The only reading that counts is reading for pleasure

By Sharan Saikumar

A couple of days ago a hushed silence descended over the literary world as Shakespeare’s birthday was celebrated, his plays in 37 languages rolled out and Dumas' famous words 'After God, Shakespeare has created most' were fondly recounted.

That day, marked by UNESCO as World Book day, was a landmark event in literary circles around the globe, dedicated to the growth of the reading habit, celebrating the breadth of human achievement that lies between the pages of a book; and yet all this feverish excitement somehow left India cold.

India and the written word have a complicated relationship. We are a nation of fiercely intelligent people who excel in academia, produce rocket scientists and discovered the zero, but staunchly refuse to read a book. If an average American reads 20,000 pages a year, the corresponding number for an average Indian is 320.

 The only reading that counts is reading for pleasure

As Indians we’ve always put a premium on learning and knowledge and a clear discount on pleasure. Reuters

And that's not even the bad news.

The bad news is that our 320 pages are read for terribly cold and transactional reasons like self-improvement and proficiency in English. Less than 20% of India reads for pleasure.

For passionate book lovers whose lives have been touched by the transformative powers of reading, this seems blasphemous. For us, the ability to enter a new world and to be filled with a sense of wonder seem to be the only reasons to read.

Christopher Morley once rightly said: "When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue, you sell him a whole new life, love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night, there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book."

Does India read real books? Apparently not. According to a survey conducted by Tehelka, Indians read only Chetan Bhagat, an author who sums up the limitless potential of a Punjabi boy's first visit to the South with the astute observation: "In Chennai all shop signs were in Tamil." A real book employs perspective-changing metaphors, imagery, complex prose, realism or simple good writing at the very least. A real book is not a Chetan Bhagat novel and the fact that he is our most widely read author proves that our relationship with reading is functional – we satisfy our ‘narrative emotions’, get the story, pick up a few words and move on. We don't care for the ‘aesthetic emotions’, we don’t want to be ‘transported’, we don't expect to feel our heart soar in the dead of the night and we don’t wake up in the morning with the realisation that the world will never be the same again. As a culture, we don't read - we transact and we move on.

We stand to lose more than being ‘transported’ if we continue to read this way. In an experiment at the University of Toronto, one group of the university students read the Chekhov short story The Lady with the Toy Dog, while a control group read a synopsis of the story’s events, stripped of its literary qualities – like a Chetan Bhagat novel. Both groups then took the personality test again. The results, compared pre-and post-reading, revealed that the people “who read the short story experienced significantly greater change in personality (defined as traits of extraversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness) than the control group. What this tells us is that if we don't begin reading soon, we run the risk of diminishing the very nature of our people.

As Indians we’ve always put a premium on learning and knowledge and a clear discount on pleasure. If we are not ready to change our priorities, we can at least reverse the order. It's like what Margaret Atwood said: "I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most."

As a blogger, ex-marketer, evangelist of and would-be novelist, Sharan Saikumar wears many hats, none of which really fit.

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2013 14:14:21 IST