In praise of : Reading

Read not to contradict and confute, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider

— Francis Bacon

The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighbourhood. From this prison there is no escape. But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about. An ancient author puts him in communion with a dead spirit of long ago, and as he reads along, he begins to imagine what the ancient author looked like and what type of person he was.”

Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living

Reading is a solitary activity and needs some privacy. It is somewhat more private than writing and also much safer. Once published, writing comes under direct public scrutiny. Writings remains there unchanged for rest of the time; reading do not have such properties.

One can only guess at what a person grew up reading. The effects Reading leaves on a person can hardly be exaggerated. A person reading is implicit in his arguments. I have come to witness many people who believe that they are ‘smart enough’ to see things in ‘black and white’ using their ‘common-sense’ and reading might be a waste of time. Common-sense is quite a convincing force. I do not see how one can escape from it even if one wants to. However, one should be aware of many shortcomings of common-sense which it does not reveal to its bearer. First and foremost, common-sense does not argue its own origin; it does not believe that it can be wrong. On top of it, every common-sense believes that it is the only common-sense and others are either plain wrong or have capricious motives. It is also restricted in scope due to gender, place and time. What is common-sensical for a 20 year boy may look ridiculous to a 20 year old girl. Its really hard to figure out how one can protect himself from his own common-sense. Anyway listening to different people arguments always helps pin-pointing the weakness of one’s common-sense.

It is far from my intention to establish that ‘reading’ is the only way of getting new ideas or arguments. Thinking also plays an important part. But I am quite convinced that a well-read man has advantages over someone who has not spent enough time around books. As Newton wrote to one of his close friend, “What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Indian seems to be quite ‘hostile’ towards reading. Its has been pointed out that we never had a renaissance. In our society, the very idea of education seems to be misplaced. It seems to be a ‘thing’ to make life convenient. Public libraries in India are hard to find, and harder is to find readers in them. One is reminded of a comment made by a politician in Mumbai who told Warren Unna of The Washington Post that he did not read books because he did not wish to “mix” his thoughts with those of others. Any thought which is afraid of loosing its ‘existence’ just because of the proximity to other thought is anything but an idea.
Reading could be like anything between from having a light conversation with someone to having a fierce debate, depending on reader mood. One has to learn to discriminate what to read for readers days are few. What to read and what to not is a big problem! How can one be sure of what one is reading is correct or not misleading? It is in human nature to misguide others, sometimes knowingly. To read a person, one has to put a certain amount of trust in him. One has to take chances in reading.
Reading is done for a purpose which swings between two extreme major objectives. One is to break away from real world. And other to know the real world, to get as close as possible to it. Only fiction has some capabilities to satisfy the former; while thirst for later can only be quenched by non-fiction, partially if not completely. We are NOT going to ponder over why people prefer fiction so much when they know that reading non-fiction have better return? Why one prefer living in virtual world when knowledge of real world can make their life better or easier? We will deal about it some other day.
George Orwell once wrote that the book you like most contains what you already know. In your favorite fiction book, author says ‘what you already know’ in a linear way so the argument becomes more convincing. If this is true then reading fiction is also like taking drugs. If the ultimate aim of Reading is knowledge then I am doubtful how far fiction is capable in that direction. Fiction is more friendly to common sense. Few will deny that a badly written poem make better impression on mind than a nicely written essay. Fiction can only strengthen one’s previously hold beliefs and experiences. It does not contain ‘surprises’. If you are not surprised about something, you already know it, vaguely if not surely. Ignorance begets surprise!
I am not denying that there are few fiction writers whose writings are more reliable then most of the non-fictional studies done in their time. Likes of Premchand, Shadat Hasan Manto and Orhan Pamuk have done a commendable job in archiving their times. But this only emphasis lack of quality in non-fiction and not the superiority of fiction. Fiction can only give a vague idea about society. It gives only raw material. A clever mind can extract some reality from it, but it is more suitable to create myth.

That ‘only fools and fanatics can be sure of anything’ is a truism. And there is need to become ‘fool and fanatic’ after sometime. For how long one can remain confused about everything. One should enhance his sanity by reading totally different opinions. No one can be sure of anything in ones lifetime if one choose to search the ultimate truth. One has to settle for lesser known truth. Let the process of ‘inquiry’ continues by thinking and reading in hope that the quality of what you know will improve. When someone writes, she has to construct a primary opinion. For this purpose, it is necessary to have a sense of surety about the central argument. It gives one a sense of being ‘creative’ and who knows, it might lead to some debate which can enhance the knowledge.
Dilawar
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Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

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