Ways of Reading

I got the inspiration for this article after reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (read my review). It’s a remarkable read for many reasons and that’s precisely what inspired me to think of this topic.

This article dives deeper into how the perspective from viewing painting as art can also translate to reading books as fuel for the imagination.

Reading deserves to be considered as a category, on its own. Not many people realize reading for what it is and they just see it as something one does when they have a book in front of them. But I believe that reading can have many layers and we, as readers, should be able to read better, and not just effectively.

This brings me to another very recent revelation. Which is that the nature of reading for every individual person is very subjective. You can’t expect to quantify your reading skills as being more or less superior than anybody else. Let go of the idea of finalizing your reading habits as something that will always be the same and that it’s bound by fixed rules.

This upgrades and elevates the act of reading into a multi-layered and unique dimension. A dimension where you also have to entertain the possibility that you can be a good reader, a bad reader, and a little bit of both.

I think what reading does to a reader must be synonymous with what a book does to a reader. And I strongly believe that as your reading habits evolve with effort and awareness your experience of reading a book changes.

To make more sense of this concept of reading about reading, I recommend you to read an important book on the subject; it is The Second Common Reader by Virginia Woolf.

The Second Common Reader by Virginia Woolf is a collection of essays. They’re essays about Literature, about decoding their forms, the value of reading, and so on. Her writing connects the dots between a book and the mind of a reader. How, and I quote, “the mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.”

Virginia Woolf begins and ends on the same philosophical and meditative note. That reading is a reward in itself but loving the act of reading can be a profound reward also. This is where the path to reading separates a bit. As a reader, I’m not only dependent on the book to provide a keen and intricate source of knowledge. But I’m also counting on my reading skills, my instincts, my thoughts to guide me upon what I read.

The essays are straightforward and very well-written. It is a bit intimidating to read about reading. The reason why this is true is that it taps into unknown territory. It’s not at all common to deconstruct reading by itself as much as it is common to read about books that change your perspective on life.

Here Virginia Woolf wants you to understand literature through the very same lens but the common denominator is the act of reading and not books.

To be able to exercise this idea into fruition, here’s one of my favorite passages from the book:

“The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.”

This passage is from one of her essays, “How Should One Read a Book?” and from it, it’s obvious how and why reading a book is itself worth the effort of contemplation. This is one of the best books on literary criticism that I’ve read recently. A genre that is specific to reading books about books, if you will.

I haven’t read many literary criticism books. Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics? comes to mind. In it, Italo Calvino states a few obvious but often overlooked facts of reading books. He talks about the extraordinary pleasure of reading a book in youth and then in maturity. And at every stage, how we gain something new, something different, something that mirrors what we think and how we are. Perhaps even what we aspire to be at a particular age or state of mind.

Another necessary takeaway from this book would be to ask ourselves how and why we use the term “classics” for books that most of us have either read or heard of. Rather, Calvino shifts the perspective a bit.

Very similar to what Virginia Woolf reminds us in The Second Common Reader, Calvino wants us to meditate and draw from the infinite possibilities of literature. Deriving meaning and purpose and intention from books not because they’re great works of literature but because we’re, in fact, reading them.

I would also like to mention Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (read my review), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others as some of the best books on literary criticism.

Getting to the point of this article, I want to explore the different ways of reading. Taking inspiration from The Second Common Reader by Virginia Woolf… perhaps even Ways of Seeing by John Berger, here are my two cents on the ways of reading.

1. Reading like a writer

Sometimes I feel I’m a much better reader because I write. And in moments I feel I’m a much better writer, for myself, because I read.

I think we’re more conditioned to rely on the latter. It stems from the need to constantly attach usefulness and value to whatever we do. But only the kind of value that brings returns.

If I do a particular thing, what am I going to get out of it? But in case I don’t get anything from it, I make myself believe that it was a total waste of my time.

I recently shared this thought with a friend of mine and had a similar response. It’s very common to think that if you read you’ll automatically be able to write well. That may or may not be true. But what about being able to read better because you write?

That’s the genius that gets left behind.

2. Reading without expectations

Virginia Woolf questions this very sentiment by asking and I quote, “what laws can be laid down about books? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for oneself.”

That’s not to say that reading without expectations is the easiest thing to do.

It’s ironic, I know, but the lighter the burden of reading, the better the reward.

