Why I read – the long version.

I thought all day to come up with a suitable metaphor about what it feels like to begin reading a new novel. I can’t really equate it with any one experience. I was going to say something really corny like ‘sinking into a new novel is like falling in love’. But I won’t say that. Unlike love, a novel is undiluted pleasure.

Early this week, I started reading A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower. Personally, I think I get the most pleasure from a novel in the first four or so chapters. If it’s an author I am familiar with, the experience of reading the first couple of chapters is like walking back from the mail room with a letter I think is from a friend. I still don’t know the details, but I know enough to be positively inclined to continue investigating. More importantly, I still have a choice, to carry on or not. After about 100 or so pages, usually I no longer have a choice. I must read on.

In those first four chapters, I’m still testing the waters, getting a feel for the texture and colors of the universe the novel offers. This is why I love long novels, because I can give this process of discovery the due diligence it demands. I read partly in order to escape my world, and the greater the details I have about the world I am escaping to, the more real the flight feels. I love authors like Ishiguro and Amit Choudhary for this reason. No floor, no room, no garden, no setting is too trivial for them. Everything is described in loving detail. This is the same reason why I love a book like The Blind Assassin. Before you get to the messy details of what someone did, it’s vital to know who they are, so you understand just why they ultimately do what they do.

In the beginning, a novel is just a novel. I vaguely remember some law from bio-instrumentation – that the very act of measuring a natural phenomenon alters the phenomenon being measured. I don’t suppose a novel ever is just a novel, except in those first few pages. Perhaps novels are created in order to be measured, to be viewed through the eyes and the individual experiences of every reader. But in the beginning, I haven’t yet begun relating to the characters and the situations, to see them through the eyes of who I am, who I think I am, or who I wish I was. All that comes later.

Mind you, it is not that I dislike novels that hurtle you into the action in the second sentence. That is a thrill of a different kind. If you’re listing the merits of different escape mechanisms, the epic is like a 10 course meal with your best friend, in a place very far away from the reality of the present lives of you and you friend, where you have all the time in the world. Pleasures from the past are remembered, and even as you enjoy that meal and that conversation about remembered joys, you know this experience will forever be a part of you, to be recalled at future feasts. The thriller that begins with ‘There was blood everywhere’ or something similar is like doing something immensely pleasurable after you’ve gotten very drunk. Afterwards, you will remember that there probably was pleasure, but the details will be vague. The ten course meal, and getting drunk – both are pleasurable. And both have their own times and places.

Having said that, I really do prefer works like the omnibus edition of the Lord of the Rings where initial perseverance is demanded. Perhaps my love for thick tomes is also a tad motivated by the wonderful feeling I get from adding that imagined regal tilt to my actually rather stubby nose, as I look pityingly at friends who gave up too early.

The pleasure does not go away after the first few chapters. If you think of those chapters like the road to a self-contained world in a castle, the next few chapters (you still haven’t reached the mid-point yet) are like crossing the moat. Some things start making sense, but there is much that is yet to be discovered. I crossed the moat into Babel Tower two nights ago. I now know that the narrative deals not with three parallel story lines, but two. Perhaps the remaining ones will merge, too. I don’t know, and am prepared to find out in my own sweet time. (Update from last night: the story has unexpectedly diverged, with a couple of additional parallel story lines)

Having crossed that moat, I will be in the thick of things. This is when the fever to find out “what happens next?” catches on. From this point on, I’m a lost cause. I only turn off the lights when it’s 3:00 AM or even later, after I realize I absolutely MUST get out of bed in roughly 3-4 hours time. The next day, caffeine from several cups of hot Darjeeling tea is the only thing preventing my head from crashing into my keyboard. Finally the work day ends, dinner is a hurried affair, and I can’t wait to get into my bed and into my book.

By this time, there’s pressure to finish the book. I don’t have the patience to linger on, savoring each line. Sometimes, I purposely call off the chase, when I feel I’m completely missing the point. I have done this repeatedly with Golden Gate. Time and again, there comes a point when I stop relishing the poetry and care only about the story. I have yet to finish that book. Perhaps the only solution is to read it through, and come back for a second, slower reading.

Not all novels get me this worked up, thank goodness. I’d never get any sleep otherwise. The average Woodhouse is an example. I re-read three Jeeves novels over a three week period, rarely reading more than a chapter a day. There’s no hurry to finish. I knew that Jeeves will rescue everyone, which cheered me up. I knew that poor Bertie will end up with egg on his face, which depressed me more than it usually does. I prefer Blandings Castle books, where there’s never even a suggestion of evil. Lady Constance at her most livid and the worst pig stealer are benign creatures compared to the menace that Jeeves is. Lord Emsworth is NEVER hurt, unlike poor Bertie. And Gally Threepwood is infinitely superior to Jeeves, when it comes to spreading lightness and joy in this world. But I continue to read Jeeves books in the blind hope that someday, one day, Bertie will get to keep his purple socks or his eye-sore of a mess jacket or his moustache… It hasn’t happened so far – but there are many Jeeves books. Am sure there are a few I haven’t read yet, there just may be one where Bertie will finally be recognized by one and by all for the genuinely nice chap he is, instead of being labeled ‘well-meaning ass’ / ‘of negligible intellect’ or whatever other insults he collects by the end of a book.

As always, I get distracted. Apologies. To go back to before I veered off at a tangent, not all books have me sleep deprived. Whether or not they make me lose sleep, most of them (at least the good ones) leave their mark. Before I am even conscious of it, another pearl of wisdom or inane remark becomes part of my own make up (the latest addition – “What [people]’re really thinking about isn’t the one they are marrying but the one they aren’t.” From the Byatt I am reading). Sometimes I wonder if my life completely vicarious lived only through the lives of the people I read about… But the fact is I am not Helen Graham or Colonel Fawcett. Just as I am not Shanti Seth or Jack Aubrey. Books teach me lessons I will never have a chance to learn otherwise.

I think I will stop here. There literally is no end to the reasons why I read, and the pleasures I get from it. Despite rambling on for all this time, I am positive that the minute I click the Publish button, at least five other things will occur to me, as they will keep occurring to me through out today and later tonight. What brought on the rambling? This morning, after taking one look at my blood shot eyes, a colleague innocently asked why I read… Ha.

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6 comments so far

  1. the One (and Only) on

    Very nicely put! Liked the ten-course meal / getting drunk analogy.

  2. DoZ on

    Thank you, One 🙂

  3. Falstaff on

    Nice.

    You have read the first chapter of Calvino’s Once upon winter’s night a traveller, right? That remains my all-time favourite description of the sheer joy of picking up a new book.

  4. DoZ on

    Thank you, Falstaff. Yeah, do remember Calvino. That’s one my favorites, too

  5. Karthik on

    Very nice… evocative as always.

    Where does Harry Potter rank in Doz Drunk/Sober meter? *Takes cover*

  6. DoZ on

    Thank you, Karthik 🙂 As for Potter, JKR is midway between a 10 course meal & a drunken revel. Potter books are definitely fast-paced, but the real pleasure lies in discussions with other Potter fans that span several 10 course meals 🙂 I live in daily hope that you will see the light 🙂


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