Tuesday 25 September 2012

I'm a sinner, I'm a saint

Having an unfortunately uncontrollable interest in rules, I had a set of them for reading. No, they were not framed on a wall of my room. They were unconscious thin strings tugging at me from time to time. But I noticed I have effectively broken all those rules now and I am marching to my own drummer. So I decided to do some myth busting, because when it comes to reading, there are no rules, no sins. Just you and the book having a conversation.
Rule Number 1 : Thou shall finish what thou started
We have all been taught that once you start you gotta finish. Don't give up! Don't give in! Just power through to the other side. And this advice also finds its way into our book reading style. I remember the first book I started but couldn't finish. I tried, tried and tried again. Yes that is three tries. On my last try I had about 200 pages to the finish line. But I was too tired to go on. And frankly, I was feeling angry at myself and questioning my motives for wanting to finish the book. My nemesis: The Lord of the Rings (complete). Somehow the songs, the large number of characters and the small print of my edition wore me out and I quit even though the light at the end of tunnel was in sight. I figured I knew as much about the book as I needed to know so it didn't matter if I met my milestone. So though in life it is good advice, I have stopped caring about finishing a book if it starts to feel like punishment. Life is too short and the good books out there too many.
Rule Number 2: Thou shall read one book at a time
Before I became the master of my finances, I had to tell my parent(s) which book I wanted, what it was about and promise them that I wouldn't "waste" it and that I would read it. As a result of these constraints, I used to read one book at a time. Because well, when you go back to the afore mentioned parent, he or she will inevitably ask what happened to the last book you bought. Ever since I used a significant portion of my first pay-EFT (electronic fund transfer, no cheques now) on buying books, I don’t stop myself from buying whatever catches my fancy and consequently I tend to read multiple books at the same time now. My currently reading list is: White teeth by Zadie Smith, How to read like a writer by Francine Prose, Competitive Strategy by Michael Porter......Once in while a book comes along which commands my full attention and once in a while a book comes along which demands my full attention and at such times I unknowingly or obediently (as the case maybe) put the others on hold and treat the book to my undivided mind. I quite enjoy having multiple reads to cater to my multiple moods. To have something light to read when I am on a break from something heavy. To lubricate the channels, to sharpen the mind. And there is also the pleasant surprise of cross-pollination. Ideas from one book inspiring you to have ideas about the subject matter in the other.
Rule number 3: Thou shall find popular works as great as their reviews or hate so called trashy books
I was shocked to discover the literary world at large did not consider “Atlas Shrugged" to be a master piece and Any Rand to be a hero like I did. I was ignorant of this fact for 24 years of my life. However, I realized that doesn't change the fact that I loved the book, it gave me hope and inspired me and helped me through a difficult time. Also no matter how many gushing reviews I’ve read, I just don’t get what the big deal is about some books. For example Catcher in the Rye or even To kill a mocking bird. These are wonderful books and I liked them but not enough to put on my all-time favourites list. Maybe I read them too late or with too distracted a mind. Whatever the reason may be, I didn't get converted. I used to feel bad if a review trashed a book I liked and I used to feel intellectually on a lower plane if I didn't appreciate a Classic. But now I have accepted that my favourite book may not be popularly perceived to be a great book and I might never understand what the everlasting charms of another book are. You see, either we fit or we don't.
Rule Number 4: Thou shall read the book before watching the movie
This is a rule I still mostly maintain but it's not written in stone anymore. Some stories are just too fast paced and / or too poorly written to ever come to life with the written word. They need human brain, heart and flesh to become digestible. This is true of very few books and they might not be worth reading in the first place. A book which challenged this rule was The Bourne Identity. I just could not follow the twists and turns of plot. It felt like fast forwarding through a foreign language documentary. But I am told the movie is not half bad. This rule does hold for the Harry Potter series though. Strictly. It is somewhat like the Boggart which took the form of the thing you were most scared of. Reading it will show you a world only you can see.
P.S. I might be better off just watching the Lord of the Ring movies. I think I have earned the right.
Rule Number 5: Thou shall remember a book forever
Over the years, as I read more and more books, I realize some of them slip out of my memory. I read “Gone with the wind” on the terrace of my house, in the winters when our house was under going renovation and exams were looming. I remember the warmth of the sun, the pages of my book almost alight with the sun rays, the burnt vision after spending hours reading in the noon sun, the sauciness of Scarlet and the scale of events of the book. But today I don't remember the name of all characters, the places or even some of the sub-plots. So if I read the book today, I''ll still find it a refreshing read. It used to bother me that I had to google some of the specifics of the books I had read, sometimes twice. But maybe that is my mind's way of optimizing space. If it can be googled, and if it doesn't affect your functioning, no need to store it.
 P.S. Maybe most of you do remember all the books you read, so this is just me trying to make myself feel better about my selective amnesia.
Rule Number 6: Thou shall start at the beginning
This one holds for collections of short-stories or books with loosely connected chapters. There was something almost illicit about opening a page at random and reading from that point on. Needless to say it is probably only of experimental value to do so in a novel. But with short stories and non-fiction, I feel free to dive where ever I want. Though there is a sense of satisfaction in reading a book from start to finish, once in a while, with the right book, I can take the leap of faith.
Rule Number 7: Thou shall read new instead of re-reading old
This is a temptation I give in to. And I used to believe in it strongly till some time ago. There is a large number of books I want to read before I stop breathing and if I just keep re-reading the ones I've already read, well I will run out of time. I still used to turn to comfort reads again and again ( P.G.Wodehouse, Matilda by Roald Dahl, etc) but I wouldn't want to waste time reading a whole book again. But recently I re-read some parts of Anna Karenina, and I felt as if it was the first time I was reading them (maybe this holds only for me, see point 5 above). I also catch a glimpse of the person I was when I had read the book the last time. The words I didn't know, the things I liked most, the details I missed (deliberate and otherwise). So it is like a mini journey into the past - mostly embarrassing but also smile-inducing.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Discovery of a center of pleasure

I recently realized one major reason why reading gives me such a high. When I read something which manages to articulate my own half baked thought - the silhouette of a thought actually, in a beautiful manner, I experience a kind of "Exactly!" moment within my head. I look up to the writer with admiration for having gone beyond the end of my intellectual air strip and taken off and at the same time I look at the writer with kinship for having a similar algorithm of brain function. This sensation happened twice in quick succession and caused me to stumble upon the location of this particular center of pleasure. Once when I was reading a book excerpt of Zadie Smith's NW on npr.org and I came across this line:

" Of course, it's harder for a man to be objective. They have the problem of pride."

And another time when I was reading an article called "How is the critic free" by Caleb Crain on the Paris Review blog and I came across this line:

"I’d argue, to the contrary, that readers choose their favorite publication in part because of these constraints—because they trust that its reviewers share certain political and aesthetic touchstones."

And both times it felt like someone has penciled in the features in an outline I saw, written lyrics to a melody I heard and both times it tingled!
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