But to get there is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to unlearn and learn as a reader. That’s the beauty though, letting go of expectations, I started to realize there is no goal. No life-altering or ground-breaking revelation.

I couldn’t keep waiting for books to do something for me. That sense of attachment or dependency that we harbor deep inside us… it will eventually turn toxic. If what’s true for human relationships, I think it just as well translates to the world of literature.

3. Reading without bias

This is a tough one to learn.

Reading with any preconceptions about what you read and are going to read. From the first sentence to the last you have to deny delusions.

What H.P. Lovecraft calls, and I quote, “judicious reading,” I think also extends to reading without harboring any kind of assumption about what you think you know about literature.
And we do this even with books we know nothing about. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why nobody ever reads books they don’t know anything about. It’s the personal bias that pulls you back from exploring more complex and challenging books.

I feel the weight of this kind of reading all the time. As a reader, I’m so sensitive and protective of my instincts, that if anything stands against it, my first reaction is always to protect my own feelings rather than accept the ones that are brutal but at the same time sincere.

I felt this recently when I read On The Heights of Despair (read my review). Though the book is radically existential. It was the metaphorical ax to the frozen sea of despair within me.

When Kafka said that we ought to read books that wound or stab us. Or that if we read books that don’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? I strongly believe this is what he meant by it.

4. Reading like a sponge

James Baldwin wrote that “your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world until you read.” So the feelings that torment us the most are the feelings that have already been written down. Only it takes the whole of us to be able to recognize that fact and draw breath from it.

When I say reading like a sponge, I mean empathy. But also I mean acceptance, awareness, and mindfulness.

I might be reiterating, but I did say something similar in my previous “How Do I Pick Books?” episode. That if you continue to keep what you already know, you’ll never get anywhere. Much in the same manner, if you read only what you relate to, you’re never getting anywhere either.

Difficult books put you in a difficult position. But that only means you can begin to learn and unlearn the driving force behind all the noise. Every page is as filled with words as you want them to be. And vice versa.

Good reading depends much on the reader as good writing does on the writer.

This for me makes more sense only when I allow myself to open up in the presence of a book unlike anything else is when I can receive what the book is literally or figuratively aiming at giving me.

On that note, I bring this thought, and this episode to an end, with another one of Virginia Woolf’s quotes:

“If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.”

My Favorite Books – The Fiction Edition

Full disclosure:

“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom” However, “I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace & Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Todays’ article is going to be about some of my favorite fiction books. None of these books are ranked in order of preference.

I am anchored to each entirely.

That’s not to say that this is a fixed “top 10” whatever book listing. These books will always be a part of an unfinished list. So it’s not too excessive of me to map this article out to be the first of many similar articles to come

1. Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre

Nausea is truly a one-of-a-kind book. The story revolves around a French writer too acutely aware of his own existence. And his actions that stem from such a realization that, in nauseated twists and turns, he grows hysterically more attached to.

It’s odd that that last sentence just reminded me of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The unsettled feeling of the book. The questionable and dark, too transparently existential and absurd relevancy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s protagonist in Nausea that asserts its philosophy on that of Kafka’s most notable work, Metamorphosis. 

I’m not saying that the two books are similar in their making. But the fabric seems to fit both roles.

At the core of it, the problems faced by both characters, when put under a philosophical telescope, have an existential sensibility to them. I may be wrong but the more I talk about Nausea, my understanding of Metamorphosis seems clearer than ever.

Anyway, must you read Nausea?

Well, if you want to get acquainted with life’s most underestimated facts. The kind that you won’t find in any other book. Be it religious, political, or philosophical, or historical. Or that you pursue something abstractly concrete, so brutal, that it forces you to fall into the deep end of the pool. With zero guarantees of you ever recovering from that dive, read it. 

I think I’m scaring you away from the book, rather than sweet-talking it, but some truths go down like bitter pills, and Nausea, in no way, is a smooth-talker. It’s honest, unpredictable, grim, and 100% mind-expanding. 

2. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

The next is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. An astounding and perfectly sculpted writer, whose poetic imagination of her characters sweep you off your feet.

The story is a tug of war between the soul and the laws of Love. A stray boat drifting into the unknown with no anchor but only the wind to carry it forward (or backward, sideways, in no discernible direction). The wind of a world’s political, cultural, and social biases. As you read the story, you find out what world Arundhati Roy’s characters live in. 

She has a unique way of describing the soil of this world. And from it, the lives that sprout, the colors they inhabit, the shells that they once used to fit into, and now they have grown out of. 

