Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On reading...

Some rather intense navel-gazing the past few days. Unfortunately, Don't have the time to update my blog right now, so this will be brief (Once again, I hope). Did read some pretty interesting articles the last few days and will probably have a post on that soon.

The AIRC newsletter had a rather nice piece in it. Excerpts of the speech delivered by Christopher Wurst, Vice Consul, Public Affairs, American Consulate General at M O P Vaishnav College for Women. He talks about books and writers and the importance of reading, and not just any old book, but how one must choose what one reads. Really lovely piece! I liked it so much that I'm spending a good 45 minutes reproducing it here...

I am here today to talk about literature and writing - and share some books I've recently read.
I think we should start very close to home - with your great writer, RK Narayan. I am a huge and devoted Narayan fan; Narayan is a master at saying a lot with a little. He's neither flashy nor difficult, and yet many would argue that he's the greatest English writer Indian has yet produced. His style is crystal clear, his sentences short and sweet, his words basic. His books beigin with a single, simple protagonist. Their character is developed, merely by illustrating mundane daily life, and, finally, invariably the protagonist goes thru a life-changing passage of some type. In the end, the characters, though changed, move forward. Because that's what we humans do.

Great literature, by definition, is transcendent. It touches your soul; it stirs your emotions; it makes you think; but it must be felt - and in that way, it can never be entirely explicated. Great literature occurs when writers take aim at that which is visceral - that which defies understanding - and manage to break through to the other side, if only for a fleeting instant.

So, you ask "What is great literature?" And my answer is: there is no formula, no particular style, no flavoured genre, no superior time period, no subject and no ambition that results in great literature. What is great literature? I know it when I read it. Great literature changes you, makes you a different person simply because you read it. And, in order for that to happen, you make a personal connection with the literature. It is not a one-way street. You must give yourself up to the literature you read. Only then can it rock your world.

Now, here's a warning and a promise: the more you read, the more complex and interesting the world becomes. Or, to paraphrase Socrates: "the more you know, the more you know how much you dont know." If you are seriously going to engage literature, you need to be fearless about going with an open mind.

First: Read. Read. Read. Read. Read widely; read what's new. Read classics; read magazines; read everything. The more you read, the clearer an understanding you'll begin to have about what you enjoy. But, I guarantee, the more widely you read, the more open-minded you stay, the more likely that your tastes will converge with what might be called good literature. (He lists his last twenty books). The point is: Read. So, my second piece of advice to you is: Life's too short to read bad literature.

The 20 books I just listed are the last 20 books that I've finished. They are not the last 20 books I have begun. If you are reading a book that is causing you to suspect that you might be nacroleptic - Stop! Put it down! You owe no allegiance to a book that is giving you no rewards. Find something you like. Now, just because a book is difficult or at times confusing shouldn't cause you to abandon it. Reading is work - remember, the amount of satisfaction derived from reading is exactly proportionate to the amount of yourself you invest in any given book - and sometimes, it is hard work.

There's nothing wrong with hard work. However, sometimes you might find yourself reading an author whose style does not connect with you at all, or a book you cannot find a way to relate to. Stick with what works for you. This leads me to my third point: Only you can decide what you like. Why do you read the books that you read? Foremost, probably, it's because someone - your professor, your parents, your friends - have told you to read certain books. Maybe because you receive a certain book as a gift. Maybe even because you've read an interesting book review in the newspaper. But the point remains that a lot of what you read is initiated from outside soucres. There's nothing wrong with this - I constantly listen to people's advice and try to read every book gifted to me.

Think for yourself and think critically. Or, for short: Think! is my fourth point. Don't take someone's advice about why this book or why that book is great - make up your own mind. Learn to employ the word 'why'. If it takes your breath away, great. Which leads to this advice: Use your brain but follow your gut. As i said earlier, good literature should move you; it should touch you, and thus change you, however subtly. In order for this to happen you need to find a way to connect with what you are reading. How can you personally relate to a work? The fact is, the more you read, the more prepared you are for the world. So, when all else fails: Read, read, read. Every book you read better prepares you for your next book.

My next piece of advice: Great literature necessarily needs to be well-written. I learnt how to write by reading. In that way, I am the sum of all the writers I've read. Bad writing is a dangerous and highly contagious disease. The foremost job of a writer is to communicate. The best writers invariably find ways to communicate in deceptively simple and unobstrusive ways. They succesffully walk the fine line between telling their story and inserting themselves into the story. As writers you should strive to keep your style simple, with short sentences and as few words as possible. RK Narayan is a master wrter, whose prose is so deceptively simple that you'd be forgiven if you thought anyone could do that. I urge you to read him if you haven't - if for nothing else, to learn cues on how you should write.

It's important to know about the authors that write the books we like, just as it's vital to know about their surroundings, their exposure, and their intentions. Reading the thoughts and reactions that intelligent and eloquent people have when they read literature is fascinating. Please, please use your honest and informed reactions to fuel your brilliance; let your brilliance be your own.

In closing, I offer not advice, but an admonition: Read with passion. Remember, the more of yourself you are willing to give up to the task at hand, the more rewards you will receive. Just as you must think for yourself, you must also always read for yourself.

NOTE: The picture incidentally, is of the Connemara Public Library at Madras. Spiffing isn't it?

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