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A Life Built on Reading

February 11, 2017 08:33 IST

'As you trek back down the centuries, returning to myth and legend, to stories told by people gone for hundreds of years who had the same fears and hopes as you, who hoped that their future, the world you inhabit, would be a kinder and happier place, you understand that there will never be an end to the exploring,' says Nilanjana S Roy.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

It's been over 20 years since I first began writing this column. I'd never intended to build half a life on reading -- you assume that at some point, the world will tap your shoulder and suggest you get on with something more useful -- but to my surprise, that is what happened.

What does it mean to be a reader of books these days?

It means being profitably, pleasurably, out of step with the majority, in the same way that a person who finds fulfilment in living on the edge of forests, or near wilderness, is out of step from the vast flow of humanity who flock to cities.

You aren't disconnected from your fellow human beings so much as you're at a slant, seeing things differently.

I think of Elizabeth Gilbert's discovery of the Sanskrit word antevasin, which can mean either people who dwells in between, or people who live at the borders.

There isn't that big a gap between readers who prefer Kindles and readers who prefer physical books, honestly -- they are still roughly members of the same guild.

But it is far more common to be the kind of reader who soaks up material voraciously on their screens, taking in articles, listicles, essays, even poems, listening to podcasts and stories, moving seamlessly between television, video, social media, and textual reading.

Reading never died as a habit, despite the doomsayers, but it changed form.

This generation's digital readers are seldom away from text, but they are slower to buy or read books.

The single biggest difference between this group and old-school readers is that the old-school reader still turns to books as their primary source of information.

For the digital reader, books are one of many forms of accessible text.

Traditionally minded readers prefer to immerse themselves in a book, like medieval travellers who would go from one province to another.

Digital readers, like frequent flyers, skip between a great many destinations.

The big gap is really between readers who get most of their knowledge -- not the same thing at all as information -- from books, and between non-readers who only graze digital reading, and draw most of their information from television and the Internet.

Even for those who've studied this shift, it's hard to grasp how profound it is, and how alarming.

The generation of millennials who grew up with the Internet as a given are exceptionally text-confident, shrewd at managing vast streams of information, adept at juggling many different forms of media -- but they see content as flat, and rarely check sources or expertise, and the habit of in-depth research loses out to the necessity of staying abreast of the stream.

An apparently tiny change in your habits -- turning away from television news, for example -- has profound consequences.

When I stopped watching television, the time I had for (at my most optimistic) creative thinking, reading, walking and travelling or mentoring, and (let's be more realistic) idling on Twitter and playing Byzantine word games, expanded by a factor I hadn't anticipated.

The price you pay for stepping out of the news stream and back into the world of reading is a real one -- you move out of sync with most conversation these days, which is either directly about, or indirectly informed by, television news and debates.

It's as though we wouldn't know what to think about or worry about or argue over if we switched off our various news streams.

The dedicated reader inevitably stands to one side, away from the general, inexorable flow of news. (Perhaps this is even an increasingly desirable thing.)

Was it worth it? Of course.

I loved the landscape of reading itself, which is not a claim I will ever be able to make for news.

Over the last 20 years, in a purely selfish sense, reading took me deeper into the tangled history of Indians who gravitated to English -- and then took me inevitably out of English back into first Bengali, then Hindi, and now, to my surprise, in the direction of Sanskrit.

I wish I knew Urdu; I wish I knew Oriya, two languages that I don't know at all but grew up hearing around me.

For a year, I wrote a column on translations that felt like coming home, repeatedly, and finding that home in the unexplored cities of Indian languages I didn't know.

To not know a language is to lose the universe around it.

In these last two decades, I felt often like an amateur explorer, stumbling across newer and larger worlds via books, and authors.

There was a catch to this, a large and subtle flaw -- if you read as a reviewer, you remain tied to your own time, and after 20 years, you run the risk of writing without freshness.

I'm taking a year-long sabbatical from this column to reboot, and hopefully, to find new worlds to explore.

Which is, finally, the point of a life built on reading.

As you trek back down the centuries, returning to myth and legend, to stories told by people gone for hundreds of years who had the same fears and hopes as you, who hoped that their future, the world you inhabit, would be a kinder and happier place, you understand that there will never be an end to the exploring.

That is the pleasure and the challenge of it -- a reader's life has no full stop.

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Nilanjana S Roy
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