LITERARY REVIEW

Reading in bed

ENDPAPER

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

Reading in bed

FOR a long time I've felt guilty about reading in bed. I thought I was the only one. Then, to my astonishment, I learnt that most book lovers — even young ones — do their best reading in bed. While I enjoy the sight of a book lover reading stooped over a desk, I myself have never been tempted. I was warned of bad posture, squandering time and spoiling my sight. But the chair still did not beckon. School was the last place I used the desk to read; forced these days to read a book that way in a public library, I find myself, almost unknown to me, slowly sliding down my chair till I have slumped to the point of lying in it. Summer, monsoon or unwintery winter, the inveterate Indian reader must cuddle up and read. The cosy reader isn't just a cherished image but a true story. Our favourite place to read is the bed. Here we read with perfect hermetic concentration.

There are rituals that accompany reading in bed and none is more common than the putting on and taking off of spectacles. In perhaps what is easily the most fascinating book written on the subject — A History of Reading — author Alberto Manguel devotes an entire chapter called The Book Fool to the different kinds of spectacles worn (and looks sported) by bookworms through the ages. He even describes the familiar ritual: "pulling the glasses out of a case, cleaning them with a cloth, perching them on the nose and steadying them behind the ears before peering at the now lucid page held in front of us. Then pushing them or sliding them down the glistening bridge of the nose in order to bring the letters into focus, and after a while, lifting them off and rubbing the skin between the eyebrows, screwing the eyelids shut to keep out the siren text. And the final act: taking them off, folding them and inserting them between the pages of the book to mark the place where we left off reading for the night."

Do we read in bed because it keeps us safe from the very thing we are doing? Namely, reading. Which can be a dangerous thing. A risk. With some books you are not the same person after you have closed it. Book lovers know this. Which is why serious readers will wantonly pursue subversive books — they like the danger, like being damaged and wounded — and book junkies mainlining on bestsellers will keep away from anything too intense — such as an unhappy ending. Why do we read at all, though? In bed or elsewhere? Besides the usual answer — that we read for pleasure and for instruction — are there other more mysterious reasons?

Could there be a more personal, private reason why we read what we read? For instance, there are those who read because they are infatuated with someone — they must read the same books as the one they are infatuated with. "We read to know that we are not alone," said C.S. Lewis once. The books we read makes us part of a larger (invisible) community of book lovers. Could the opposite be true as well? That our reading makes us lonely. Wrapped up in a book, we shut the world out, cutting ourselves off from those who cannot share in our private world. I remember being lonely in college because no one I met had read the writers I liked. Desperate attempts at getting others to read my favourite books only alienated me even more. But then, I have also known those who read only in solitude. It doesn't matter to them if others care for the things they read. To me such self-containment seems daring, enviable, puzzling.

I read less and less these days. "Don't we all?" chorus my friends when I tell them that. Reading has become a form of discipline for me. Something I must mindfully do everyday (in bed, naturally); and not let myself be swamped or distracted by easier or less rewarding tasks. I have become suddenly aware that curling up with a book is one of the few solitary pleasures left to me. I know many devoted readers (pardon me, but I hate voracious; voracious is a word used by non-readers to describe readers) who don't read in that crazy fashion they used to anymore. And they feel more than a twinge of regret that they see more movies or chat longer on the phone than getting back to a book they started. We are readers in exile; reading has become a nostalgic act, a home we long to return to.

For every exiled reader, there are readers who have never left the world of books. I rejoice when I meet these venerable ones. The young, of course, read like there is no tomorrow but the devoted reader I am referring to are the grown-ups who still read two books a week. Perhaps even three. Rare as they are, they exist. Books still mean everything to them. Other things — love, marriage, work, children, television, keeping house, eating out — has not taken the place of books. Why do they read? What makes books such a necessity for them? There's nothing nostalgic about it here. It's as natural as breathing for them. Writers, who are first and foremost readers, have been trying to answer why and how we read. Harold Bloom in How to Read and Why perhaps has the best answer: "We read in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. And we read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to disappear or diminish, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial life."

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