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Outside of a dog

books Updated: Apr 27, 2012 18:08 IST

Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
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A remarkable milestone in the history of human civilisation went unnoticed yesterday. April 27 marked the day when the number of writers in the world surpassed the number of readers. This, to my mind, is as important an event (and as unreported) as when the number of humans who were dead surpassed the number of humans alive.

The fact that we now have more writers than readers should be confirmed any time now, once that impeccable resource of fact-checking, Wikipedia tells us so. And by readers and writers, one means readers/writers of books of fiction here, and not of tweets, blogs, emails, Facebook comments, news reports, opinion pieces or internal memos. (Although a collection of internal memos from, say, the Lehman Brothers or the Congress Party should make a riveting non-fiction book).

But while everyone and his accountant is an author these days, how is the reader doing? Syllabi have been prepared, reputations made, and grand discussions overflowed over the matter of how good or bad writers are. Funnily enough, there hasn’t been much finger-on-the-chin investigation into what makes a good reader. Yet, it seems as plain as early Joycean prose that the reader is as important as, if not more than, the writer. If you have good or bad writers, you certainly have good or bad readers too.

And that’s where I’ll make five points about the contemporary fiction reader, hoping that now, with writing becoming a DIY phenomenon, it will be the reader — not the writer — who will form literary trends and tastes and will be recognised for doing so.

All writers are readers but not all readers are writers. Till now, that defined the basic balance of power between the producer and consumer of texts. The advantage always resided with the man of letters, who, whenever he chose to write, would rouse himself from ‘mere’ reader-hood and become the shamanic producer of reading material. “If the pages of this book contain some successful verse, the reader must excuse me the discourtesy of having usurped it first,” wrote the great reader-writer Jorge Luis Borges in his preface ‘To the Reader’ to his book Fervour of Buenos Aires. “Our nothingness differs little; it is a trivial and chance circumstance that you should be the reader of these exercises and I their author.” The Argentinian wasn’t being merely humble when he put the writer and reader on the same escalator step; he was being factual. With the eruption of writers, however, it is the reader who now holds the advantage of being the only likely person to recognise “successful verse” while most writers are skirt-chasing success.

Good readers make the rules that good writers can only follow. Even those writers who break the rules and make a show of despising the reader — Charles Baudlelaire and his modern-day successor Michel Houellebecq come to mind — live off the fact that the nuanced reader will not only be open to their writings but  will actually laud their nuanced iconoclasm. To be a good reader in the sense of being open to styles, forms and ideas of all kinds that leave a psychological mark is to be an aesthete who is able to enjoy one of the finest man-made inventions: the book of fiction. Maura Kelly put it best in ‘A Slow-Books Manifesto’ in the Atlantic monthly: “In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature — to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else. They’ll help us unwind better than any electronic device — and they’ll pleasurably sharpen our minds and identities, too.”

Not reading as a style statement is a recent phenomenon in literate society. It may have originated in something as useful as standing up to the pretentions of many ‘literary readers’ but now, they have morphed into folks who make a show of not reading at all, as reading can (indeed) come in the way of doing well in exams or making money or relaxing via television (making the wrong assumption that the good reader does nothing except bury his nose in a book all the time). Kelly quotes Joseph Brodsky, in his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Though we can condemn... the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books, we are powerless when it comes to [the worst crime against literature]: that of not reading the books.” With these anti-reading folks now probably seeing ‘opportunities’ as writers themselves, it is a good time to reclaim the act of reading as a ‘cool’ thing, considering that writing is an extension of many people’s ‘skill sets’ these days.

Reading is telepathy, in the sense that the reader essentially goes inside the writer’s head when he reads a book. Reading a novel or a story or a poem or a play involves the reader going into the conscious and subconscious zones of the writer. Apart from this magical act breeding a sense of empathy, what all writers clamour for is this: to get inside the head of (invented) people. A good reader is a master of this. As a collateral, the good reader is able to unlock things in himself via the tool of a good book. Franz Kafka knew the power of reading when he jotted down in his diary, “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.”

It's a talent to read intelligently and to savour a good book because reading is an act of participation. The phonograph, the vinyl, the CD and now downloadable music are different from sheet music in the sense that in the first four cases, music was being played to the listener, without the latter’s active participation. Television or cinema, in this sense, make the viewer passive participants (also known as spectators). The reader, however, will always be a collaborator with the writer. His eyes scanning the page (whether of a book or a Kindle or an iPad, it doesn’t matter) and his mind processing the words into images and emotions (and sometimes simply the architecture of the words) forms a more exciting act, closer to virtual reality gaming than to ‘static’ television viewing. The reader, in other words, can be better served by literature than the author.

There is no need to be shy about despising bad, successful books (always pitched as something ‘readers want’ as if books were politics) and admiring good fiction whatever be its ‘success rate’. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” Groucho Marx had said with his usual finality. Unless we’re all inside a dog, it’s the reader, not the writer, who now holds the leash. The good reader has a great talent.