The Unsubtle Art of Reading

There was an undeniable sense of determination about her as she unzipped her bag - slow but firm - with the visible confidence of someone who knew the exact sequence of steps they needed to complete.  Clutching her phone and a seemingly heavy jacket with her left hand, she supported her handbag on the right arm, where it gently swung to the motion of the train, while she rummaged through it in search of something. 

The train was packed to capacity. In fact, you'd have to be a contortionist of unparalleled ability in order to even exit this train during rush hour, much less find a gap to enter it. But the way she deftly manoeuvred her way around said that this wasn't her first time. No, it certainly wasn't.

A fleeting sense of familiarity flashed across her face - the sharp jerk of the head that we all do when our fingers clasp around something we know, even if we are yet to see it. Skillfully, she pulled a rectangular object from the depths of her large, almost cavernous bag. I watched her actions with the mild curiosity of an onlooker at first. But the object she pulled out now had my complete attention.

I tried to break eye contact - partly because I didn't want her to know that I was staring. But more so, it was because I was a bit overwhelmed by the object she'd pulled out. It was something I knew very well, yet over the past few years, it's been the very bane of my existence.

Do you know the kind of awkwardness that you feel when you run into an ex? Or a friend that you knew so well, but then had a falling out? I felt exactly the same way.

Oblivious to my discomfort, the young woman opened up the object and started to read.

I should probably start by saying that I have mixed feelings about people who manage to read countless books through a calendar year. It's both fascinating and overwhelming at the same time.

On one hand, I genuinely applaud the ones who successfully read so many books. Our rampant (and at times, reckless) use of social media means that a lot of us spend considerable time arguing, stalking, silently fuming and not-so-quietly engaging with people and their opinions. Which means, it's important to remember that these people who read so many books are ones who invested their time wisely, so to speak. In my mind, that alone makes them smarter than the rest.

I'm sure most of us have heard about the claims of the article that talks about how people read 200 books in a year staying off social media. To be fair, I won't fault social media entirely, because there are a lot of other things that my social media interactions have taught me, that unfortunately, a book wasn't able to. But this is not about that.

Clearly, there's something great going on. A time shift to the good old days of reading. Research says that more people are reading now than ever before. Considering all the distractions that we have around us (yes, Netflix - we're looking at you!), that's a pretty good thing. Of course, HOW they consume the written word is a whole different discussion (let's not start the books V ebooks V audiobooks debate).

The message here is: 'People are reading. And that's good. Period.'

If there is one thing that any writer or author worth their salt will tell you, it is that 'Writers must read'. That's it. It's not up for debate. If you don't read, over time your imagination will fare no better than a stone's. What you read is a different story, but to put it simply, writers must read to ensure that you continue to hone your craft. I should know. It's an aspect I've been struggling with for the past few months. Perhaps even years.

Which brings me to the other side of my 'mixed bag'. I suffer from a case of mild jealousy towards all those people who devour books. Not literally, of course, because that would make them . . . well . . . goats. Because they eat paper. (Right, bad joke). In my defence), the reason I've suddenly suffered from these pangs of jealousy is that I've been going through a rather dry spell. Aside from the odd audiobook or short fiction novellas, I could say with some amount of certainty that I haven't read books back-to-back in almost 2 years. That's over 700 days. For someone who read all 1900 books in my school library twice (yes, I was that kid!) while growing up, that's a pretty awful place to be at.

In fact, and I'm trying not to be overly dramatic or haughty here, for those of you who've noticed, I don't write much fiction these days. And despite what anyone else says, or what I may have said in the past, there's only one reason why I'm not. And that's because I'm not reading as much as I used to. But since trying to find that elusive silver lining is supposedly the key to overcoming challenges, I used that time to find out why I'd suddenly turned from this bibliophile to an almost anti-reader. And here's what I found out.

My reading drought, so to speak, is not a seasonal thing. It had nothing to do with my physical health or emotional wellbeing. And it probably shouldn't - because growing up, books were my sole escape from the realities of this world. However, there were some external forces at play. I could probably sit here and blame something that many of us have done before - technology and media. Blame it on our constant need for 'bite-sized' information. And yes, it is to blame. But even so, only partly.

The real reason was that I had become tired. Tired of the unsubtle art of reading. What bothered me and messed havoc with my head was that somewhere along the line, reading had become a game of numbers. It had suddenly become more about how many books you've read over a particular time period, over how much of a takeaway you've had from that book. The age-old Quantity V Quality debate. It had somehow become about who could read the fastest, or who would be the first to review the latest book. Like everything else these days, reading had become less of an act of passion and more a number of targets to hit.

And the trouble with numbers is that it invariably leads to a degree of competition. And comparison. That's what happened with blogging. We all started doing it because we were passionate about it. We did it when we had absolutely no readers, except the immediate family or friends. If nobody cared about reading us, we would still do it; but the numbers make a difference. It’s a tangible goal. And we’re all programmed to look for those goals.

To be fair, and ruthlessly honest, I tried to run that race for a bit. I really did. Yes, I do feel a little silly now when I look back on it. And perhaps even a bit ashamed. But, I ended up on that bandwagon. Until I pushed myself out due to sheer exhaustion. The irony of it all? I brought it all upon myself. I still don't know exactly why I did it. Perhaps part of it stemmed from an inner battle to stay relevant. Or maybe it was just a case of FOMO - fear of missing out. Whatever it was, eventually it reached a point where I was simply going through books one after the other. However, I had no recollection of the story. In fact, I was skimming through books to get to target. And loudly proclaim to the world (who absolutely didn't care, by the way!) that I'd read them all.

See, I get this. It's quite impossible to read so many books without actually having an interest in reading. And I personally know some amazing book reviewers who not just consume books like there's no tomorrow, but also take the time to review it in detail.

Like Resh here at The Book Satchel, who can talk books any time of the day or night. Or Ramya at Me Otherwise, whose reviews have the knack to transport you right into the book itself. Or Shantala at Shanaya Tales, who has mastered the art of honest reviews. Or Sanch at Sanch Writes, whose reviews I enjoy because of how to the point they are. I could go on, and quote many more readers who genuinely seem to devour books simply because it's a passion for them first. For all of them, the numbers are a nice to have than a must-have. And that's how I feel it should be.

However, I think I had reached book exhaustion. It's that point where you get the feeling that you've reached saturation. Like you can't bear to look at another book again for a while. That's where I have been for the past many months. For the record though, I am still in awe of everyone who will go to any lengths to continue reading their books. Like that girl in the train whom I described earlier.

But it's not all doom and gloom. On a more positive note, I have started to read again. Slowly. Steadily. Like that famed turtle, I will get to the end of the line. At my own pace. I've decided that I'll stop chasing Goodreads targets. Or proclaiming that it's only one month into the year and I'm already into Book 6. I've finally figured out that it's important to give books time to breathe. Sort of like good wine.

As for the rest of you, keep reading. The good stuff. The mediocre ones. Even the badly written ones. Read them all. Devour them like the world's going to run out of books, and only you can save it by reading.

Featured Image: Aga Putra