Arundhati saw in her characters what the world would rather forget. It’s a shade of light that even sorrow may turn its head away from. And in expressing such sensitivity, the book embodies such strength and resilience.

Truly, it’s a beautiful sketch of the shadows that come into play around the essence of things.

3. Kafka On The Shore – Haruki Murakami

My third favorite read is Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami.

I mean, not mentioning a Murakami book in this article is as nonsensical as not talking about Murakami in any conversation ever!

I was torn between Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, and practically all of his other books. I wish I could end this article here itself. They’re so unconventionally romantic and resonant. 

Kafka On The Shore, a true pioneer in magical realism, revolves around Kafka Tamura. His prophecy, his strong attachment to a likeness that’s so out of the confined boundaries of this world that as soon as you finish reading it, you feel so empty in your reality. 

This is the epitome of an unforgettable reading experience. Almost cinematic, unerringly poetic, Haruki Murakami’s novel takes unexpected turns of love, fate, metaphors, and afflictions.

One minute you are acquainted with the deep sentiments of a crow, and in the other, you sense the frightening existence of a cat. One minute you think you’re standing under an invisible cloud of raining fish, and in the other, you’re sharing the dream of chance encounters.

As absurd as this description sounds, the book is just as absorbing. I can’t wait to re-read it for the rest of my life!

4. Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse

This brings me to another book that I’m sure I will re-read hundreds of times, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.

Part of my fascination is due to mere circumstance. I had first read this book during a difficult stage in my life. And the thoughts expressed in this book did more to encourage my thoughts to surface out of that slump than I anticipated. The book helped me ascend to new heights of introspection, specifically having a more intrinsic and psychologically-charged nature. 

The book is again a solitary voyager into the world of literature. It stands to reason one’s humanity, misanthropy which is cynical uprooting of one’s responsibilities as a person in society, and of course, the debasement of culture.

Again, the book conveys a harsh side of reality and so my description might seem a bit severe to some of you who may have perceived this book under a more positive light.

I, for one, found this book inexcusably eye-opening. The book exists not so much on the external side of things; the strings of civilization that often thread a person together. But rather it’s alone and wildly inherent.

The protagonist’s half-human and the half-wolf narrative is intelligent. After reading most of Herman Hesse’s books, I don’t see how else Steppenwolf could have been concocted, still so relevant and chilling even today. 

5. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – Italo Calvino

Speaking of books that shatter your discernible reality, my next recommendation is If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino.

I swear if the world’s falling apart, and in a world of books if there’s one author whose book I’d give up everything else for, just to be able to read for one more day till I, too, obliterate into nothingness, it would be this one.

I would gladly die with the substance of this book still lingering in my mind. It’s the perfect last thought to be privileged enough to possess. 

What is this book about?

Well, it’s a continuous kind of living. I’m sure the story, despite my having read it weeks ago, still persists. The reading of it is an experiment. The story is its conclusion. And the reader is the interpretation of that conclusion.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler should not have been written. But it’s not even written yet. It’s lost somewhere taking the reader on a whimsical adventure. So memorable that even after you finish the book, it starts all over again. 

Again, a book that breathes magical realism, the book is time-bending and space-confining. But of course, in Italo Calvino’s world, one can, no doubt, bend time and confine space.

6. Lifting the Veil – Ismat Chughtai 

A book to remember female sexuality by is Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chughtai.

If you were to divide the universe into tiny fragments, each fragment will contain within it, like phosphorescent droplets of rainwater, a soaring heart, an eager mind, a melody of nature, a strand of despair, and a morsel of profanity.

The book opens unopened doors, barred doors, doors that walk you into a sentient world. It’s impulsive, full of life, and extraordinary. It erases every ounce of doubt, of regret, of guilt, or suffering.

You don’t just read the book, you feel it especially if you’ve been brought up in a tightly-wound and deeply-biased society. There’s no other reason to read this book than for resurrection.

Twenty-One Stories of political and social and cultural confrontations, so real and historical that you want to feel the deep connection that binds the world together. That knits the path of a lonely road to a forgotten one. And the dusty and scorched footsteps of women who often possess a mosaic of personalities but are painted only in one. 

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is one that most of you must have already read, it’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

A melody of characters, of possessing an insomniac quality, so puzzling, so acute, the story completes itself in its imperfection.

