Tag Archives: Book Reading

Why do you read books?

why do you read booksWhy do you read books? Why do people who read books, read? Why do I read books? You will find literary, and also arcane reasons for reading in this Brain Pickings blog post. For example, Kafka read books because they were axes that helped him cut the ice of the frozen sea within him. Carl Sagan (of the Cosmos fame) saw books as proof that humans can create magic and by reading them we can become a part of that magic or participate in the enactment of that magic. James Baldwin believed that books can change our destiny.

This makes me think, why was I reading the book I was reading (The Sialkot Saga by Ashwin Sanghi) in the afternoon? Or rather, why do I read? I read a lot less than many people I know who read but still, I read more than an average, literate person does. At home we have always had a decent collection of books. When we dispose of books it’s not because we don’t want to keep them, we dispose of them because we don’t have enough space to keep them.

Anyway, that has got nothing to do with why one reads, but the point that I wanted to make was, I have been always surrounded by a good dose of books since childhood and considering the number of books I’ve read so far, I should have a fair idea of why I read.

Unlike those great writers and thinkers quoted in the above link, my reasons for reading books are quite down to earth and straight forward. Or if I’m using reading books as an axe to break the ice of the frozen ocean within me, like Kafka did, perhaps I have never sat down for a few hours to ponder over the topic. I neither see an axe, nor a frozen ocean.

I remember I have always been inclined towards reading. I couldn’t read till the age of 13-14 because I have cerebral palsy and back then we didn’t have special schools. This reminds me, surprisingly, my parents never made a conscious effort to teach me reading, although they were otherwise quite caring and loving. I remember I used to bug my elder sister to read me comics and other books and she herself being quite young at that time, she couldn’t read to me every time I asked. But I remember I used to feel very bad that I couldn’t read.

In my special school our teacher used to force us to read books. Not just read books, but also write a summary after completing every book. Wanting to read books on my own was one thing, but being forced to read them and then write about them was a different thing and most of the time I resisted. But that was the first reason why I started reading books. Ours was an NGO-run school so all the books in our library were donated and most of the people who donated those books had English books, so I mostly read English books. Later on when my mother started buying books for me she would buy English books (mostly recommended by the bookseller because I couldn’t accompany her) because she had always seen me reading English books.

Even when I was being forced by my teacher to read books, I had the tendency to take notes and try to understand words I didn’t understand. This was the second reason why I read books when I was small. I wanted to learn as many new words as possible. I have always wanted to be a writer. While reading books I would keep a diary and a dictionary with me and every time I came across a word I didn’t understand, I would jot it down and then look up its meaning in the dictionary. It’s another matter I never memorised most of the words (as my wife often says, that I’m a ‘process’ person, I like the process of doing things without actually intending to see them through their conclusion). A read to learn new words and I also read to learn how different writers write and weave plots.

What about reading for the sake of reading stories and spending time. Yes, of course. I have read many books just because I’ve found the story very interesting and captivating. I’ve spent entire nights reading books because I couldn’t put them down. Back then we didn’t have the Internet and TV to compete with the time that we could devote to reading books. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter!

Why do I read books these days? Over the past few years I have been reading lots of non-fiction. Books on religion, books on intellectual conspiracies, books on political intrigues, books on personalities, even autobiographies. I have read these books to expand my knowledge and perspective. I don’t always agree with the writers but still I want to know what they think about particular subjects, so I read them.

But reading non-fiction is not as enriching as reading fiction, especially when you need to write fiction. So I have again started reading fiction, in fact, lots of it. Although many times I feel that I read in order to avoid writing, my experience is that I am most fluid and creative when I’m reading a lot. So I also read books in order to be able to write better. But I’m two-minded about this. My better sense says that these days I mostly read to avoid writing. Why do you read books?

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What makes a book a classic?

This Salon article throws some light on many factors that make a book or a novel a classic. According to a Goodreads discussion thread on the same topic:

It has stood the test of time. It is filled with eternal verities. It captures the essence and flavor of its own age and had a significant effect on that age. It has something important to say. It achieves some form of aesthetic near-perfection. It is “challenging” or innovative in some respect. Scholars and other experts endorse it and study it. It has been included in prestigious series, like the Modern Library, Penguin Classics or the Library of America, and appears on lists of great books.

Not everything is classic, as you often see on television when they are showing a black-and-white movie (some of them are horrendous despite being black-and-white and despite featuring top-rated actors and actresses of the time) they say it is a classic. The same can be said about books. It is often said that there is no set formula for a book becoming a classic or a movie becoming a hit. Keeping some in the mental factors common, it is a random phenomena. For every War and Peace and Crime and Punishment there must be thousands of other books equally well-written and relevant but never saw the light of the day or never reached their intended readers. I often wonder why Shakespeare is such a reputed bard or playwright and when I read The Count of Monte Cristo I didn’t have a very high opinion of Alexandre Dumas. Similarly among Indian authors I really feel that writers like Premchand, R. K. Narain and Ruskin Bond are overrated. An author who sells a lot doesn’t necessarily become a good writer, but I think I’m entering another plane. Amritlal Nagar on the other hand, my recent discovery, is an exceptional writer and he can be easily compared to the best in the world and if I am in a position to compile my list of classics, I’m definitely going to add one of his books, especially Karvat.

