Reading Books – Absurd or Invaluable habit?

I have been wondering why reading is so prominent in human society. I am not talking about academic or work related reading, I am talking about people indulging in reading for the mere joy of it. Agreed, we need to find ways to make ourselves happy. If reading makes us happy, then fine. I have got a couple of questions about this claim i) Is that the only reason we read? ii) does reading really makes us happy all the time? Aren’t we reading books that have sad ending, talk about tragedies, people’s miseries? Why do we read those books, if making ourselves happy is the sole reason? Unless one is sadistic – no one will be reading these kind of books. Bertrand Russell said, people read either to really know stuffs or just to flaunt their reading habits.I would add one more reason why people read. It is for them to forget their absurd existence for a while.To take comfort in not thinking about their meaningless lives & also to take their minds of quotidian worries.

If we glance at any book reading related website, people setup yearly challenges for the number of books they plan to read in a year. I have seen people claiming that they read 100+ books in a year. My primary feel upon reading such claims is disbelief. I seriously doubt people’s audacious claims. (Indian politician Shashi Tharoor claimed once that he read 365 books in a year). But even if they read 100+ books, do they really enjoy reading so many books? Can they even remember what was there in all the 100 books? These people can very well be those who Russell had in mind, when he spoke about people flaunting their reading habits. It baffles me why people spend so much effort/money to flaunt some absurd habits of theirs? If flaunting is the only reason, obviously there are many easy ways to flaunt your different habits. May be people flaunt their reading habits to earn value from society, which in its present form values “Readers”.

When social media was on its rise, there were concerns that reading habits might slowly die in people. But on the contrary, companies came up with new ways (E-readers, sites dedicated to provide summary/abstract of books), to help people keep up with their reading habits (which is one more way to make money), without having to carry hard-copies or even having to read the entire book. The available data for the number of books published in year 2013 is 2.2 Million. So one cannot say that reading habit is dying. I digressed a bit. Shouldn’t such high numbers mean something? From a commercial stand-point, the publishing industry will thrive only when more books are published and more people consume books. [Side note: I have always wondered, whether people acquire a faux aura of intellectualism, when they visit the book stores? I certainly do feel that way, when I go to a book shop and simply glance the available titles]

Some people say that they learn valuable lessons from reading a book. Even if we agree to their point, does learning valuable lessons from book make their lives better? I have seen people, who have gone on to live their lives, without reading a single book in their life times. Yet, they didn’t live any less meaningful life than those who read books. It might even be possible that those who don’t read books, live a peaceful & joyous life than those who read. The moment we read books and understand what is there in the books, unless we’re plain stupid, we become more conscious our lives. And when we become conscious, that’s the end of a blissful ignorant life. Dostoevsky put it bluntly, when he wrote “ be conscious is an illness – a real thorough-going illness”. Once we become conscious, our lives become arduous. I believe children are happy most of the times because they haven’t encountered their conscious-selves yet.

One book that I have read, which made me aware of my conscious self is “The Fall” by Albert Camus. It is a book that every self-proclaimed do-gooder must read. The do-gooder will invariably question her actions after reading the book. The person will think hard before claiming herself to be a do-gooder after reading the book. So if our quest for reading leads us to question our way of living life & makes our lives arduous, what’s the point in reading books?

People read philosophical books for understanding life. Some even try to find flaws in arguments made by philosophers of 17th/18th centuries. If one is not a philosopher, I don’t see point in reading a philosophical books from earlier centuries or even for that matter the century in which the person lives. If the argument of people, who read philosophical books, is to understand life, how will reading a book help understand life? Shouldn’t one live life to understand? Kierkegaard rightly said, “One has to live life forward, but understand life backward”. Boom, here goes my argument of understanding one’s life through living. Thank you Kierkegaard!!

People might say that if we read such books and live our lives better, then we won’t have any regrets in our death beds for we would have lived a fulfilling life having learnt invaluable lessons from such books. I wonder, when we are in our death beds, do we even think about the books that we read and the lessons we got from them? Furthermore, if one is undergoing a painful death, then there will be nothing in that person’s mind except for the pain & suffering that she would be undergoing at that moment. People often say that most people in their death bed regret the things that they haven’t done rather than the things that they did. What if they haven’t even thought about doing some things in the first place? If you haven’t thought about some things, are you allowed to regret about such things? So in what way reading help us with these troublesome questions?

There are people who read biographies of others. The person, whose biography these people read, might have lead an entirely different life style in an entirely different country in an entirely different time period. What’s the point in reading the biography then? Even if one is from the exact place, living an exact same life style, from the exact same time period, will that person behave the same way as the person, whose life is described in biography? We truly know that this isn’t the case. Yet we read biographies of prominent personalities. I wonder what it would be like if everyone living in the world start publishing biographies? Would we read biographies then? Biographies as a genre would lose its value, when everyone start publishing her biography.  Perhaps in future when everyone is a celebrity in her own right, may be everyone will have her own biography.

I am curious to know whether an author would question herself , “Why should people read my books”? If she asks, what answers does she get? And upon receiving which convincing answer, will she start writing her book. Interesting isn’t it?? From a reader’s perspective on what basis do we buy books. Let’s think of case – One should go to a book store, where only books that no one has ever heard of are present, buy a minimum of 2 books before leaving the store. Let’s add another constraint : the person will not be allowed to read anything from the book before buying. Then on what basis would that person choose the two compulsory books? Would our choice be strictly random or will there be a method to the madness? Can we extend that logic to the way we buy books now (except for the reading part & buying more than 2 books)?

Reading books is a habit that we developed to distract ourselves from our inevitable demise. To those who get used to this habit, this becomes an addiction. There is no rhyme or reason to this habit of ours, just as there is no rhyme or reason to our existence or to the universe’s existence. Let’s all go read another book just for the heck of it. #Viva la Absurdism”!!!!!

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