Thursday, December 4, 2008

Apropos Of Nothing

For reasons unknown, at around 2.30 AM a couple of nights ago, I remembered that my boss once told me that she hadn't been able to bring herself to read a book. Ever. My bemusement, muted at the time the comment was actually made, seemed much sharper at that unearthly hour. So, at 2.30 AM, I found myself wondering - what does it say about a person if she doesn't like to read? And why does this matter so much to me?

I tried answering this question by wondering what I would be, or who I would be, without my love for reading. Let me clarify - I'm an enthusiast, but there's a lot of great writing I haven't read, and a lot of contemporary work that I steer clear of for entirely nebulous reasons, such as - "I don't think I can sink my teeth into this." Or "I don't like that cover." And there was a time when I started working when I couldn't bring myself to get through anything that made the feeblest demands on my intellect. But for the most part, I've been the kid with the book sitting peaceably in the corner, developing myopia simply because I read too much when too young. Reading has been a given, like breathing.

Looking back, I feel reading helped me learn how to empathize, to appreciate that there is an emotional, social and intellectual world beyond my own. I don't mean that this awareness came pre-packaged, but even at the age of 6, I was aware that there were people like Elizabeth, Nancy Drew, Bess, George, the Three Investigators, Fatty and Beth. They weren't like me, they did things differently, and they didn't inhabit my world, but I liked knowing what they were up to. Psychologists will tell you that children can be egoistic, referencing only their own experiences. But they are also imaginative, and reading nudges them outside of themselves.

As I grew older, reading helped me learn. I devoured wonderful and entirely useless bits and bobs of trivia. As my curiosity about the world expanded, I was able to become more informed and more aware. Reading (and I don't mean just books) offers the world and its' stories to you on a platter. You end up having more to say and more to think about - and if you have the mettle, you try to puzzle pieces of awareness together. Reading tests one's intelligence, in the sense that any reader necessarily must process a narrative, an experience, a literary style or a vocabulary at some level, no matter how elementary.

Reading also helped me sense nuance - the multiple angles that inevitably co-exist (albeit uncomfortably) on any issue of import. An avid reader KNOWS that there could be someone else, somewhere else, thinking differently. Knowing this, she is also better equipped to construct a convincing and compelling argument.

Maybe I am romanticizing an anachronistic tradition. But when I speak with cousins or colleagues who are avowed non-readers, I find that the conversations are self-referential. Opinions are presented as facts, and facts having been stated, we move on. Often, these conversations lack context and insight - bouncing from one recent incident or experience to another - "I did this yesterday and it felt great! I met Y and I thought, gosh, he's such a bore! You know, I really think this country will go to the dogs." OK!

I think reading passionately and even indiscriminately reflects an openness of mind. A willingness to peruse, a willingness to be absorbed, informed, and yes, moved. It is truly a way of life, a way of engaging with the world. For me, a good read creates a connection. I feel grateful to the writer, to whoever it was that created an alchemical mix of people, places, relationships and situations. And as my neural tripwires buzz and jangle I often find myself thinking - " Isn't it amazing? These are just words!" And so much more.

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