not just for reading. A bound textbook used to make an excellent bat with which to swat a ball made of rolled-up paper. And for the more sedentary cricket-lover, there is always book cricket. Open up a random page, and the last digit of the page number on the left hand side is the number of runs you’ve scored. If it’s a zero, you’re out. Should the lords of T20 ever decide to introduce an Eighter (sixers that go beyond 95 metres, or sixers that hit the sponsor’s board on the upper tier), they should know that we book-cricketers have been hitting eights for decades now.


An aged relative (as Bertie Wooster might call anyone over fifty) first introduced me to the phrase ‘dismantling one’s library’. He’d say, ‘I used to own a copy of this book, but gave it away when I was dismantling my library.’ I always wondered why one would do that, but several inter-city moves later, I see how books take up space, collect dust, and restrict your mobility. There’s also the argument that once you’ve read them you shouldn’t hold on to them. Read what you will, retain what you must, and embrace the Zen in you. Be a minimalist: make your home a light-filled Manhattan apartment with blondewood Ikea furniture, three shirts, two pairs of jeans, and ten books in pastel-shade covers arranged neatly on your shelf. But then I think back to the possibly apocryphal story of families who bought entire sets of books with blank pages and World Book embossed on the spine.


“You have the World Book series! We used to have it growing up! I love the brown spines and gold lettering! I’ve been wanting to look something up — mind if I have a look?”


“Why, of course . . . Oops, looks like the shelf is locked. And I can’t for the life of me remember where the key is.”


“That’s a pity. Well, next time, then.”


“Sure, sure...”


(The author holds the unassuming dignity of the serif typeface in high regard, and tacitly threatened to withdraw this article if it were published in any of the lesser fonts)

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