Thursday 31 March 2016

Books and the fascination of discovery.

Books and the fascination of discovery.

A fascinating fellow who went by the name of TF Carthick before reverting to the more prosaic Karthik Lakshminarayanan posed this question on Facebook yesterday.

“Pondering over a very basic question - why do people read new books? There are thousands of book already written and most of us are not going to read all of them in our life time. Still what makes a reader pick up a new book rather than one of the unread older ones? (Especially when new book is not a Litfic that is a commentary on present times)”

As with most things that literary Socrates does, it prompted a discussion. (Another way of looking at it is to say that his way of dealing with his own insecurities as a writer is to inflict them on the world at large, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one).

This is fast becoming a Carthick staple, though - the prompting of debate. His last such query led to the writing of this very fair and balanced analysis of the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon by Jean Burke-Spraker. At the risk being self-promotional, I would even suggest reading Jean’s essay in conjunction with mine, available here.

But coming back to the question, it triggered some soul-searching. Why indeed, do we pick up new books. Or old books. Or any sort of books at all? A part of the answer lies in that essay by Jean I referenced earlier. She quotes Bhagat as saying his books are in competition with ‘Candy Crush’, a fairly-inane but addictive mobile gaming app. Facile as that is, it brings out the fact that books are read for entertainment.

Even Taylor Swift used to read as a child, as this photo illustrates
Education too, some of you would point out, and I would have to agree. A lot of people grow up knowing academic textbooks as the only ‘books’ they encounter, both fiction and non-fiction are a stranger to them. They consume news through hearsay and rumour – now replaced by Times Now and WhatsApp.

What about both, though? The best educational reading is that which is also entertaining. You can learn much from reading books that are nonetheless much fun. Phineas Finn offers fascinating knowledge of parliamentary politics. Huckleberry Finn (not a relative of the aforementioned) is an amazing insight into the American south and race relations. All Quiet on the Western Front is a depressing look at the hopelessness and horror of war. In Shame, Salman Rushdie deconstructs Pakistani society of the Bhutto – Zia era more effectively than any books by political analysts. Hell, if I had a rupee for every time I heard ‘Read Wodehouse to improve your English,” I’d have enough to fill a sock and bash myself on the head with it. (Myself, I only ever read the master's work for the laughs, english be damned).

And if your English doesn't improve, at least learn to drive a vintage car. Can you at least do that, eh?
But why pick up an old book indeed? I wrote on this over at Readomania, in this article, where I tried to make a case for reading the works of authors who are long-dead; though I don't know whether I was particularly successful in this endeavour. Karthik’s question, in this context, was surprising. It is my firmly-held belief that we live in an era where readers read nothing but new books. In an age of short attention spans, an obsession with the present, and an unwillingness to challenge one’s own mind, it is difficult to convince anyone to read a book by an author writing of a different time or place.

Is this less true of fantasy and Sci-Fi? I suppose not. Even these speculative genres are a product of their times. For all their references to medieval heraldry and renaissance society, both GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Steven Erikson’s Malazan are rooted in modern sensibility and disenchantment, rather than the wide-eyed romance of earlier times. They are also, despite their rather difficult language, perhaps more accessible (other series like Harry Potter and so on definitely are) than a book by Jules Verne or maybe even JRR Tolkein.

That's assuming you can understand his handwriting first.

In the end it is a personal decision – what to buy and what not to. Every individual will approach it differently, based on what they have read before, what they have been brought up believing and how much money they have.

I’ve been fortunate, in a sense. My family had two generations of very literate, book-loving people and I was raised surrounded by a decent number of novels, mostly classics. My school’s library was well-equipped too, and my birthday gift demands were also regularly met – with more books.

So at the present date I have read everything Dickens wrote, except Edwin Drood, some of it thrice over, nearly everything by Hardy, Austen and the Brontë sisters…I’ve read the most celebrated of the works of the Russian masters, of Hugo and Dumas, of Twain and Melville. The point is not to speak about what I have read though. I’m trying to bring out that, despite the damage this sort of reading might have done to my mind and my writing ability, it was varied enough that I can generally read at a pretty high level. (It also does wonders for my performance in the vocabulary section of CAT and similar exams. Go figure.)

But you know what, there’s a ton of old books I haven’t read. They sit on my bookshelf or my Kindle, with that resentful look that old books know how to give you. Wuthering Heights, especially, is a major culprit, since despite having read the book a dozen times (give or take) still seems to give me melodramatic stares from time to time, as I wrote about here. And I hope to read them all too, some day, if I live long enough. But why should I not read new books as well? Mohammed Haneef is a fantastically talented writer whose two books that I have read make me await his next. Rushdie will probably be considered a classic by now, but hey, he’s still around and he’s still writing.

Why even go that far? I’m curious to know what C. Suresh is cooking up. I’d like to see where Neil D’Silva finds his next horrifying protagonist. I’d even like to see if Shiv Ramdas goes full lit-fic or takes his art in a different direction.

The bottom line is curiosity. A new book, like the new shawarma-seller or kebab-paratha corner who opened down the street, makes me curious. I want to know what it is about.

Yes, I know there’s a host of books I haven’t read, but every unread book has the same potential to be disappointing or wonderful. That’s where reputation, a blurb, a cover comes in. That’s where recommendations come in. Before I’ve read it, why should I assume The Return of the Native (1878) will be any better or worse than The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or Our Impossible Love (2016)?

