An unfortunate acquaintance without realising my penchant for books, and that I can go on and on about them asked me a few questions about my habit. Here is how the interview went.
Q: When & how did you start reading?
A: I always loved good stories, thanks to my grandfather. And, ’was lucky enough to get a few comics from my cousin and books from my uncle as hand-me-downs. When free at home mostly because of the different holiday schedule (in school) than the rest, I ended up with books to kill time, but, very soon realised they were really good company. Sometimes more interesting than the people in my life.
Q: Why do you read? fun or knowledge?
A: I’d quote Margaret Atwood here, “I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most”. If I need subject or general knowledge, I pick-up a non-fiction book ’read fiction to be entertained. But, I’ve realised fiction also teaches a lot through it’s characters & setting. Life is too short to experience everything on our own, and books help us see life through the perspective of a character and provide an unique understanding. Best books are those that entertain and provide knowledge without the reader realising it.
Q: What are your favourite books? why?
A: I have too many to list. I divided favourites into two categories – favourites because of what they mean to me, how they changed my life and those I loved because of the language/story. Here are a few:
The books which affected me, changed me, moulded me are –
Walden – Discovering Thoreau was a much needed shot to the arm. As a kid who loved nature and being alone, I was often plagued with doubts that I might be ‘different’ (read weird) than the others. But, when I first cam across Thoreau, his ideology, I immediately knew I was not alone and it was OK to be a nature loving introvert. Walden was Thoreau’s magnum opus, a simple book distilled with his observations on nature and life. It’s been my bible since I was 18 and the words make more and more sense as I grow up. It has given me the confidence to be different and follow MY path.
Little House on the Prairie – A true fictionalised account about the efforts of a family settling down in Kansas prairies when US was opening up for settlement. Set in 1800s the book gave words to my unspoken love for nature and living close to it. Living like Laura’s family was/is the kind of life I’d like to live, even now. The more we move away from nature, the more I long for this simple living.
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand’s magnum opus on objectivism (to have reason and purpose for every action you commit) paints a scary scenario of what happens to society when brilliant minds who innovate, whose reason and capability to think carry the world forward (aka like Atlases) refuse to supply their leadership, innovation and ideas and go on a strike against the governments who coerce them, against people with shady morality and those who contribute nothing to the society but demand that it take care of them. A multi-layered story highlighting the conflict between capitalism and communism & socialism, the fight of individual reason against societal dictates, the need for rational thought, the need for innovation in a society, has affected me very much. A long, dense book which took me almost two years to read has changed how I see society, my role in it and my expectations from it.
Heidi – A simple story of a small girl growing-up in the Alps is considered to be one of the best stories ever written and the most heart warming book I’ve ever read. the beauty of the Alps, the simple food, the attic of Heidi (where she sleeps), her loving grandfather, friendship of Clara, the prayers of Peter’s grandma, the change Heidi brings in the grandfather never get stale or old no matter how many times I read it. A great book which reminds us – life & love can be found in the most simplest of the things and not in the unquenchable desire for more.
The stories I loved –
The Hound of Baskervilles – Hands down the best mystery I ever read. I revisit this story atleast once every two years. This story not just introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, but the first book which kept me at the edge of my seat. The evocative description of London, the gloomy moor and the unknown peril of the hound haunting the characters, make it a fabulous read on any rainy day. A book not to be missed, The Hound of Baskervilles will remain close to my heart.
The Shadow of the Wind – A book I read this year, written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon in Spanish, translated to English by Lucia Graves is a book every person who loves English should read. Carlos use of language, the haunting story, the moving description of Barcelona (the place itself becomes a character in the book – so much so that I don’t want to visit Barcelona lest it disappoints me if I find it different), takes you to a different era and place. Though a novel, its language is more poetry than prose. Lovely book.
The Historian – Written by Elizabeth Kostova, is kind of a follow-up to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The book is divided into three parts – one that of a girl in search of her father who disappeared mysteriously, the story of the father (Paul) in search of Dracula & his mentor, and the mentor of Paul. Part Gothic, part detective fiction, part historic thriller the novel though not a horror story is a scary one.
The lush descriptions of Europe through which the story traverses takes us on a journey not only in search of Dracula but also as to why we are so eager to find/discover the darkness in ourselves. The book with its leisurely pace has a grace seldom found in books these days.
Aunt’s aren’t Gentlemen – Written by P.G. Wodehouse, the master of English language (amazing how he can command, mould & use the language), is the first book of his, I read and ironically the last which portrayed Bertie and Jeeves. I haven’t stopped reading Wodehouse from then. (and ’m so glad to know he wrote around 96 books, ’cause I hate running out of good books). To quote Ruskin Bond, another favourite writer, “quarrelling parents, disapproving relatives, censorious friends, all faded into the distance once I was immersed in the ‘all-is-sunshine-and-happiness-in-a-never-never-land-of-amiable-earls,-eccentric-aunts-and-supercilious-butlers’ land of Wodehouse”. A writer I turn to when I’m sad.
Q: How do you pick books? How to develop the reading habit?
A: Walk into a book store, spend sometime looking at the covers of the books, some will attract you, some won’t, read the sales pitch on the back cover of the book you were attracted to, if it interests you, then open it and read a few pages, if you find yourself struggling after the 4th page, it is not a book you’ll read, but if you find yourself on the 30–40th page without realising, it’s most likely the book you’ll read. And, if you are already a reader, check the recommendations of the author you like – what does he/she read? do they mention any other book in the one you are reading? If so, check them out. Put them to the same test, read for a few minutes, does the book grab you? if it doesn’t leave it, there are too many great books to read to be bothered by the ones you don’t feel like reading. And, once you like a writer, try his other books, then his contemporaries. This is what I do and slowly without actually realising, you’d have developed a reading habit.
