a reading life

A Reading Life

The New York Times has this series of interviews, ‘By the Book‘, where they ask famous authors about their reading habits. So, by way of introducing my friends and Indiatopia readers to my reading habits, I am stealing from them (though, I’m adding a bit of my own “masala” to their questions, of course).

Reading is a very personal activity because the books we read (or don’t) reflect who we are as individuals. For me, besides being a lifelong habit, reading is one of my primary ways of exploring and learning about the world. It is a way of conversing deeply with other authors and with myself — a communion of minds not possible in any other way. It allows me to pay closer attention to certain aspects of living — a way to meditate, if you will. And, finally, it is a way of never being bored anytime or anywhere (besides, as they say: only boring people get bored).

Yet, I must say that the most paradoxical thing about a daily reading practice is that it has both increased my thirst for life as well as spoiled me for it. Reading fires the imagination like nothing else. It also sets up disappointments because real life rarely lives up to that imagination. This doesn’t bother me as much as it used to once. Now, I take my pleasures where I find them: in the pages of a book or in the hurtling moments of life. Both give me more than enough grist for my writing mill.

The way we read evolves as we evolve. It’s a virtuous cycle, really. My answers here will, no doubt, change over time. At earlier points in my life, the books and authors mentioned below would have been almost entirely non-fiction — business, philosophy, history, anthropology, and so on. I still have several shelves filled with these books. But, since 2013, I’ve found myself returning to fiction with a vengeance. It is the only kind of reading that encompasses almost all other disciplines at once, while allowing a much closer, personal communion with another mind (of the writer).

Which books are currently on your night stand?

Typically, I read several fiction and non-fiction books together, switching from one to the other depending on the time of day and my mood. Right now, I’m on a short story binge because it hit me last year that, when it comes to fiction, I have been more partial to the novel most of my life and short stories are rather brilliant and, indeed a very different art form than novels. So, I’m reading the following:

— ‘Fathers and Sons: An Anthology‘ — Most of these are stories by men and about the father-son relationship. But, they are varied and interesting and give me insight into a familial relationship that I haven’t thought much about myself. I’m also reading this collection with a purpose as my current work-in-progress story is about a father-son relationship.

— ‘A Writer’s Diary‘ by Virginia Woolf — I read this one every few years. It’s one of the best accounts of a writer’s life during a particular era when literature was being re-defined. And, as ‘Life in Squares‘ is currently on TV, I picked it up again to refresh my memory. Woolf never disappoints. Though, almost all depictions of her on the small or large screen invariably do, as does this latest one.

— ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found‘ by Suketu Mehta — Though I’ve owned a copy for several years, it is only recently that I felt compelled to dive into it. And, what a treasure. Mehta’s prose is pitch-perfect and his perspectives on a Bombay that he left just a few years before I did, is one that I remember well. The narrative is so gripping that, every time I pick the book up, I can barely put it back down.

— ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali‘ by B K S Iyengar — As I’m off to my month-long Yoga training course next month, and this book is on the recommended reading list, I decided to get started ahead of time. That Yoga is not just a series of asanas is something I’ve always known. What I’d not known is exactly how Yoga is both an overall philosophy and a science. This book goes into a fair bit of that. More to come later.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

Hard to pick just one, of course. There’s Dickens, whose plots may seem contrived today but his language-as-cinema will forever be wonderful. There’s Virginia Woolf, one of my all-time literary heroes for how she created the inner lives of her characters. And, recently, I’ve added Hilary Mantel to the pantheon, having read her ‘Wolf Hall‘ books.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I love history, science, philosophy, biography/memoir, letters, journals, fiction, psychology, essays, and more. This year, I’ve been focusing on literary fiction, mostly, because I’m also writing fiction. More recently, I’ve also been drawn to books that tell the stories and histories of places/cities. That said, I must say that I probably read 1-2 hours’ worth of current affairs stuff online daily. Some days, that’s more time than I can allocate to book-reading.

