The Need To Read

Reading is something I am incontrovertibly good at. Regrettably, where I come from this doesn’t amount for much. The pursuit of prosperity trumps that of ‘happyness’ in most vocational choices; and I do concede to the fact that reading is not the most affluent of occupations and it may never be. People often ask me what drives me to read books thicker than my thigh, what urges betroth my sensibilities when I devote time to books without pictures, what variety of recreation is achieved from losing sleep fathoming the minds and lives of people who aren’t even real… So obviously, readers don’t read for economic benefit or the grand approbation the enterprise derives from the general public. Perhaps then, reading truly is a glorified rephrasing of passing idle time; however just because the aforementioned conclusion is extremely undemanding, I would like to propose the quest for deeper investigation and venture the possibility of there being more to reading than mere grasping of lengthy series of funny words strung together for some presumed purpose.

No man is an island, said John Donne. Curious thing to say in context with the connections we bear and share with the rest of the humankind. Seems rather blatant that the actions of one have repercussions on many, because that’s how civilized societies function. That being said, I disagree with Donne strongly and wholeheartedly. Forgive me for employing a cliché here but there really are only ‘two kinds of people on earth’ – islands and Mother Teresas.

Think about it while having dinner tonight. Picture a boy of 6 years, his skin charred by an unforgiving Sun, dried blood filling the cracks in his lips, his skeletal arms barely hinging on to his innocent frame and a swollen belly whose weight his legs can’t bear any more. In the ruthless aridity of his surroundings the little boy seeks solace in the magical tales and happy endings his sister spins for him every night. But it’s getting increasingly difficult for her to talk about freedom and festivities, and colour and comfort; things she has never seen and knows she will never see because she is only 9 and already a distraught and distended caricature of human life. Do we feel for them? Does knowing the story of their lives, their habits and hopes and dreams make them any more important to us? And if it does, is it not a disservice to thousands of other children who have suffered similarly in the famine, who destroyed their delicate hands and lungs trying to fill the gun powder in our fire crackers, who were forced into brutal drudgery for procuring and polishing the diamonds that adorn our vanity, whose life became of meaning and value only to the insects who finally survived on their tiny cadavers? It sure makes us uncomfortable reflecting upon such harsher realities of life, but not uncomfortable enough to stop having our dinner all together, does it?

Forget about this one. Matters involving children always cut too deep. (Your mental sigh of relief has been noticed and noted.)

No man is an island said John Donne and I disagree. Because we cannot let ourselves feel too deeply; because, for self-preservation, we built walls around ourselves that protect our sanity from reality; because we drew boundaries to our sensitivity and compassion in order to live. Every man is an island, because if we’re not reality will cripple us and drive us crazy or it will make saints out of us, like Mother Teresa. If we were not islands, we’d be drowning irretrievably, unable to make any sense of the world we live in. The islandic nature of our psyche keeps us afloat and insulated from the countless tragedies surrounding us and convinces us to keep hoping, and believing, and striving for a better tomorrow. Against all the anguish too deep to be contained or expunged, these shells we build our lives in are our best defence mechanism.

But then we turn tragedies into statistics by measuring human life in numbers – allotting a couple million casualties here and there to terrorism, trafficking, war, disease, one catastrophe after another. Sooner than we know, this cardinal observation of reality desiccates our ability to empathise. The isolation of our narrow sanctuaries numbs our sense of compassion. Apathy replaces humanity. That is why we need individual stories – to thaw our solidified sensitivity, to turn statistics back to human beings.

Literature is a very emotional experience. It makes us confront myriad aspects of reality we’d only rather see from the corner of our eyes; it gives us a sincere chance to get under someone else’s skin and become a part of an experience that meant something to someone. Like the scientists who contain their organic fascination in jars filled with formaldehyde, authors capture the most fragile yet powerful emotions in ink and on paper (traditionally) they carve moments of clarity, leaps of blind faith, and songs of a fading summer. Literature gives us the chance to be born in a lavish palace with many turrets and towers of gold, to chase cars barefoot in the downtrodden streets of a remarkable city, to solve the murder of a dainty aristocrat, to clandestinely fall in and out of love with a Victorian gentleman, to fight for freedom with undaunted courage, and die vicariously with every martyr of the World War; and then, return to the “real world” essentially unscathed but significantly wiser, ready to resume a life more sensitive and appreciative of one another.

Now, when we see newspapers flashing headlines about a ruthless famine and supplying a callous casualty statistic to augment the gravity of the situation, our hearts will melt for once; because we’ll know of a little boy of 6 who loved listening to his sister’s stories, because we’ll know the boy could’ve become so much more, because we were there, perhaps only in bits and pieces of our attention, but we were there anyway.

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