There is a scholarly way of deeming a book classic and there is a personal way and I think whether a book becomes a classic all over the world is a mixture of scholarly and personal acceptance as well as a matter of chance.

Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief

According to the introduction presented by the narrator of the book, the entire story basically revolves around a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Reading The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak was a pleasant surprise. I don’t remember how I came across the title of this book and how I ended up purchasing it. It even seemed a bit “off” in the beginning and I almost abandoned reading it. I was looking for something cheerful to read . Something humorous, something light. The Book Thief is an account of an orphaned girl (nine years old when the story begins) in Nazi Germany, told by Death. Her six-year-old brother dies while her mother is taking her and her brother to be given to foster parents in Munich, the guards of the train almost abandon them on a snowy terrain and the first book that she steals while her brother is being buried is “The Gravedigger’s Handbook”. How much more dismal can it get? But something nudged me on and by the time I was half through, I was practically in love with all the major characters of the book, especially Liesal, the book thief.

The story is about a little girl named Liesal told by Death. She is practically orphaned. Unable to take care of her kids, the mother decides to put her two kids in foster care, but one kid dies on their way to Munich and ultimately it’s only the daughter who reaches her foster parents, the Hubermanns. Almost the entire story takes place in the Himmel Street, a very poor place in a town called Molching that is at the outskirts of Munich. The foster parents get an allowance for keeping such kids so they are understandably upset that they were only getting the girl and not both the siblings.

This is the place where Liesal, amidst regular nightmares of her brother dying in her arms, begins to grow. She arrives at the place with nothing but the book she had stolen while her brother was being buried. The new mother and father are poles apart. The mother, Rosa Hubermann, cannot utter a sentence without appending an abuse — Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch were the hard-core German abuses she cannot live without. The father, Hans Hubermann, prefers to remain to himself, play his accordion, and smoke cigarettes he rolls himself. As soon as the child arrives, he takes her under his protection and shields her from Rosa’s verbal and physical onslaughts, whenever he can. He is a painter by profession but since most of his jobs came from the Jews and since most of the Jews have been killed, chased away or sent to the concentration camps, they have been reduced to having pea soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Liesal screams and cries almost every night in her nightmares and it’s Hans who wakes her up, comforts her and tells her stories, and they develop an unbreakable bonding. One of such nights she shows him the book that she had stolen once and asks him to read it to her. Hans cannot read much but their nightly reading journeys begin like this and they continue for many years as she is able to steal more and more books.

As she grows into her teens, it’s the boys she is more comfortable with rather than girls and this is how her friendship with Rudy Steiner begins, whom people consider slightly mad after he painted himself black and pretended to be Jesse Owens. Together they face many adventures, including stealing of books, and beating up of other boys.

Amidst all the adult and early teenage tumults, arrives a person one day, who looks less like a human and more like a corpse. In a town where most of the remaining adults think that Jews deserve what they have got and as soon as a Jew is sighted he should be either immediately reported or killed, the Hubermanns decide to hide a fugitive Jew in their basement.

There was a time when Jews and Germans were friends and there was a Jew who was also Hans Hubermann’s friend. This was the friend who taught him how to play the accordion. This was the friend to whom he had promised that one day he would return the favour. The friend had died long ago, leaving behind his son and wife, and it was this son the Hubermanns decide to provide shelter to when they are asked to help. Having a boisterous 12-year-old girl around who cannot normally hold her tongue doesn’t make the job easier.

Do they succeed in saving the fugitive in a place where even your neighbours are on the lookout for such fugitives, or do they get caught and meet a harsh punishment?

If you want to experience an emotional rollercoaster with exceptional writing, then do read The Book Thief.

My new Kindle Paperwhite

Kindle Paperwhite

I was writing the review of “The Remains of the Day” when I realized that if I really wanted to write a good review, I should have taken down some notes. Up till now I had been using the Android Kindle app on my tablet as well as on my computer to not just read the books, but also search through various texts while writing the occasional reviews that I publish on this blog. But recently I purchased Kindle Paperwhite – the actual digital book reading device that I had been planning to purchase for the past two years but always managed to come up with excuses for not buying it. Well, now I have bought it.

I must’ve already mentioned that ever since I started reading digital books, the number of books I read every six months must’ve increased by 10 times if I’m not exaggerating. There used to be years before I would actually pick up a book and read it completely. That was before I started reading digital books. For the past three years, I think on an average I read 10 full-fledged books every year. I know compared to many it may not be a good record, but personally, it is a great achievement considering for 2-3 years I wouldn’t even read a single literary book.

With the purchase of the new Kindle Paperwhite, I think my reading is going to increase significantly. Last weekend I finished reading “The Remains of the Day” and this weekend I’m pretty sure that I’m going to complete “The Book Thief”. Reading on my Android tablet was quite convenient, but it is easier on the Kindle reading device simply because it is much lighter and, well, you may already know this, the text appears just like normal paper.

