Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Notes of a Nobody: The twenty-twenty-sixty crisis in our reading culture

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 10, 2013

Man Reading a book 3I can sum the growth of my awareness of the world around me in four phases, each underpinned by an altering equation between “Faith” and “Reason”:

Phase 1: FAITH > REASON

Phase 2: FAITH = REASON

Phase 3: REASON > FAITH

Phase 4: REASON? FAITH?

In that period when reason was on the ascendancy, I believed and even argued with acquaintances in my close circle that there are no absolutes and that every aspect of our existence gets determined by a context and therefore it is very difficult to determine what is right, what is wrong, what is good and what is bad with certainty. I notice that the pendulum has swung again. I now believe that there are a few non–negotiable absolutes in our lives and one among these is about the need for inculcating deep reading habits in children and adults alike.

Everyone one on this planet must read and read extensively

I now have enough reasons to put my faith in the belief that the overall effects of widespread reading are salutary. And at its minimum reading humanizes and tempers the many rough and unwanted tendencies in us. In a way I have started to concur with the views and thoughts expressed by the fictional Queen Elizabeth in Alan Bennett’sThe Uncommon Reader” where she says:

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic”

 and

 “Books did not defer…. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night, when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who has led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised”

Although reading is an anonymous and personal activity by nature, there is an urgent need for universalizing it. Here too, as in other places, the early bird catches the worm. Therefore it has to start with children when they are fairly young. However, the constraints for universalization are many and not uniform in their influence. In generic terms, these constraints fall into three broad buckets viz. Guidance, Discovery and Availability distributed approximately in the ratio of 20:20:60 from the impact they can have on the life-long reading habits of an individual

Children should be guided within loosely defined boundaries of what they ought to read even while leaving room for an element of guided self discovery. For this to happen parents themselves have to be avid readers and should be aware of a broad range of books that they can introduce to their children as they grow. By their very nature children are curious and have a natural tendency to gravitate to books. Rare is a child who is not excited by books, pictures and stories. In an insightful essay in Paris Review magazine, noted writer Julian Barnes stated that Reading is a majority skill and a minority art. In a world full of gadgets with hyper-focus on pixellated information and where there is an urgent need for making reading a majority art, reading is moving in the direction of being a minority skill. Yet the distractive power of the devices can be used imaginatively for effective discovery. Hook a child to books and it will be a life long addiction.

Knowledge of what to read goes hand in hand with the widespread availability of books to read. Like in economics even in the world of books supply creates its own demand.  In the past there were public libraries which made books accessible to common public. World over these public libraries are dying a death of thousand cuts. In India, thankfully, Govt. has managed to put libraries out of this misery by swift hacking of budgets. In the city of my stay, which boasts itself of being the knowledge hub of the country, there is not even a single public library that can match up to the standards of a decent county library in UK. This is not on account of lack of resources but due to a lack of vision and imagination. In the west, while governments were active in sustaining libraries, a large part of the impetus also came from wealthy philanthropists who donated generously to build libraries which their nations could be proud of. Some of the richest captains of the world industry are in India but I know of none who has donated to the cause of libraries generously. Some may have but definitely not enough to create long sustaining institutions. As in other places, here too, there is room for innovation in building a network of libraries: crowd sourcing, public pooling may work but we need some solid foundations laid before these approaches can become effective. And Govt. should be the central force in laying the foundations. In a time and era when Govt. is withdrawing itself from many essential facets of public life and private enterprises are taking its place, this urging for Govt’s role is in all likelihood a cry in wilderness. The result of this withdrawal is a lack of access to books to common public and reading which is one of the most egalitarian activities in human sphere is increasingly becoming the privilege of individual economic affordability – ala education and healthcare. And that in my view is a depressing development. Good public libraries are memories of nations. In our neglect of these memory banks we are allowing our society to slip into a state of collective amnesia.

There are numerous instances of brilliant endorsements of what libraries mean to individuals. If Ray Bradbury claimed that “he graduated out of a library”, Jorges Luis Borges believed that “library is his imagined version of heaven”. Writing in New York Review of Books on the issue of closure of libraries in UK, author Zadie Smith posed one of the most relevant questions for our times:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell

Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay…. In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible

What a brilliant and eloquent damnation of the modern economic state !!

Library as a plurality of personal places and technology’s invasion into a collective common good of the society which defies the logic of conventional economics is a new dimension worth thinking about. The sad part is that in India our intellectual energies are so petered out and our priorities are so narrowed down that asking questions about these critical public institutions has ceased to be a priority.

Therein, I think, lies the crisis in our reading culture

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