With fiction, I read for engagement, not escapism. Literary fiction, for me, is about realism. So, I cannot bring myself to read romances or mainstream thrillers, which, for me, are filled with genre and language cliches. In fact, language and what writers can do with words in a narrative is, often, more important to me than other aspects of the story. And, this level of language craft is mostly, for me, found in literary fiction.

For whatever reason, “literary fiction” is labeled elitist or inaccessible sometimes. There are many better definitions, so, in an attempt to set the record straight, here are a couple of recent ones that I identify with:

Literary fiction is fiction that concerns itself with subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction in that it requires a higher level of engagement with and reflection on the text and its social or political and/or historical context, as well as the text’s relation to works by other authors.

………

Literary fiction makes substantial demands on its readers. The epiphanies and revelations in literary fiction may be more subtle and require more work on the part of the reader to recognise. Literary fiction often presents more difficult or complex truths than genre fiction. It may offer few answers but instead simply make observations about human nature. Its purpose is never escapism but engagement, and that engagement may mean forcing readers to consider questions and possibilities that make them uncomfortable.

Who are your favorite writers — novelists, nonfiction, journalists, poets — working today?

Currently: Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Mary Oliver, Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elizabeth McCracken, Yiyun Lee, Daniel Kahneman….. so many more.

What I look for in writers is mostly what I look for in genres, as mentioned above.

What kind of a reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?

Voracious to the point that I could inhabit a book for entire days at the exclusion of real life.

I don’t come from a reading family. Of my five siblings, my older sister and I were the only readers as kids. Even then, once she discovered boys, books lost their place as the primary pastime/hobby. My mother read almost every afternoon between home chores but her diet was mostly Gujarati weekly magazines and the odd Gujarati novel.

I started very early with reading because, I think, in a large family, life was chaotic and confusing. Especially as I did not come to live with them till I was about five or six years old. The uprooting from my adoptive family and re-planting in my real family was a difficult adjustment. And, not knowing how to express myself or how to be heard, even, I internalized much of the fear and frustration. Books and stories became a sought-after refuge because they offered both a detachment from the real world and a narrative coherence and causality. This was soothing in some instinctive way, I think, to my child-mind. It made me look up from a story I’d just have read and believe that the inexplicable events around me would also have clear resolution or would mean something. That all the loose threads would eventually come together and make sense. This did not really happen, of course, but it helped me to feel so. So, reading was never about escapism from that early age onwards. Rather, it was a way to comprehend, explore and discover the world.

Growing up in India, we had the following readily available to us: Enid Blytons, Amar Chitra Kathas (comic books filled with Indian mythology stories), Nancy Drews, the Narnia books. But, I was also lucky enough to discover, through my boarding school library and the local raddiwallahs around my Bombay home, many classics of the 18th-to-early-20th century from Europe and the US. Sadly, we were not exposed to much from Indian writers through the school system, a gap that I’m finally working on addressing.

Before I hit my teen years, I discovered Greek and Norse mythologies and they blew my mind. There wasn’t nearly as much moralizing or didacticism as I had found in the Indian mythology comic books that I mentioned above. So taken was I with these “new world” mythologies that, when our family acquired our first pet, a Doberman, I came up with his name: Zeus.

I hit pay dirt when I went to university in the UK and had access to both the university library and local city libraries. I discovered and devoured Shakespeare, Woolf, Yeats, Wendy Cope (whose two poetry collections I have not returned to a particular city library, which will remain unnamed) and many more.

What’s the best book you were assigned to read in school?

During my boarding school years, we went through a brief phase of reading classics for our English Literature class. We had Tolstoy, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and so on. Of all these, I was taken by Tolstoy’s Stories the most. I was about eleven years old and this first introduction was, I think, an selection of abridged stories. Even then, the beauty of the Russian landscape, the pathos of the rural peasant life and the humanity of his characters got to me, I think. I was too young to really understand much of his moral didacticism then.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

Another tough one. But, I suppose the one that made it clear to me that I, too, wanted to just write for the rest of my life was ‘The Diary of Anne Frank‘. I read a borrowed copy at the age of thirteen of fourteen. It blew my mind that a young girl could write about things like she did. And that, despite all that was going on, she still had hopes to get out and be a writer.