One Hundred Years of Solitude presents itself to us but in fragments – some tightened like the strings of a shoe – some hidden for centuries like buried copper coins stamped in time and mythology – and some circling the cells of our inner beliefs and habits, those environments that run faster than the wind and that shine brighter than the sun. 

I still think of my memory of reading this book as a blanket of mystery and converging sentiments. I am often taunted by the book’s consciousness – the events that transpire in the book still swirling in my head as alive and intense as the dawn. Maybe that’s the effect books like One Hundred Years of Solitude can have on us. 

To breathe as is, is enough. 

But to breathe as if you are able to separate yourself from the act of breathing only to achieve perfection so that you can live in that dream a bit longer. Well, Gabriel Garcia Marquez urges you, through his writing, to cease to breathe completely. 

On an ending note, I’d like to add a few more quick suggestions to this list. They are:

Notes from Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Midnight’s Children, and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolf, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and lastly, The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Dichotomy of a Culture

In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories, you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

That is their mystery and their magic.”

This was an excerpt from one of my favorite reads…. A book that is the measure of loving and the subtraction of it. It carries the weight of a heavy soul… kept in a jar… tightly sealed… full of anguish, regrets, misplaced memories, and shattered kinship. You see glimpses of it through cracks in the surface left behind by the piercing eyes of one’s political, cultural, and historical predispositions.

The book is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

The book reads like a melancholic and secretive diary. A diary that you never bring out into the world; keeping it safely tucked away under a mattress or behind a mountain of personal belongings. A diary that is cradled too close to the heart, brutally and yet fervently expressive; the honesty of which even frightens you. It’s the flesh of the wound that runs the deepest and that bleeds on those blank pieces of paper; but in the end, it is bandaged by only you. This is it. The enormity of Arundhati Roy’s compass pointing us in so many glued-together directions. Having read this book three times, tucked between periods of days, weeks, months of staying away from a book that I, who am inclined to always pick up a new book because there’s always so much to read, go back to it every time for some sentimental and perceptive consolation. 

The thing about reading tragedy is that it becomes your own. Or that you claim that it is your own. How else would you feel it? The triumphs of loneliness, isolation, despair, and anger run deep into the well of your emotional tendencies. The characters are waiting for you to peel back their layers, upon a surface that makes up a story’s setting. The inadequacy of such a task is ironically what brings you closer to Arundhati Roy’s fiction. You read the words, maybe in whisper-quiet echoes. But you feel it pulsating in every muscle and their hollow spaces as if those very echoes mimic the speed and the color and the density of blood.

The book is set in Kerala, ingrained in its language; the dichotomy of a culture, of lives that were born too soon (or that shouldn’t have been born at all). The narration is restless with religious and political descriptions. Arundhati Roy has a unique way of defining these descriptions through her characters. The role of a mother, of a child, of a brother, a cousin, a lover, it’s in their history that one remembers the history of Kerala. If you’ve read the back cover of the book; the description hits the nail on the head. Amid the ruined, the forgotten, the misplaced – you won’t find a book this expansive in its depth and yet the characters live lives that feel quite the opposite.

It goes on for 340 pages; enough to contain decades and decades of survival. As a reader, you will diligently surrender to the writing style and tone of the book. It’s fast in its narration and yet you feel like it holds back time. Dropping an anchor in anyone who evaluates a book not only by its unpredictable structure but by its understanding of emotions – and their lyrical reminiscence. 

The ‘Somebody’ That Is You

In Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.

My first reading of this book was last year. My second reading was around the mid of this year. And my third reading was a few weeks back. From what I gather, reading a book as intense, mesmerizing, and inspiring as this one, – it isn’t fulfilling to have just read it once. The book carries such intimate confessions and it’s such a stimulating read, I fell in love with it. And not just that, it’s an experience to read about a woman’s conscious and self-awakening life. Her childhood, education, friendships, the temptation of ideals, the rejection of them.

We’re told ambition is a destination, a solid rock upon which we scratch our names forever. But it’s really not. I see it as a passage to infinity. We can drop our bags, give up, resist, doubt, analyze, and hit the road again. The journey stretches itself out in myriad directions. Only that being on one of the routes gives us no choice but to assume that there aren’t others.

