“I think of literature,” she wrote, “as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but will never reach. And I have started too late. I will never catch up.”— The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The reader in me surfaced in 2015. I was 28. It was the hardest year of my life, but with the strength that the books, the community of kind book bloggers, and my own writing gave me, I survived that year. In words, I found solace. In the make-believe worlds, I found truth. In the literary characters, I found friendship. The humble books were the antidote to my loneliness, and anxiety. Under the flattering yellow light of a floor lamp, I curled up on my bed, with a warm puppy at my feet, I read and read and read, as though I was given one last chance to make up for all the 28 years I had lost by not allowing books into my universe, as though I was incarcerated by the urge to atone, and that I could tunnel my way to liberty only by reading more.
Five years later, from this vantage point, when I look at that person, she looks like a postwoman to me. Instead of envelopes, and packages, there are books on her table. Her neck, bent down toward the table, looks like a question mark. She picks up a book from a tall pile, inhales the words, stamps the book as ‘Read’, places it on top of another unruly pile, and she repeats the process. If I expand my imagination even further, I find her standing at an assembly line, picking up books, inhaling the words, and placing them again on the conveyor belt. The process of stamping a book in the first scene translated into marking the book ‘Read’ on Goodreads in real life. I am not judging her. I am not attempting to reduce her love for reading. Her single-minded focus to devour books still makes me proud. But an array of questions swim in my head when I think of that reader, and the question that I want to explore in this piece is: what role did Goodreads play in molding that reader?
As I sit with the question on how Goodreads colour the way I approach reading, more questions squirrel out of that question. Since 2015, if I hadn’t discovered Goodreads, how many books would I have read every year? How did the Goodreads Reading Challenge influence my choice of books? Did I choose short books, and children’s literature more because I wanted to meet the challenge? Why did the numbers matter to me so much? If I hadn’t been obsessive about reading 70 books every year, would I have read at all? Or would I have become a better reader who paused and thought more about what I read instead of rushing to dive into the next book? Would I have made more time to wrestle with complex ideas? Would I have had the headspace to write more about what I read? If the objective need to read more were removed from my life, would I be a reader at all?
An acquaintance shamed me for doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge. “Do you still do those challenges?” he asked, without trying to soften the edges of his condescension. I am not good at shooting a comeback instantly; I marinate the insult and question in my thoughts before choosing a suitable response. I was taken aback by how appalled the acquaintance seemed that someone reads because they are inspired to meet a certain goal. It seemed blasphemous to him. He came from the school of thought that if you are reading because you want to read more books, then you are not reading at all. You are merely reading the items on a bill handed to you at a restaurant. He argued that you read because you want to become a better thinker. And you don’t have to read too many books to hone your thinking. You just need to choose timeless books, and understand, and challenge the great minds which wrote those books.
During that unpleasant meeting, I didn’t have the language to tell the acquaintance that each reader has a unique purpose for reading. In 2015, I read because I was lonely, depressed, and books were my undemanding friends. Reading was my exit route from a reality that seemed like a labyrinth. It gave me words for the feelings which I thought were inexpressible. As the stories unspooled, it occurred to me that what I was going through was personal and universal. So, I wanted to read more. I wanted to meet literary people who were keen to relate their stories to me, and we passively exchanged notes. Even if I weren’t pleased to see the numbers soaring on my Goodreads Reading Challenge that year, I would have read. Because I was grateful to be alive. In the face of survival, engaging with ‘great thinkers’ becomes futile. The process of reading is stripped down to its core — I read because I am human.
I still do the Reading Challenge on Goodreads. It lets me stay disciplined when I am compelled by the need to sit in front of my tablet, to be numbed by what Netflix shows. This year, while my goal was to read 70 books, I have read 93 books. At book club meets, the numbers give me bragging rights. I see the jaws dropping, and I hear the collective sigh of the readers. It feels good. But I now want to play devil’s advocate, and agree with the said snobbish acquaintance. I ask these questions to myself: do I internalise what I learn from the books? How do I stop my books from becoming a scenery that I mindlessly watch while seated on a bus as it careens to an undisclosed destination? Do I set realistic goals for myself? I pronounce myself guilty of all the aforementioned offences.
As 2020 packs, and leaves, I am going to commit the ancient mistake of making resolutions. From 2021, I am going to slow down. I am going to do more research about the author after reading a book, make conscious efforts to read books mentioned in footnotes and epigraphs and ‘Further Reading’, develop the patience to stay with an idea until I grasp it fully, read more physical books, run the highlighter on favourite passages, try to write about a book even if I am pushed back by writer’s block, and stop choosing short books just to meet the goal. In 2021 too, I will set a realistic reading goal, and make meaningful, disciplined efforts to achieve it. In that process, I am certain that I will brush shoulders with ‘great thinkers’, and that organically discovering influential minds is better than being besotted with them like a star-struck fan chasing her idol to take a selfie.
In 2021, may wonderful books happen to me, and to everybody who breathes freely in between pages.