The unspoken joys of reading

And how to revel in it

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My fraught childhood history with books

I was a generally moody and petulant kid whenever I was made to read. There was something so sterile and laborious about trudging through a 10-page storybook, an activity my 7-year old brain could just never quite acquiesce to, not at least until treats were part of the equation as a sweetener (quite literally). I’d begrudgingly flip through a Ladybird beginner readers book, whilst chomping on a caramel bar. The storylines were typically one-dimensional and there was an irritating moralistic and pedagogical quality to its tone and delivery. My sister on the other hand was a voracious reader, which did little to spur my love for books because seeking inspiration from a younger sibling was a sign of weakness according to the sibling code of rivalry.

Yet life has a strange way of unfolding as our predilections evolve overtime and meander towards unexpected places. Today I sit in my office engulfed in literature from all corners of the world spanning across a myriad of subjects without a treat in sight. Ok, I lie. There might be a stash of raspberry jam biscuits hidden somewhere in my office-pantry for the occasional sweet indulgence if we’re being pedantic. But you see, books complete me. They feed my soul. I feel that we lose ourselves in books, only to find ourselves enlarged, enraptured and transformed.

There is something richly charming about holding a beautifully bound, meticulously designed, thoughtfully crafted book in your two hands. That tactile delight will always be the heartbeat of the analogue medium. At the current moment, my reading diet consists of two to three fiction and non-fiction titles a week. Time becomes immaterial, to me at least, when books are concerned. My wife would tell you that I’m dead to the world when a book is in my grasp - she is quite right. The symphonic might of good prose (think Virginia Woolf) can overwhelm ones’ senses.

Well, now that my long emotive ode to reading is out of the way, it’s time to get on to the main course. I’ve included down below a couple of reasons why I love reading. I hope these notes will reignite memories of your first dalliance with the written word.

One never reads alone

Firstly, reading compels us to apply our own life narrative as an interpretive lens - an elemental impulse of human cognition. I believe that each of us, by virtue of being living entities, have a book within us, embedded deep in our psyche and conscience, that tells a self-narrated story replete with plot points, twists and turns, some more articulately formed than others. Reading then isn’t just about deciphering a framed textual reality - it demands a reaffirmation of our own subjectivity; our relationship to this represented reality and our role in its gradual unfolding.

Proust shared a similar view of reading and one that was famously expressed through the struggles he faced as a writer of ‘In search of lost time’. By his mid-twenties, Proust had already published in prestigious literary journals but there was one sore point, at least for him. He was yet to write a novel. When he was twenty-six, a thousand pages into his first attempt, he found himself stuck in a creative block, unable to make the book cohere. That’s when he discovered the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, whose writings revigorated a momentum to look within for creative inspiration.

Over the next three years, Proust immersed himself in Ruskin’s prolific body of work and went about translating into French the books that most appealed to him, feverishly taking notes as he proceeded. Many years later, Proust would come to write in the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, his now-legendary novel building on the themes he had attempted to explore in that frustrated first attempt:

I realised that the essential book, the one true book, is one that the great writer does not need to invent, in the current sense of the word, since it already exists in every one of us — he has only to translate it. The task and the duty of a writer are those of a translator. - Proust

So when a reader delves into a book, he/she isn’t simply consuming. Instead, an active and effervescent dialogue is forged where the reader’s own biases, fears, passions and other emboldened instincts are in constant interaction with the unfolding story, forming new understandings, contradictions and ambiguities.

That is why a fulfilling reading experience is one where there is an active discursive exchange between your inner most thoughts and that of the authors’ - it is a constant back-and-forth chatter that never really settles, like the meeting of two old friends who have, for many years, been deprived of each other’s companionship. Each conversation is laced with a degree of anticipation and tension, because you don’t know where it will take you or how it will end.

In fact, I’d go a step further and say that one of the most amazing aspects of reading is in how it brings to bear the fruits of your own exceptional mind. You become privy to how the mind seamlessly contextualises incidents and events on a page and how conversely, it sometimes stumbles in making sense of specific nuances. Reading may be an imperfect and even flawed process but ultimately, it facilitates introspection - an activity that has been sadly relegated as an afterthought in a meme-riddled world of click-bait content.

Reading has a lingering aftertaste

The final point I’d like to convey is how the ideas we read about have a knack for lingering in our mind, much like the aftertaste of a fine bottle of red. Except that these lingering thoughts have an important function. They facilitate associative thinking and become the springboard for indiscriminate curiosity that moves beyond the limits of the particular book in question.

So in actual fact, it doesn’t really matter what you read; a bus timetable, a work of non-fiction, a potboiler or a scientific compendium. When our imagination and ability to associate are at their peak, the content of what we read takes secondary significance. What then becomes crucial is how the ideas we read about weave with our own inspirations and impulses.

Drawing from a personal example, the idea from my first book on youth political engagement bore fruit from an article I read in a discarded children’s community newsletter about a planned playground infrastructure project. I still vividly remember the opening line in its feature list - “[the playground will] come complete with a royal throne to speak to your legion of followers just like in a fairy-tale”. That nondescript newsletter sent me on a five year whirlwind journey to understand how young people understand the dynamics of power and politics. I came to realise what I never once afforded much thought to; that patterns of childhood play in a playground remarkably reflect how children negotiate with power across social groups and learn about representation. These insights would have never crossed my mind if not for that newsletter.

So the next time you pick up that novel, have a pause and marvel at the intimate and illuminating dialogue you are about to have between your mind and that of the author’s, one that would remain untethered by the (superfluous) social niceties demanded in face-to-face conversations. Now that is pure nirvana for any bibliophile.

Recently completed books

It would be very remiss of me not to include a reading list in an essay about reading. So listed below are a few of my recent reads in 2021 that have left an indelible impact on my thoughts and creative process. Each book has calibrated my perception of life in very specific ways. I strongly encourage you to explore some of the titles below.

  1. On the Move by Oliver Sacks

  2. Everything in It’s Place by Oliver Sacks

  3. Dark Matter and The Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall

  4. The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

  5. This Idea Must Die by John Brockman

  6. Learning to Labor by Paul E. Willis

  7. Principia Mathematica, Volume 1 by Bertrand Russell & Alfred North Whitehead

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