Actually, I can’t just name one. Here are two more that have shaped me both as a human being and as a reader-writer.

A Room of One’s Own‘ by Virginia Woolf: This elegantly-crafted book-length essay from the early-twentieth century is still valid today. Woolf’s exhortation to women writers to write exactly as they see fit, but make sure that they are self-sufficient just had such a deep impact on me. Her logic for how and why a lack of self-sufficiency limits one’s creative abilities and, therefore, one’s very existence, is simply irrefutable. And, who can argue with this:

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

Man’s Search for Meaning‘ by Viktor Frankl: This little book is a gem I return to every year. Every page resonates with its wisdom and compassionate perspectives, even though I’ve never been through anything as harrowing as Frankl did — nowhere close.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?

So many. Jo March, of course, for the reasons above. And, more recently, Thomas Cromwell for making the best of what was handed to him by life…. and how.

What was the best book ever recommended to you? The best book you received as a gift?

So many recommendations are made these days via online forums, social media, etc. Hard to recall just one best recommendation. Most of the time, I turn to a book because an author I have enjoyed recommends it. For example, when Jhumpa Lahiri recommends Alice Munro or William Trevor. So, I don’t know that I can answer this question singularly.

The best book I received as a gift was when I was a child and my grandfather sent, from London, one of those glossy picture storybooks for kids with me as the central character. Actually, he had one made for my older sister and one made for me. She was Snow White in hers, with the traditional story and the rest of the characters. In mine, I was a mop-haired face-hiding detective who cracked a difficult case. At the time, though I thought that my character was definitely the smarter or the two with a more original and clever story, it also upset me that the entire story did not show my face — I was always obscured by either my hair or other objects. Sadly, as much as I treasured that well-worn book for a couple of years and it was an object of much showing off at my boarding school, it was confiscated by a wicked dorm matron and, at the end of term, when I went back to reclaim it, she shrugged that it was lost. I was heartbroken. My grandfather, by then, had succumbed to ill health and I think my mother thought we were now too old for this kind of indulgence.

Who are the best Indian or Indian-origin writers? The best book ever written about India?

— Arundhati Roy — I don’t agree with all her ideas but her writing, especially her non-fiction, is compelling and gripping.

— R K Narayan — Under-rated, still.

— Salman Rushdie — Over-rated, perhaps, but so satisfying.

— Anuradha Roy — I haven’t read her yet, but intend to do so soon enough.

— Best book ever written about India — ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers‘ by Katharine Boo. Though I must admit to not having read that many “books about India” yet.

There has been a resurgence, or, perhaps, renaissance, in non-fiction in India lately. Some very good non-fiction writers are making their mark — Raghu Karnad, Mihir Sharma, and so on — and I have yet to read them.

Which books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?

Cookbooks, maybe? I don’t think that there are any surprises on my bookshelves for those who know me well enough.

Do you enjoy fiction in translation? Stories from particular corners of the world?

Immensely. I do plan to read more. The last fiction in translation that I read was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ ‘Collected Stories‘. Always wonderful to take a trip to GGM-land, whether through his novels or his shorter works.

I want to try more Indian fiction in English translation but, so far, I haven’t found anything that really grabs me. It’s not the fault of the translators, who are doing the best that they can, I think. It’s more a case, perhaps, of me not looking hard enough.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?

Fay Weldon’s ‘Wicked Women‘, earlier this year. Though a couple of stories show their age, most of them have stood the test of time and the black humor is delicious.

What’s the last book you read that made you cry?

I don’t cry easily from fiction. Not like I used to up until my mid-twenties. Not sure what changed. Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night‘ is hard not to shed a tear over, though.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which five writers are invited?

Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, and W B Yeats. Now, there’s an interesting crew. Can you imagine the conversations? All hold controversial opinions on various topics, so the party is bound to be lively and memorable. Given how widely-read all of these authors were/are, they’d be bringing so many others to the table too, of course. And, I wouldn’t say much at all. Just let them all have at it and sit back to enjoy the show.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Which book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Nabokov’s ‘Collected Stories‘ was such a disappointment. There were some excellent stories, of course. But, overall, the collection was not my cuppa.

And, the last book I put down without finishing….. wow, that was a long time ago. I think the internet has changed my reading habits where I am not able to immerse myself completely into any one book non-stop like I used to be able to. Last year, I did read Elizabeth McCracken’s ‘Thunderstruck & Other Stories‘ over 2-3 days because I needed to finish an author interview and a review for it. Beautiful stories crafted with an uncommon brilliance.

Which book hasn’t been written that you’d like to read?

Hard to say. “The one I’m writing right now” sounds high-minded and presumptuous but, oddly, it’s true. I want to read the stories that I’m exploring through my own writing. In fact, writing is, for me, just another form of reading. And, I am the first reader of everything I write, biased as I may be.

Who would you want to write your life story?

I wish my life were interesting enough for someone to want to write it. But, if there’s one author who could make it sound interesting and worth reading, it would be Hilary Mantel.

Which books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

Oh, this one’s easy. Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters. Treasures, these two. They’d be in my top Desert Island picks.

Which books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

None. If I haven’t read it yet, it’s because I haven’t wanted to do so as much just yet.

E-reader or hard copy? Which do you prefer?

I succumbed to a Kindle Paperwhite last year. But, I only carry it around when traveling. For the most part, though, there’s nothing like curling up with a physical book.

What do you plan to read next?

I’m eying Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories‘ as it sits patiently on my shelves. And, I’ve already started reading the odd page here and there from ‘Ahmedabad: A City in the World‘ by Amrita Shah. I keep thinking I’m going to go back and read all the award winners — Booker, Bailey’s, Pulitzer, et al — someday soon too. But, it will all depend on my mood at the time.

Lastly, do you believe that literature has a higher, redemptive impact on the world, on humanity?

I don’t believe that literature can save the world; nowhere near, actually. Stories are vital to our existence, but we can create and appreciate them in many forms: conversations, gossip, TV, movies, fiction, non-fiction, journalism, the internet, and so on. I used to believe that some of these forms of media were better than others but I think that is really down to the individual and how he or she approaches the “consumption” of that media. I’ve met many readers who practically inhale books on a regular basis but have not, as a result of all their exposure, evolved as human beings. On the other hand, I’ve met many non-readers who, through other media forms, have imbibed stories from the world over and learned or been inspired to make their corner of the world a better place. It’s the old argument of “remember the Nazis’ love for art and culture and their acts of violence towards humanity”.

Speaking for myself only, literature has a higher, redemptive impact on my humanity. I know that I’m a smarter, kinder, more understanding person when books and writing are both a daily practice for me. For another person, a similar sense of wellbeing might come from music or swimming.

So, I don’t think that literature is superior to other disciplines or arts. What’s sad, though, is that the pendulum seems to have swung in almost entirely the opposite direction where reading and writing are increasingly considered leisurely pastimes of those with time and money rather than serious vocations that can be beneficial to our lives. They are not valued as much because of the ubiquity of the written word, both online and offline. And, yet, for me, the more I find myself drowning in 24/7 information blitzes, the more I have a need to shut everything down and either bury myself deep in a well-written book or do some writing myself.

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2 thoughts on “A Reading Life

  1. Nope. No surprises here. You’re very predictable, Jen. But where are all the business books? I remember a time when that’s all you read and talked or wrote about. Or is that on a different blog?

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    1. James! Thanks for stopping by. Been a while. And, thanks for the “predictable” descriptor, particularly as I try hard not to be. 🙂

      Yes, I still have all my business books and dip into them from time to time. But, as I mentioned, since 2013, I’ve been back to reading more fiction and, since 2014, I’ve been working on writing some too.

      Drop me a note to let me know how things are going. Same email as always.

      Like

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