There’s so much that resonates with me. Despite the fact that Simone’s life in no way stacks up against mine. But underneath the exterior, what roused in me, while reading the book, was Simone’s sharp incision into the becoming an individual person. It’s one thing to see in front of you the difference between a self and reality. It’s a whole other thing to feel it and have that drive you and make you ambitious… even emotionally and intellectually abundant. And that’s the exact presence of this book. It doesn’t have boundaries the way many books do. You feel infinite while reading it. And it sort of coincides with you realizing the scope of the ‘somebody’ that is you.

If you’ve read my reviews, you know that I never give away the plot of the book; the events that transpire as you read it. I mean, you could just as easily search for the book on Google and get that for yourself. But what I love to focus on is the experience of reading a book, the numerous nuances, the telling revelations, it sort of threads a book together. Nor do I criticize or explicitly rate any book as if I’m supposed to as someone who writes and talks about books.

Now, if you’ve never read any feminist literature or a memoir about a French philosopher, especially of such a distinguished school of thought, I highly recommend this book. It’s candid, thought-provoking, and definitely grounded. There are so many passages that I’ve highlighted. Generally, we have more takeaway in non-fiction than a fiction read. But reading this book feels so rare and rewarding that it’s hard to resist not re-reading those passages every now and then. It reveals philosophy, literature, existentialism, individualism, and such grave necessities of life, it’s hard not to think about it.

One of the things that really stood out, for me, was her admiration for other people’s intelligence. The books they read, the conversations they had, the opinions they kept, basically the fidelity to have a choice and exercise that choice. It’s not enough to have a thought in your mind. But to sharpen it as unerringly as if it’s a muscle in your body. Well, our mind is a muscle but somewhere we lose the existence of it. Its physicality as much as its abstractness. So, in a way, to see it reflected in somebody else, you do feel the pulse-quickening within you to be able to do the same. Perhaps the whole point of human interaction is this. You justify your own self as having a solitary existence. And yet there’s nothing heavier that pushes us against the many selves we inhabit.

I Was Wrong About The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

A truth that has now become an illusion.

Lots of truths aren’t exactly truths on an external scale. We can’t quantify or validate them in reality. They’re mere reflections of who we are; intimate and unique in each individual and volatile as time itself — amplifying our feelings from speck to stone.

Out of such truths, I’ve had to let go of the truth of the tunnel. You know the saying “look for the light at the end of the tunnel,” where the goal is worth the effort. The plan is worth the pain. The dreams are worth the nightmares.

The awareness of this truth and its contradiction was placed well in my mind. And out of it came the realization of why it no longer fits with my discovering self. The capacity to see the good in bad defeats the manifestation of bad into something (anything) that is certainly good.

Because I know that one’s becoming and discovering in and of life isn’t simple. Nor is it short-lived and certain. It’s the ability to look at things objectively, even more so after reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (for the second time), that I chose to dissolve this truth.

(You can read my thoughts on the book here)

It isn’t enough to expect a reaction out of an action. Not negating the fact that every movement, in reality, is an echo or a whisper through time and space. While this may be true, I have lost my expectations for a subjective reality in which only “I” exist. Hence, I choose to re-consider my defense for and against my objective reality.

Imagine a moment where you see the light at the end of the tunnel but you no longer where you were, in the tunnel. You’re everywhere — at the beginning and at the end. So what you’re seeing is not light, but only a part of you; a flicker of you.

The negative (darkness of the tunnel) holds the key to perspective. To broad-mindedness that only a bad outcome carries. And if we were to acknowledge it as “a part of the process” or as something that has a “higher cause,” we’re wrecking its ability to help us grow.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
— Anais Nin

Pain is a negative ability externalized as being the antidote to maturity. None of us were wiser before than when we stood the storm. We fought our battles; we broke the ice. In that course, the parable is not which is the least painful to endure. It is whether something is painful, if at all.

There are many things, like this, that brings us to the beginning of pain. Things that are very likely to frighten us; that we go ahead and do anyway. Is the denial of the pain (or the endurance of it) for a higher cause — a moment of satisfaction greater than a lifetime of melancholy? I beg to differ.

My pain — which is, after all, what I feel and internalize — isn’t a validation of my joy. They’re two separate qualities (beings perhaps) co-existing inside me. And I choose to externalize them the way I want to.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
– Seneca

Keeping an eye on how pain needs to be felt to be let go. This refined truth of anticipating the good and (not versus) the bad; and our habit of reimagining our pain as an experience meaningful in itself, without having any effect, is the way of embracing our true selves. And it’s the way I separate my imagination from my reality.