Q: Do you participate in book clubs?
A: No, I’m a solitary reader. The best thing about books is that they happen in our minds. I like to leave them there.
Q: How much do you read everyday?
A: I read for two hours everyday and the time goes up to 4 to 6 hours on a holiday or weekend. I generally read 2/3 books at any given time and complete 3–4 books a month. Sometimes, I read less, sometimes I read more. But, more or less, this has been my so called schedule for over the last 16 years. I strongly believe a day without reading is a day wasted.
Q: Do you prefer books or ebooks?
A: (Paper) Books any day. But, I’ve recently started taking to my Kindle. Why? you can read more here: Kindle, a week after.
Q: Last question of the day – Your friends have complained that you could be a snob, are you? Do you assume that those who have never bothered to read anything other than a school text book know less, have closed minds, and are generally uninteresting people?
A: Rather than answering to this, I’d like to point out to the reply given to the same question posted on Quora by a Sankalp:
Somebody recently said that reading books has now once again become a very specialized activity, the way it once was. I didn’t like the argument initially. After all, reading a 50,000-word book doesn’t seem like it needs any different skills compared to reading a 300-word news article. But the more I thought about it, the more sense the argument makes. I’ve read several hundred books. Possibly more than a thousand. I don’t keep count. I am generally reading two/three books at any given time, and finishing two/three books every month. I’ve been doing this for 22/23 years. The rate used to be much higher back when I was devouring pulp fiction as a kid, but now it’s slowed down because I tend to read relatively difficult books. By contrast, my room-mate in college hated reading. He struggled to finish one collection of short stories in four years, and I don’t believe he managed it.
There’s got to be neural changes in my head as a result.
By contrast, 200 years ago, there simply weren’t that many books to read. Most were obscure and not particularly valuable “classics” (a book isn’t good merely because it is written in ancient Greek and a couple of hundred years’ worth of Renaissance scholars read it over and over again because there was little else to read). The book-reading specialists back then became experts in re-reading the same few books over and over again and milking them for every ounce of value. Sometimes they milked all sorts of value that wasn’t even in there. By contrast, the book-reading specialist today tends to do little re-reading. Instead s/he learns the skill of recombinant reading – the ability to process humanity’s intellectual output as a whole rather than an atomized collection. There is a ton of redundancy, and flawed portions in books today. It’s like buying vegetables… you have to chop, throw away the rotten and unusable parts, blend with other chopped vegetables, make a remix stew…
The raw act of reading itself is a middle school skill. But this kind of meta-reading skill only comes with sheer volume. The pattern-recognition instincts start to kick-in, around Book 200 or so, assuming all 200 are not pulp romance novels or something. Once I bought the “specialist” argument, I began noticing evidence supporting the idea. For instance, people who read few/no books often have no appreciation for how an idea can appear in different guises in many places, often unrelated. They assume that the first version of an idea they encounter is the definitive, canonical one, and develop a functional fixedness around that encounter. They are unable to process different versions of the idea, let alone the more complex Darwinian genealogy of ideas, memetic churn, and so forth. They may understand ideas like idea genealogy and memes in the abstract, but they don’t really get it. You cannot learn to swim in ideas until you actually enter the meme pool. Or, to take another instance, they really have no clue how to take a book apart critically (not physically) and identify the original parts. Big readers can do this both directly (they have read so much that they can spot the non-original parts), and also indirectly (original ideas have a certain undefinable “signature” to them). People who read maybe one book every four/five months (again assuming it isn’t just genre fiction or the current best-seller) tend to have too much reverence for books to do this effectively. They lend books an authority that heavy readers don’t. To heavy readers, books are merely processing input. Emphasis on processing rather than input. They say meaning is constructed by readers out of the stimulus in books. Heavy readers construct vastly more meaning than light readers.
So what does all this do to our relationship with non-readers? The same thing detailed knowledge of any specialized subject does, only much more so. It creates a certain distance, an inability to communicate across the gap, due to the Dunning-Kruger effect and the sheer lack of a frame of reference on the other side of the gap. Initially, it is a feeling of intense loneliness as you realize that you’ve accidentally turned yourself into an alien. Then you realize you’re not alone. You just see dead people. Your frame of social reference is the hidden river of dead authors communicating with each other across centuries of time, carrying on a conversation that is strangely detached from the regular world. Light readers cannot hear this conversation. You start to feel a bit like a medium once you can hear this conversation, because every individual book is situated in this conversation for you, where it basically stands alone for a light reader. It’s like you can see the background where others can only see the foreground. You aspire to join the dead people while still alive. You start to write. You write a book. The circle is complete. You are now a civilized ghost. A vampire of sorts.
All your friends are dead, or not yet born. You listen to your dead friends. You talk to your unborn friends. Thinking about your place in posterity for book writers is not a matter of vanity. It’s a matter of connecting with dead friends, across time. Yes, it’s a strange sort of silliness. Beneath the effort to sell copies and connect with living people, there is a yearning to talk to the dead in even the most ordinary of books. Even if you don’t write a book and remain forever a listener, you are still part of a group disconnected from the rest of humanity, but connected across time in ways the non-heavy-reading living will never be. Your role in life is to take part in a silent vigil that most of the living will not understand. Through your reading, you take part in the ongoing weaving of the Grand Narrative of humanity. Though the non-readers don’t know it, you are part of a millennium-long parade of dead people literally reading civilization into existence.