A few years ago, when Siddharth Chowdhury, one of my favourite contemporary writers, had just finished his first novel Patna Roughcut and begun work on Day Scholar, I asked him somewhat unwittingly what he was reading. Nonchalantly, he mentioned he was in the middle of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's biography by Gerald Martin that had just hit the stands, and was immensely enjoying it.
I remember at the time of asking, I too was working on a novel, which had to be shelved after a heartbreaking epiphany.
Those were indelibly bleak writing days, with rum-soaked, smoky evenings, if I may say so. I also remember having a lot of trouble reading books, and not trying to emulate another writer's style, which is why I asked the question. Chowdhury said he would mostly read about the lives of writers he admired, storytellers that inspired him, when he was immersed in writing rather than reading a particular work of fiction or novel, to gain a fresh perspective on the craft and the personality, considering how writers often lead solitary lives, and come alive when by themselves.
For some reason, I remembered this conversation after stumbling upon The Way the World Works, a prized collection of short and delightful essays by Nicholson Baker this morning, which was lying on my father's bedside table among other gems.
Baker, I find, is easy to read, succinct, journalistic, and a literary heavyweight, but more than anything, he has a strong, deep narrative voice, which you can almost hear through the pages; one that carries you like a dinghy on a lazy river. He has an ineffable ability to give personal anecdotes from about the moment he met his wife, to observations on a kite string, telephones and newspapers, to painting portraits of John Updike and David Remnick (who I briefly met earlier this year at the Jaipur literary festival), and transforms the reading experience into the most enticing and original writing style I have come across in the longest.
I must confess, I am yet to finish The Way the World Works, but whatever I've read, I've greatly liked. It has also somehow slyly crawled on to my bedside table, adding to a tall pile of unread books, which comprises Arguably by Christopher Hitchens that I am savouring essay by essay, Pao: The Anthology of Comics by young and old Indian comic book writers (that I have to review for the main paper), and Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (because I haven't read 'papa' for some years now). Unfortunately, my work hours are not getting shorter, the waist size isn't decreasing either; my friends don't invite me to their dos anymore, saying what's the point when I won't attend anyway; my folks think I am some sort of a solipsist, and, no wonder, I don't have a girlfriend.
A few months ago, while I was filling in for my father at F&F, I heard a young man brag to his girlfriend, "I don't care for the smell of books, I have an iPad." I remember the day as clear as an unsullied sky: Neil Young was softly playing, I was leafing through a Charles Bukowski poetry book after drinking freshly brewed coffee from around the block, when I caught from the corner of my eye a glimpse of the fellow trying to thrust a book back in its place on the shelf without looking, lost deep in a conversation. I was furious at first and about to ask him to bugger off, and to never return to the bookstore, but I let it pass with a vexed heart.
I generally don't mind people who don't care for books, but I don't like those who treat them with disrespect and spoil their fragile covers. I don't even blame my father for having a reputation of being the 'surly' bookseller. It's been time-tested that bookstores have a quaint charm of pulling and attracting some of the biggest idiots in the world.
The other day I was in one of the biggest chain bookstores in Gurgaon when I felt as though I had sauntered into some writer's hell. I knew it would be a stab in the dark to ask the clerk whether the store would own any titles by Hubert Selby Jr (writer of Requiem for a Dream), but when his computer didn't even recognise authors such as Philip K Dick, Irvine Welsh, Graham Greene, Raymond Carver, Jerzy Kosinski, William S Burroughs to name a few, it made me sick. To make matters worse, under the slim literature section, they didn't even have a spare copy of George Orwell's 1984 or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
When I asked the manager why they weren't keeping these writers instead of stocking the store with Shilpa Shetty's yoga DVDs, vague 'bestselling' Indian writers and lifestyle magazines, management, self help and computer science books, he said they don't have enough space. "These are rare books you ask for... We can only order books in bulk," he said. "Besides, we only cater to bestsellers to meet sale margins, and what the distributors and publishers send us."
What's the point of reading only bestsellers?
Isn't the beauty of reading a good book its ability to point you to pick and read another. Do we really need brands, fads and trends to tell us what's cool and essential? Since when did we become a culture complacent with swallowing a mere diet of information and knowledge without a hint of self-doubt, argument or defiance? Why are we killing storytelling and literature with easy steps to make more money, win friends and become business moguls? Why are we killing the only hope left to lift us out of ignorance?
In one of his recent and superb essays, titled A Life With Books, Julian Barnes who won the 2011 Man Booker Prize writes: "Life and reading are not separate activities.. When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.. Reading helps you understand life's subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths.."