Why We Read and When It Matters

We are still at that time of the year, when everyone is compiling lists. Lists of the best books of 2022. The most popular books of 2022. Critics’ choice of 2022. And when we have just waded through enough of those, it’s time for most anticipated books of 2023. Books to look out for in 2023. I too am guilty of sharing articles like these on my blog at The Whistle Library as exclusive reading for subscribers to my free monthly newsletter, The Whistle.  

I write about the books that I read on my blog. And since I am reading Michael E Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations right now, which will take me a while to finish as it isn’t exactly a breezy read, I decided to write about reading books, instead. Why do we read, and why it matters.

For many people, reading is a hobby, and hobbies can be carefully cultivated. Reading is also a pastime for many others, including a way of overcoming boredom, a way of taking one’s mind off problems. A way of usefully spending one’s time, and in the process, be entertained, or informed, or educated. I shall return later to what the problem with this kind of reading might be. But I suppose a lot also depends on the person reading.

In my case, I am a writer in the advertising and brand communications industry, and as a writer, how language is used to express an idea, or oneself, is perhaps the most important thing. But long before I was in the advertising industry, when I was still a little girl, I grew up in a home surrounded by books and music. It helps that my now-aged father and my grandfather loved literature and read voraciously. I took to books like a duck takes to water, and before I knew it, I was swimming in waters rich in imagination, teeming with fantastic characters and elaborate storylines. I was so drawn to this world, that I was reading Dickens, Steinbeck and Jane Austen, when my friends in school were still graduating from Enid Blytons and Nancy Drews to oh those terrible Mills & Boons!

I suppose girls and women reading books at all was enough to shock most people. I do not mean to be snobbish, but I suppose reading is also about developing good taste. As much as it is about growing and maturing as a person. I stayed an avid reader of books, mainly for the reason that it helped me grow as a person. I found that with so many books I read, they spoke evocatively and eloquently about the human condition. Why we endure what we endure, and how people overcame odds, if they did so at all. At other times, they told me why people resigned themselves to their circumstances, as if these were family secrets. Characters in so many works of fiction that I consider to be classics, are victims of their circumstances, and mostly never find redemption. Each one more flawed or eccentric than the other. Books taught me to understand such individuals and to never be judgmental, even when becoming a better judge of character.

Through books, I also travelled to distant lands, encountered cultures different from my own in India, and learnt about what connects us all as humanity. From reading Jane Austen, I learnt about the social mores of England and especially its expectations of women. Through Dickens, I learnt about unfortunate children who have to tolerate bad childhoods, endure child labour, nasty relatives, and grow up against all odds in the England of that time. Through Kafka, I discovered how oppressive and absurd all the discriminations against poor ordinary folk must seem to a Jew in Europe. Through Hardy, I learnt about the exploitation of the farming and working classes by the well-to-do in England.

And it isn’t just England and Europe. It is also about America, a country that we believe has little or no rural life. Well, you only have to read John Steinbeck and William Faulkner to know the anguish and hardship that rural, mostly farmer-folk faced in the years that America was “developing”. With writers like Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike giving us glimpses of the excesses of big city life.

Years later, I happened to read even more that informed the views of my early reading. For example, it is only when I read Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson and also a magnificent biography of Charles Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, that I learnt how much Dickens had to do with the framing of the Poor Laws in England, that were meant to protect working children from poor households. This is now verging on the field of economics, of course, where I also read about Thomas Malthus and how he didn’t actually support the Poor Laws.

I have never been a student of literature; I studied economics in Hindu College in Delhi University. But literature as well as many other subjects interest me deeply as a reader. I read a lot of non-fiction as well, from history, philosophy and economics to business, sociology and politics. And I try to balance my reading across several subjects. In fact, usually after reading a big non-fiction work, I try and go back to reading some fiction or poetry. I have never thought deeply enough about why I do this, but I suppose it is to balance my sense of the real world with the imaginary. And I think it might also be because in my job as a writer in advertising who also thinks strategy, it is important to keep both sides of one’s brain engaged.

And here, I return to the subject of how reading improves a writer’s sense of how language can be employed. One has to read James Joyce’s Ulysses to know how powerfully words can be used to convey an atmosphere, and even someone’s state of mind. Joyce’s word play is not merely astounding, it communicates what is going on in the minds of all those ordinary characters on that one fateful day that the book describes. For me, though, there was more to the book than the story that unfolds over a day. The pages that contain descriptions of Ireland, are the most beautiful and evocative that I have ever read. They speak of his deep love for his country and its heritage, even as he had to leave Ireland in order to complete the book, and what a passionate champion he was for the country’s freedom from British rule. Here is one such passage:

“In Inisfail the fair, there lies a land, the land of holy Michan. There rises a watchtower beheld of men afar. There sleep the mighty dead as in life they slept, warriors and princes of high renown. A pleasant land it is in sooth of murmuring waters, fishful streams where sport the gunnard, the plaice, the roach, the halibut, the gibbed haddock, the grilse, the dab, the bill, the flounder, the mixed coarse fish generally and other denizens of the acqueous kingdom too numerous to be found. In the mild breezes of the west and of the east, the lofty trees wave in different directions their first class foliage, the wafty sycamore, the Lebonian cedar, the exalted plane tree, the eugenic eucalyptus and other ornaments of the arboreal world with which that region is thoroughly supplied. Lovely maidens sit in close proximity to the roots of the lovely trees, singing the most lovely songs while they play with all kinds of lovely objects as for example golden ingots, silvery fishes, crans of herrings… And heroes voyage from afar to woo them, from Elbana to Slievemargy, the peerless princes of unfettered Munster and of Connacht the just and of smooth sleek Leinster and of Cruachan’s land and of Armagh the splendid and of the noble district of Boyle, princes, the sons of kings.”