So, don’t. Whether it’s a new Booker winner you’ve heard so much about, the latest bestseller that you’re sure is going to crap, or that classic you’ve been told is boring as hell, don’t assume anything until you’ve at least read the blurb or an excerpt. Give everything a shot. There’s a host of wonderful writing out there – sooner or later, the man TF Carthick (or whatever he will be calling himself by then) will write a book that I think I’ll like. But…until he writes it, and until I buy it…I will never know.

Until then, check out his writing though.


  1. One thing for me about why read a new book. Every era has its social systems; its share of fair and unfair behavior. Books can and should question the cons of any existing social system in the context of the system. THAT is something a book written in an earlier age may not do.

    Even in fantasy, you would see that the role of women WOULD get questioned in a book of today - or modified - whereas a fantasy novel of yesterday would freeze them into the 'damsel in distress' image, with no questions asked.

    1. And in a sense that is why I dislike comparison of authors and works exclusively rooted in a modern cultural context. I read an article a few days ago where the writer had praised Anne Bronte and the expense of Charlotte and Emily by pointing out that her work was 'more feminist' in nature than that of her sisters and that made her superior.

      I didn't have to frame a response, of course, since most comments printout out that judging a writer on anything other than writing ability was stupid, and one who succinctly made the point that saying X is better than Y because X's writing agrees with YOUR prejudices doesn't make it so. It only means that you like X better than Y due to a confirmation bias.

      It's why I don't like to rank authors beyond a certain level of merit :)

    2. I agree. But THAT seems to be the way review works. A badly written work that echoes your own attitudes is seen as a better book than a well written one that challenges them.

      The problem these days is even worse. Any book that makes you think is, by definition, a bad book for a lot of readers :) Dumb down the language, dumb down the ideas and what is a writer writing for - except the moolah, if he can get it :)

  2. New books, well they give to me a new life to live. Everytime I read I am a new personality. The book has the capability to draw a reader in is the book I will be going for. I grew up reading premchand and Bhagat-Durjoy-Ravinder-Amish-Shenoy-Nikita, but my thirst was never quenched. I yearn for more, perhaps in years to come I will be able to read the classics, the treasured pieces,of modern literature.
    And as for this blog-post, well thanks for hammering every word on my head.
    Keep writing.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I do indeed hope you will take up the classics one day. There is much to enjoy!

  3. Wow, this is masterpiece...I think I will get to tell my grandchildren tall tales of knowing the author Percy Wadiwala

    1. Haha. No, you won't. But thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed this piece.

  4. Great post, Percy. I have always believed that for those who love books, the issue whether they are Old or New ones would't and shouldn't really matter. I have always read them for the sheer joy they provide. I have enjoyed Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, the incomparable PGW, Verne, Wells, Asimov, Doc Smith and at the very same time derived as much happiness with the new age writers ( mentioning only the Indian ones)--C. Suresh, Neil and TF himself come to mind. Percy, your own writing--specially your Ana and Ser Pounce series--is comparable with the very best I have read. To conclude, I guess it doesn't really matter if the book is old or new, what does matter is whether you are happy reading it or not. I am all for reading new books and authors, as long as their writing appeals to me--that is the only yardstick I apply.

  5. Well the way I see it, a logical reason why most people would end up picking a freshly published book over other books-even the ones they are sure will be good- is that its the easiest decision to make. If I have a collection of hundred brilliant films, more often than not, I will end up picking the one that has been most recently recommended, instead of spending a good hour and a half scratching my head over which one I should "ideally" watch first.

    The more choices you have, the more muddled the task of prioritising gets. At least for me, it does.

    1. I don't know that the logic of order of publication follows, really. Boils down to familiarity as well. The mental leap to take yourself out of the real world into a fantasy novel might make a reader reluctant to pick up The Lord of the Rings. The same reluctance to read fiction that hits too close to home would deter a reader of fantasy from picking up The White Tiger.

      Old or new, we all operate from our prejudices. If a reader can truly succeed in overcoming those, he will have an enriched experience, I think.

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  7. These days I'm quite taken by the old writers. I'm dying to read Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and Dick (curse them examinations, uh!). I read Atwood and I already crave another read of hers. I read The Catcher in the Rye and I loved it so much I tried reading The Great Gatsby only to find out it wasn't quite to my liking. I've had The LOTR sitting on top of the pile since the last year but what made me finally pick it up was a souvenir that one teacher gifted me when she learnt of my fascination towards Fantasy. Then, I got my friend to lend me Murakami. Darn, there is so so so much to read. Titles just keep on getting added to the list. I'm way behind in terms of reading — I haven't read much of the classics; no Austen, only one by Dickens; no Bronte, no Hardy — I have a lot of catching up to do. So, in a world overflowing with choices, I am experiencing what Camus has called the Absurd (yeah, I have yet to read Camus as well): my desire to read everything and it being humanly impossible for me to achieve that; because hey, I need to watch movies and anime too (doing what in the last years kept me from reading more as my time got divided).
    So, there. Now, I don't particulalrly care if the book is new or old. It just needs to be interesting enough. Since I cannot possibly read and watch 'every'thing, I can at least try to consume the best of the lot. Now that's the tricky part. How to learn which work is 'good enough'? Phew. But I'll be all right as long as I have my neverending TBR and TBW lists long, and interesting, enough, and erudite freinds to keep the fire in me burning. You, sir, included.

    1. And the prize for best comment of 2016 goes to you, good lad. That was rambling brilliance :D

  8. A very heart-warming post. Great to read it once again.

  9. Loved the piece. I like new books as they echo contemporary mores and realities,and I find reflections of my life more in them than in the old ones. I like old ones as so many matters of the heart and mind are timeless. Which ones to read - I hope people don't take your 'opinions' piece seriously, and keep writing reviews and making recommendations - and I keep learning about the good ones.