Why Read?

I will try and keep this brief.

The words in the title (all two of them) are taken from an essay by Italo Calvino called Why Read The Classics? He performs the contraction himself, in order to prove a better point; but if you know this you’ve already read the essay, and I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know.

I am talking, instead, to the friends, family, and acquaintances (all two of them) who don’t like to read at all – the ones who’ve probably seen some of the longer words above and already gone back to browsing for reviews of Happy New Year (it’s exactly what you’d expect from an SRK film. Please come back?).

Why stumble over some idiot’s word fixation when there’s photos to browse, get-togethers to organize, Diwali winnings to splurge? Why sit alone in a corner and read instead of getting together with friends, watching a movie, catching up on sitcoms in all-night marathons or simply doing anything more ‘interesting’, more organic?

Why read?

Coming back to Shah Rukh Khan: ever noticed how his real-life interviews and appearances always show him in a better light than any of his zillion movie roles? How he seems to think quicker on his feet, deliver wittier responses, come across as more charismatic, more attractive appealing?

SRK is (and has always been) a voracious reader. It’s one of the few traits that cannot be cooked up by marketing teams and image consultants; a lot of his vim and vigor come from being able to think on his feet, from his gift for articulation, and reading is one of the few ways these qualities can be cultivated.

He’s a reader in the same way that his characters (and the demographic they pander to) are not. The reason a Rahul-naam-toh-suna-hi-hoga talks like he’s never read a book is because, well, he probably hasn’t.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Books don’t make you smarter by themselves, but they drastically improve your vocabulary, thereby making you sound smarter; they expand your thought (we’ll come back to this) and they are fruitful and satisfying in a way movies or television can never be.

For instance (since you seem to have a few minutes in hand) click here to read Wikipedia’s description of King Ashok’s conquest of Kalinga, and what followed immediately afterwards.

Yes, I know you already know. Do it anyway. I’ll wait.

Done with that monologue? Did you feel anything?

And that’s Wikipedia, a site renowned for its neutral tone and focus on facts.

Imagine what a halfway-decent writer could do if (s)he set out to elicit a similar response.

That‘s what reading is all about – not just narratives, but a transfer of information that’s more potent than any sound or image, because it can connect directly to your thoughts and feelings. Your idea of the woeful king and his ruinous conquest would be different from mine, and it would resonate more deeply with you than any representation a second (or third) party could come up with.

You don’t need to take my word for it, of course. Here is the trailer for an epic film adaptation starring… well, SRK. The Financial Times dubs it a “Truimph for India” [sic] but I’ll let you be the judge.

We talked about the expansion of thought a few paragraphs ago.

I have a friend who lived his first three years in a block of railway quarters just off Connaught Place. He subsequently moved to our apartment complex in the Jamna-paar region – the newer annexure to Delhi situated across the Yamuna.

We’ve had our fun here, made some stellar memories; but he admits that none of these moments carry the same heft or weight as those spent on the streets of his early childhood. The people are the same, as are the conversations; but the sense of place isn’t as sharply defined.

You see, the origins of Lutyen’s Delhi lay in a well-thought-out blueprint, one that gave ample space for people to simply wander. There have been bursts of rapid development, and potholes and detours, but the tree-lined avenues are still wide enough to accommodate meandering conversations, or pleasant journeys with no set endpoint.

The topography on this side of the river is adequate, but that’s about it. The significance of particular locations can be attributed almost wholly to the time and the company.

To follow the torturous analogy just a couple steps further: not-reading is like living Jamna-paar. There is laughter and sadness and moments of purely transcendent joy, but they’re merely adequate. Even the transcendence.

That’s because there is nothing for these experiences to resonate with. There are no grand coincidences to marvel at, no sense of connection with anything beyond the tangible here and now, no phrase or idea lodged within the imagination to catalyze ordinary experience into something wholly improbable and delightful.

There are no wide avenues to soar over.

Why read? Because reading is essentially a minor transformation nestled away in letters and words. It can comfort you, titillate you, bleach all happiness out of the world or dull the pain of everyday existence.

If handled right, it can do all the above and change you. Bring you closer to the clouds, a few inches at a time.

If that was a bit much and/or didn’t quite do the trick for you, here’s a picture of a girl caught in the act:

She could care less if you stopped existing

Notice the doddering towers on either side of her. Any of those books could lead anywhere in the world; do you think she’d be satisfied with dance-oriented heists and glitzy production values painted over an idiot plot?

Speaking of rhetorical questions, here’s a couple more in parting:

Q-1 Does a life without books provide you with enough room to breathe?

Q-2 Does it really?

Thank you for your time.

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