Another writer whose descriptions of travel to new lands are equally evocative in a completely different sense, is André Gide, whose Fruits of The Earth is a dialogue or conversation in his mind. It tells of a man’s love for life, even as he is recovering from an illness and his delighting in every sensation.

Woman reading by Henri Matisse (1894); Image: Henri Matisse, Chesstheory.com on Wikimedia Commons

There are other writers who I have read for their acute sense of observation and their intellect and these include George Orwell as well as Susan Sontag. I am reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the same time as The Competitive Advantage of Nations, and even as I make my way through the fourth volume with two more to go, I am awestruck by the fact that Roman emperors did not succeed each other through dynastic change of power but were appointed. I am equally struck by the gradual and slow erosion of their power over several centuries, not merely because of the continuous attacks by the Barbarians, but because of their own loss of ethics, moral ground and power.

Now, should one spend one’s time reading old books or new books? Or re-reading old books? In these days of social media, it appears that there is a publishing boom as well as a reading binge. From what I see in social media posts as well as from the newsletters and publications that I follow, and read, it seems that there is a surge in reading books. Which means that there are more people writing books as well. However, I will confine myself to reading books. Even as many bookstores around the world are closing shop thanks to Amazon, could it be that their Kindle App has actually rekindled interest in reading? I recently became aware of Book Tok, even though I haven’t checked it out, where I believe people talk about the books they have recently read as video reviews! This must send the craze for reading even higher!

Not just that, there seems to be an explosion of new genres especially in fiction. Not to mention new, revised and updated editions of old books, including some with awful introductions! I don’t understand this recent obsession with introductions, but I must mention one that I read some years ago which struck me as extremely well-written. It is by Aldous Huxley to an old Penguin edition of DH Lawrence’s Selected Letters.

With this explosion of new writing and writers, there are new authors one hears of almost every other day. Should one be reading every one of them, even if the reviews are good? I tend to be much more conservative and studied in my choices and prefer to read even bestsellers by well-known and highly regarded authors only years after the book’s release, when all the hype and dust have settled. Literary awards are usually a good way for new authors to make their mark, and that is indeed how I came to read Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jhumpa Lahiri. I tend to be careful even with reading books on business and economics; there are just so many of them nowadays and with many new authors being hailed as “gurus” of some sort or the other, it is best to stick with the known and the trusted.

That said, there is nothing that can compensate for the loss of one’s books, as I should know after losing my entire collection of books in carton-loads to termites at my parent’s place in Goa. Books that one bought, read and reread over the years, books that became one’s friends, as well as books that were gifted were suddenly gone. These included many books related to my profession of advertising as well. The emptiness that I still feel from having lost all of it will not leave me for a long time, I know. This, when I also know that many of them had been tampered with, while my luggage was in storage at the packers and mover’s warehouse in Chennai in 2004-05 and also while they were transported back to Goa from Delhi in 2008. This was done with malicious intent by unprofessional agency bosses who I made the mistake of working for in Chennai and in Delhi, and who I suspect belong to the “women don’t read” camp.

Besides, thanks to my being out of work for 16 years now, and with no freelance writing assignments for over two years, I have to be extremely careful with my paltry and dwindling savings. I have started buying books again since 2017, but have had to be so careful and discriminating in my choices, given my broke condition. A couple of other very important considerations have also kept me from buying books as freely as I used to decades ago. If you have been reading my articles on books on my blog, you would have noticed that hardly any goes by without my sharp Owleye and pen mentioning the meddling involvement of the same unprofessional agency bosses in publishing. I think a lot of this comes from their reading too much into old emails between me and former colleagues at Ogilvy where something about writing books was mentioned. That is all the fodder the idiots need to go berserk; I have stated before on my blog and will say it again: I have never had any interest in writing books, nor do I work in publishing. I buy good books and read them.

The other reason is to do with astronomical prices suddenly being charged on Amazon. For almost a year, I had stopped browsing on Amazon, before deciding to buy Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom and Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage of Nations. I have already written about the mischief with the former, and I notice that the latter has not been spared either. More about that in a later article.

Which brings me to the point I began this piece with. If one reads merely to pass one’s time or to be entertained, any book will do. It makes one an undiscriminating reader, as much as reading any and every new author does. And while one ought to read new books, one ought to also read the classics. And here I mean classics in the sense that Italo Calvino meant, when he wrote Why Read the Classics? Besides the insights they provide into old mythologies, legends and lands, they have become metaphors for certain circumstances and phenomena. There is a certain pleasure in reading Danté Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy after having visited Italy, although I visited only certain parts of Tuscany decades ago, and didn’t visit Ravenna, which is where Danté was from. And if you’re a writer like me in advertising, when there is an allusion to certain characters or expressions, at least you will know what is being meant. If you haven’t read the old Greek and Roman classics, you will not know what Nirad C Chaudhuri meant, for example, when he called India the Continent of Circe, and wrote a book with the same title.

I do not wish to compromise on what I read, and I wish publishers as well as literary agents (who seem to be swarming these days) apply similar exacting standards to their jobs. They seem to be the new arbiters of what a good book is. The fact that reading books is popular once again is good. That the publishing industry is booming is good news too. If only they would not try every trick in the book to get books written and published at any cost. And at any price.

The featured image is a detail of Woman Reading by Henri Matisse, shown inside the article, that I found on Wikimedia Commons with the attribution mentioned. However, I am not sure it is actually a painting by Matisse, since I have seen quite a few of his works at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, when I visited decades ago.

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