People read for all sorts of reasons, don’t they?
We read, as the 17th century English poet John Dryden told us, “for instruction and delight”. We read, as the Victorian novelist George Eliot said, because “art is the nearest thing to life”. What that means, the critic Louis Bayard explains, is that “to approach the mystery of our own condition, we have to grasp the mystery by which words make worlds”.
I read for all the above reasons. I read also because I fancy myself as a writer, and I want to be good at it, and only books will show me how. I read because dead authors on my shelves help me make more sense of things – and the mess that life often is – than anybody else. I read because it is the thing that I most enjoy doing.
But most of all, I read because I can’t help it. While going on a trip, the most tortuous decision-making involves which books to take along. Hell, while going to the barber’s, I agonize over which book to take. I am never without a book. No, certainly not in the loo.
And I always have more books with me than I can possibly read. It’s better to be safe. Who can tell what might happen?
This neurosis has stood me in good stead. It was how – and why – I survived after being offloaded from an Aeroflot flight on my way to Kolkata from London. That was two days without a visa and no immediate plane – or plan or any money that would buy me anything – in sight in Moscow. Iris Murdoch and Saul Bellow saw me through that one.
So this blog will be a sort of journey through life and books – from the point of view of someone for whom the two are indistinguishable.
It will be as much about books as about reading and the experience of it, and how the circumstances of reading colours our perception of the book – or at least our memory of it.
For instance, I read John Updike’s Rabbit quartet (an undisputed masterpiece of post-war American fiction) on a holiday in Thailand. I think those lazy days, drinking by the pool and swimming and following Updike’s hero through four novels read on the trot made me respond to the books in a way I would not have otherwise.
I reread F Scott Fitzgerald’s second-best novel, Tender is the Night (if you admire The Great Gatsby, read this one right away) where it was set: on the Cote d’ Azur in the south of France and the locale and the characters came alive for me in a way it didn’t when I’d first read it in Kolkata.
I could in this blog write about a noirish literary thriller, a classic revisited or read for the first time or the most-talked about, just-published novel: anything at all that gave me pleasure. There is one rule I shall follow: I won’t write about a book that I did not enjoy.
There is so little reading going on in the world at large, I think, that there is no use in putting people off. Why write about something if you’re not recommending it?
Literature is the only religion I have. It’s terrific fun to be an evangelist. I’d rather invite you to read what I’ve loved. And if you don’t, let me know. What is reading without debate?
There is another reason why I read. I hadn’t let on earlier. That’s because I am a magpie: I love stealing ideas. The idea for this blog is based on a column one of my favourite writers, Nick Hornby, did for the American magazine, Believer. Here’s a website from which you could sample some of the pieces.
The columns were collected into a book, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. If you like the columns, go buy the book. And if you don’t (yet) want to take my word for it, here is what The Boston Globe had to say. http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2005/01/19/collection_of_essays_highlights_hornbys_love_of_reading_flair_for_writing/