The convenience of reading a particular book for me is not just a matter of luxury, but it can decide whether I can read a book or not at a particular place. For instance, due to my disability, with conventional books, I couldn’t read without a table, and whenever I read, I always needed to be in the sitting position. Using a device such as my Android tablet and now Kindle Paperwhite enables me to read while I’m lying on my bed. The benefit of using Kindle Paperwhite is that I can read my books under any sort of lighting condition. This was a problem with the tablet – one cannot read under the natural outdoors light. Even indoors, after a while, it begins to strain your eyes. This is not the case with the Kindle reader. You feel as if you are reading a paper book, just with the convenience of a digital device.

While reading books on your Kindle Paperwhite you can highlight particular portions and insert notes for later reference. Once you have created multiple notes, all you have to do is tap the top portion of screen and on the extreme right hand side there is a drop down menu and within that menu you can find a link to your existing notes. This is great when you need to retrieve text while writing reviews. This was a mistake I committed when reading “The Remains of the Day”. The same mistake I have committed while reading “The Book Thief” but I will certainly remember to insert some notes while reading my next book.

You may think why I have purchased a Kindle device when I was already conveniently reading books on my Android tablet. Frankly, I have been using a tablet to read books since December 2011 but then I was reading like, during weekends, not like now when I normally read everyday for 60-80 minutes. It not just causes strain to the eyes it also becomes cumbersome, and of course, full of distractions. I have a Samsung Galaxy tablet and it also acts as my phone and my means to checking my Twitter updates. In fact, from making and receiving calls to maintaining my schedule in Evernote to interacting on Twitter, I do basically everything on my Samsung Galaxy tab. Book reading is something I had always wanted to keep separate and incurring the cost just for that was worth it.

But that’s not the only thing. My space for reading has increased manifold. Now I can read everywhere, no matter where I am. The lighting around me is not going to restrict me. I’m always going to keep my Kindle Paperwhite in the bag that I have tied to my wheelchair. Whenever I get some time, I’m going to take out my Kindle and start reading. This is, for me, the greatest advantage – the ability to steal moments of reading whenever I can.

And of course, it is quite light. I can just hold it in my hand and read a book for hours without my wrist getting tired.

The things that I’m going to miss are the colors, and the ability to use the swipe keyboard. Pressing individual keys for typing seems so archaic now, and so is, using a black-and-white display. This was one of the reasons why I was still waiting – I was hoping that soon we would get a color display.

But anyway, the more important thing is the ability to read as and when I like. This is what I’m getting from my Kindle Paperwhite. Thank you technology, for making reading so much easier.

Why reading makes you a better writer

Most successful writers advise you to read as much as possible. They are voracious writers themselves. Why does it help if you read a lot? I mean aren’t there thousands, even if not millions of readers all over the world who read maybe, 10 books in a month with no intention of ever becoming a writer? Why don’t they turn into great writers?

Reading dog

Reading improves your writing

It is very simple. Millions of people all over the world are constantly glued onto their TV screens when the football World Cup is taking place. Are they all planning to become footballers? That’s not the point. Players watch other players playing all the time. An average footballer knows about all the matches that have been played during his or her lifetime. A chess player knows every game of famous chess players. Musicians attend concerts and live music shows.

When you are actually involved in an art, experiencing the manifestation of that art in someone else isn’t just entertainment or thrill. You are constantly learning by osmosis. Even when you’re not learning, when you read other writers, the brain parts that control your writing skills are constantly stimulated.

As a writer, when you read the work of another writer, whether you realize it or not, you are constantly learning. You learn how to express various emotions. You learn to use words in the right context. You learn to explain features and environments. You learn to evoke emotions that can move people to tears. I’m not saying that these skills cannot be acquired in isolation because after all, the classical writers we admire so much didn’t have access to so much literature. Even if great quantities of literature was available, it was very difficult to actually access it. Nonetheless, they are still able to amaze their readers even after centuries. So you also have inbuilt qualities and skills and eventually these inbuilt qualities and skills make you a successful writer.

Talking about classical writers, they had something that we don’t, and this lack of the thing that they had and we don’t, can be compensated by reading. They had lots of time to think. Although every leader in every age has its own share of distractions and disturbances, the sort of distractions and disturbances that we have in the form of the Internet, social media, 24 x 7 channels and mobile technology is unprecedented. We are always in a state of disturbance. This doesn’t give us enough mental space to think about people stuff. No wonder everybody advises you to use smaller sentences and easier words. Look at the way Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham and even PG Wodehouse wrote. Today’s generation finds it extremely hard to read them simply because it does not have the required attention span. Writers are facing the same problem.

Reading can solve this problem. When you read, you leave the world around you and enter the world of the book. You are totally immersed in the story or the topic. You’re constantly interacting with words, sentences and paragraphs. You’re focusing on a single chain of thoughts.

I’m a big fan of digital books, but if you’re using a tablet to read your books, you’re carrying around a big bag of disturbances in the form of connectivity. That is why it is better to use a dedicated e-book reader rather than an all-purpose tablet.

Although you don’t have to go to the extremes of Samuel Johnson who said, “A man will turn over half a library to make a book,” reading should be a regular part of your writing process. Knowledge gives you confidence. It helps you build your own style.