On reading

It started with a replacement teacher scolding me for reading that poem from my English textbook which wasn’t in syllabus for the soon to be conducted term examinations.

She was a classmate’s mother and knew the exact schedule and syllabus of the term papers. She came in as a replacement during a period when the main teacher was on leave and asked us to revise for the upcoming test. And when she found me reading a poem from the textbook which wasn’t marked for the test, she screamed at me for wasting time! I silently went back to revising for the test but not without wondering if what I had done really deserved the screech from ‘Miss’- after all, I wasn’t disturbing anyone, I was only reading a poem and that too from the school textbook!

While some may take this incident as an example of my disobedience, to me it is a clear indication of how we treat ‘reading’ as a hobby. Over the years, the only thing which has been constant in my life is my love of stories. Many of my colleagues, former batchmates/classmates say that they loved reading earlier but don’t find time anymore. I do not disagree completely. With increasing responsibilities and bills to pay on our own, it is only natural that priorities in our lives will shift. Where once I could bunk classes to finish a novel, I now don’t even have the heart to stay awake an extra hour to read a few more pages.

Time crunch leading to a slacking in our reading habit is understandable and justified. But what baffles me completely is that, more often than not, it is only ‘reading’ which is questioned, and not any of the other time-wasting hobbies that I (or others may have).

From time to time I have been asked how I manage to read with busy full-time jobs. Not once has anyone asked me how I managed to finish Netflix series and movies. I do understand that we tend to wonder about things which are not up our alley. Like I look at colleagues with impeccable make-up and styling and wonder how in the world do they take time out to dress like that! I am amazed (in a good way) at people who are disciplined enough to wake up early to hit the gym. However, I feel it is strange how often the ‘how do you manage to read’ comes up and how often it is accompanied with ‘while in a full-time job’, almost as if a job and reading can simply not co-exist.

From what I understand, it is not as much a question of people wondering about time management, as it is about classification of activities and whether we place ‘reading’ in the bucket of leisure. For most of us, while growing up reading was closely linked to reading for class. Taking notes, marking words for their meanings, memorizing sentences were all considered part of classwork. Even after we left the conventional classroom, these activities continued to be associated with ‘work’ and not ‘leisure’. So, whereas Netflix is justified in bringing the much-needed work-life balance, people (of course I mean ‘some people’, #NotAllMen) cannot wrap their heads around reading after or beyond work- to them it seems more work and a clear wreckage of the ‘work-life balance’. The judgment in some people’s tone is so obvious that you end up feeling guilty for reading a novel at 11 pm when you could very well be working on a deliverable. Coz’ isn’t reading just another form of ‘work’?

And here is where it gets really interesting- on the one hand while some may feel reading is work, others feel that reading for knowledge is still acceptable, but my oh my if you choose to read stories!! What an utter waste of time, that!

India, in spite of being a land of stories and storytellers, is mostly home to non-fiction readers . In a country of more than a billion, it goes without saying that being competitive, striving, learning, growing and upskilling are the priority- so you rather read history than historical fiction, you rather read science that sci-fi. Yes, I understand that, and I love non-fiction myself, but not without an equally matched strong and healthy dose of fictional stars- men who loved, women who ruled, dragons that fought, and the dead which returned.

As an introvert (mostly!) whose life has revolved around fictional characters- the demons they have slayed, and the voyages they have made- it is distressing to know that reading, and especially reading fiction does not count as much to so many of my peers.

I recently came across a social media post on how Indians need to be taught the skill of articulation in school and how reading is key to being articulate. This fits in closely to also developing your Emotional Quotient (EQ). Your empathy and EQ are closely linked to how far ahead you will go in your career, and it is fiction which can help you improve on this front. Harvard Business Review makes the case for reading fiction loud and clear.

So, those were my thoughts on reading, on feeling guilty when I am reading for leisure instead of working, and on reading fiction. And though I do not intend to make this a post with tips and tricks to read more and read better, I think it is befitting to briefly mention the utility of audiobooks. It surely is a matter of personal preference, and even more of the type of book we want to read- but overall, a great way to continue being transported into magical worlds and far-off countries, while not lagging on those dishes that need to be cleaned and that laundry which needs to be done- is the absolutely marvellous format of audiobooks. It has the power to change your entire outlook on reading- and reading itself holds the key to changing your life. So, try audiobooks! They can change your life.

Leaving you with The Bet, my favourtie short story by the Russian master storyteller, Anton Chekhov.

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