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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Shravan Tries to Read a Book

Until this morning, I’d read  a total of 18 books in my life. That is, actual 18 full length novels over 200 pages – and seven of those were Harry Potter. I simply did not “read” like other kids did. Unless it was The Life of Pi or The Hobbit, books could not hold my attention. Most knowledge I have of the world and the diction that fills it comes from TV and more recently, the internet. People always find it strange that I’m a writer who doesn’t “read” though I would not say I don’t read at all. I read 10 articles online every day. I can read when I feel compelled to – but the inherent desire to “curl up with a book” is simply not there. I’d say I’m intellectually curious: I watch a lot of movies, listen to a lot of music and love talking to people about them. But when I go to someone’s house and see an entire shelf of novels that I really should have read, I’m ashamed that I can’t sound smart and portray myself as someone who’s clued in on classic literature too.

“Have you read Catcher in the Rye, Shravan?”
“Haha yeah, those damn catchers! Gotta watch out for that rice!”
“Err…”

Plus I’ve discovered where girls hide during the day: book clubs. Apparently book clubs are a thing and there are a disproportionately high amount of girls at them. So there’s some motivation to “read” if ever there was any.

We read Love in the Time of Cholera as part of our high school English curriculum together as a class, and I only now realize how much I enjoyed it. Exchanging views on characters and plot lines every week with others was more fun than actually consuming the text. It never struck me then that spending time reading alone could be fun. I really struggle being alone and doing activities alone and so whenever I read something – online or in print – I feel I need to share it or discuss it and this was never something I could do with novels. So this morning I tried to become like you guys. This morning I took my first step into entering the world of unforced, unwarranted, self-driven reading. This morning I tried to teach myself how to “read a book”.

I’ve always found wonderful excuses for not reading but the most frequent one was my profound inability to find a comfortable position to read a book. How do you read books? I have so many questions. Like, do you sit down in a chair and rest your elbows at a desk? If so, doesn’t your neck hurt from leaning forward? Do you lie down? In which case, don’t your arms get tired from holding it up above your head? Do you hold your book in one hand with (your fingers separating the pages) or with two?

I said, “If I’m really going through with this, the conditions need to be perfect.” So I built a fort from pillows (a good way to start any initiative) that allowed me a 30 degree recline and elbow support. Also present was an excellent ambient dubstep playlist and Mountain Dew, for the inevitable moments when I stray from the novel and question the need of all this. I also kept the TV remote on the other side of the room, should temptation suddenly surge.  Having slain all my inertia, I began to read ‘Dave Barry Does Japan’. Not quite Dickens, I know, but a start nonetheless.

My parents are both serial readers and the process of moving house showed me just about many bloody books they have. Mountains and mountains and words that they’ve actually sat (or lay down or laid back or however you’re meant do it) and read. Dave Barry came highly recommended – other titles carefully nudged towards me by my hopefully dad were the various rose-tinted works on Bombay, intercultural communication and, wait for it, Mein Kampf.

The first hurdle I faced came as no surprised: after breezing through a few interesting paragraphs I began to wade through one which was more inane. It may have been a great, poignant piece of prose but I simply lost interest and my eyes flitted to the rain outside the window. On so many occasions in the past, at this very juncture, I’d have laid down the book and found something else to do. I can sit through boring periods in sports matches because I know what I’ll likely be treated to so I stick around. But with books, that later gratification was alien to me. Today I ploughed on, flicking through paragraphs on things I didn’t care about.

For example, Dave Barry loves to use hyperbolic rants and having read so many bloggers use similar techniques I found myself unimpressed. But I was rewarded with my first actual ‘laugh out loud’ about 50 pages into the book, when he talked about how the Japanese bow and how his family were ‘gang-bowed’ by hotel staff. I actually laughed! At a book! I don’t even laugh at sitcoms. This was exciting new ground, like discovering your parents used to smoke.

One of the things that always daunted me about reading books was the sheer number of pages. Spending an hour engrossed in a story and then finding you were only a tenth of the way through was always an instant turn off. Growing up weaned on the idiot box means my attention span is limited. I’ve checked Facebook twice during the course of writing this. (Let me have another check now... Ahh, as usual, absolutely nothing has changed. But I’m sure I’ll check it once again before finishing this piece anyway.) I mean, movies over 2 hours are hard enough! But I found myself a quarter of my way through the silly book in no time at all. “I might even finish this whole thing” I thought to myself, encouraged.

I didn’t read every word of the book. Do you? Are you meant to? Or can you sort of skim through tedious bits you kind of sense you’re not going to enjoy anyway? Are there rules to reading books? How long should it take you to read a 700 book?

As for Darry Barry Does Japan, well, I finished. It took me the entire morning to read a 200 odd page book. Isn’t that sad? Nevertheless, I feel proud. I spent a morning that I could have spent watching sports (in HD!) and it sparked an interesting internal discussion. Like all talented writers, he gets you to think about deeper issues through light anecdotes. His stories about quirkiness of Japanese social structures are a veneer hiding much larger debates that you tackle by yourself, only later on.

I enjoyed the book because it summed up very well the defining qualities of Japanese society: the rigidity of hierarchy, desire to conform, deep longing for creative cultural freedom, respect for the collective over the individual, the attention to detail, the exclusivity of the ‘club’ that’s not really open to foreigners and so on. It also made me realize how much Pokemon (stop laughing) has quietly taught me about Japan. The endless amounts of bizarre energy drinks available in PokeMarts seemed normal only in the game, until I read Barry’s bit on going into a Japanese supermarket. Even the way he described the Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto reminded me of the stark, dull buildings you have to navigate in the Pokemon Gameboy game. There were many “aha” moments that I experienced hours after putting the book triumphantly down. The Japanese fascination with monsters – how else do you explain Charizard? I’ll spare you the Pokemon nerdisms.

So today I find myself writing as much a book review as a review on books. I’m sure you felt this way when you started reading at the normal age of… eight? I guess? This must sound like your grandparents describing how they felt when they first made a call on a telephone.

I don’t know if this will spark a genuine interest in me. There’s still a tremendous amount of inertia I feel when choosing a title. It has to be on a topic that I’m already interested in. This isn’t true about movies or music. I can watch a movie on anything as long as it’s “good”. But I’m not sure I’m ready to pick up a book on Steve Jobs because I feel absolutely no affinity towards him or Apple, no matter how riveting the story may be. In the same way, the charm of India is totally lost on me at this point and I couldn’t read “Mumbai Fables” if you paid me. I don’t know whether I will ever find a book that I absolutely cannot wait to get to home and read. I don’t know whether I’ll ever yearn to know more about characters like I do in my favourite TV shows and movies. All I can say is that this morning has piqued my curiosity and I’m open to reading more books.


Well, as long as I have my pillow fort and there’s no HD sport on, of course.

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