Of late, I have been finding reading books a little futile and irksome. The more I read, the more I seem to forget, and only now has it is begun to hurt somewhere deep inside.
Each time I start a new book, I feel like I'm holding a fistful of sand, and with each page I turn, I can't help but let its fragile content slip through the grasp of memory. When the book finally draws to an end, I'm left with bits of dust and crumbs. I don't know why I'm still reading books.
A few weeks ago, I finally found Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated (2002), a book I've been looking for the longest, in a bookstore that vehemently denied of having it on its shelves and stock. For some inexplicable reason, it's one of those few novels I've read, which became an almost instant favourite long before I read its first page. Has this ever happened to you?
After I was turned down by Fact & Fiction and told matter-of-factly to hunt for a cheaper edition, I set myself on an adventure to look for the book across the city's bookstores only to be confronted with a cruel and unfortunate reality that I have been ominously harping about in recent times. Bookstores in the city are on the verge of ruin. The future is not far when you won't be left with much choice on what to read.
Perhaps, it's to do with the loss of my best friend (we used to share books we enjoyed since Mayo), I found Everything is Illuminated a very sad and moving tale. The story is about a young American Jew (shares the same name as the author) who travels to Ukraine with a yellowing photograph in search of a woman believed to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
He is accompanied by a local, Alex, who is his age, very fond of American pop culture, and a very terrible translator, Alex's melancholic grandfather, who is the designated driver of the journey and is convinced he's blind, and Sammy Davis Jr Jr, the driver's "deranged seeing-eye bitch", out on a quixotic journey that will cast an indelible impression on the rest of their lives.
Told in three narrative strands, loosely set in magic realism, and etched in wit, war, sex and pain, I couldn't help but have tears in my eyes when I read the novel. The book took me incomprehensibly long to read. Since it was the cheaper edition, it has a very fine print, and thus hard to read. But it helped traveling with the book to the hills. If you're ever looking for closure in life, and hold sadness in your heart, then I would advise you to take a book to the mountains.
Another book I picked up was Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, a collection of short stories by one of America's finest short story writers.
The beauty of Carver lies in his ability to be simple and precise as he freely moves between compassion, sadness and humility tucked in careful folds of ordinary life. He has a rich deep working class poet's voice, but not in the lyrical way; he adds heft to composition. Not for a minute will your eyes stray from his stories because they are so neat, precise and concise. Anyone who has ever toyed with the idea of writing a short story must read him.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was written at a very harsh period in Carver's life. Around the time this collection of short stories was released, his first, he almost died of alcoholism, and had to settle with a life of sobriety. Perhaps this transition of strife and chaos permeates through in his stories, making this collection all the more endearing.
Reading books is becoming increasingly dull in this age of instant messaging, social media, Wikipedia, smartphones, TV shows and films. It takes some inane commitment to develop a habit of reading, and it's only going to grow harder.
Why do we read books? To be entertained, stimulated, to learn, or just visit worlds we never knew existed? By not reading books and killing the culture, we're making way for a rudderless world with no balanced view and perspective.
Speaking on the pleasures of reading, one of the most celebrated writers of our times, Ian McEwan, who I met many years ago on a cold sunny afternoon in Jaipur, in a recent interview to The New York Times said, "Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist."
So, why do I read books? I enjoy stories. It's not always how little you remember or forget from a book that counts. It's the dust and crumbs you hold on to that make a difference.
(Read Part I of Jairaj's column here)