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Friday, November 5, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 2


Just like any other skill, reading skill can be developed. First step in the process is setting up a routine and sticking with it. For example, I spend the first hour of the day in reading (after meditation and coffee). The other day I added up the number of hours I would have read in the past 40 years. It is about 14,600 hours! Can you imagine how much more one can read if we include other opportunities to read such as during holidays, during travel or when waiting for an appointment?

The main point is making a habit and making time for it. I prefer mornings since it is usually quiet, and the mind is fresh. Fortunately, my wife was also a voracious reader, and we will sit and read separately in our own favorite corners in the mornings – me at the dining table and she on any seat close to a window.

You may be a bed-time reader or may have some other favorite time and place. That is OK. But it must become a habit, and not something for which you have “to find” time. Reading in bed is not my favorite. I do not want to make reading as an aid to sleeping. Many folks indeed fall asleep reading. If that is what you like to do, that should be fine. Sitting up seems to be better for being alert and awake. Curling up in a couch with a book is even better.

It is true that there is so much to read. But we have a whole lifetime ahead. An interesting episode recounted by Bill Moyers in his Introduction to the book on The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday NY 1988, page xv) in which a student at Sarah Lawrence College was overwhelmed by the weight of reading assignments Joseph Campbell gave each week. She asked him how he expects the students to complete all the assignment in a week when they have so many assignments from other courses they were taking. Joseph Campbell’s answer was: “I am astonished you tried. You have the rest of life to do the reading”.

Reading school assignments is a different thing. I wish to focus on reading for our own pleasure and benefit. Do you like to read to just pass or "kill time"? Do you wish to read for the sheer joy of reading? Are you interested in the substance or the topic of the book or the language or the style of writing of the author? Do you like history? Biography? History? Philosophy? For knowledge? Looking for different points of view? Do you keep to one genre or are you open to several? Do you read books in different languages?

In the beginning, I read several topics since I did not know what my interests were. But I found myself interested in all topics – science and spirituality, history and language, cultures and anthropology, of course medicine. Earlier in life I read in my mother tongue(Tamizh) only. When I started reading English, I zoned in on detectives (Sherlock Holmes) and silly humor (P G Wodehouse) like many folks in my age group. Eventually I started reading on several topics.

When I came to this country in 1958 and lived here for five years with practically no contact with Indian culture and languages, I was afraid I will forget Tamizh and Sanskrit. Therefore, I was always reading one non-medical book each in English, Tamizh and Sanskrit, at any one time. Of course, I was also reading books and journals in medicine. Since I was single, lived in a hospital dorm and had no household responsibilities, I had plenty of time.

Over the years, after having read many novels, by current authors and those who lived in earlier era, I found that there are very few novels with substance. Most novels, particularly the modern ones have no or very little message. Those with a message start preaching. I have become very choosy. I would rather read the classics of famous authors from bygone era than reading books on the best seller lists. Ramaa used to call me a “snob” and I agree!

I have rough time with poetry, particularly English poetry, although I do read them with external help such as a critical review by a scholar. For example, T S Eliot’s The Four Quartets is a classic and Rev. J.C. Wood’s commentary was very helpful in understanding it. One will definitely need help to read old Tamizh classic poetry such as Manimekalai. Some of the modern English poems are easier to understand such as those by William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost.

It is certainly understandable if you find yourself attracted to certain genre of writing or certain authors. Interest changes over time. There is also more time after retirement. So why not expand the horizon? For example, recently I was introduced to writing by  Tony Hillerman, whose detective novels are all located in the Native American territory around New Mexico and Colorado. The plots are excellent. The writing is excellent. In the process of reading these novels I learnt a whole lot about Native American Culture.

I read often for useful information which will open my mind to newer topics or to new angles in old topics. Of course, the definition of the word “useful” can be challenged. But I also read for pleasure, like anyone else. I enjoy reading books for elegant use of language (Kalki and Kannadasan), beautiful ideas (Pudumaipitthan, Paulo Coelho), silly humor (P G Wodehouse, Henry Cecil, Tom Sharpe). Norton Juster’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth” written for children is a modern classic on the use of English language and my children introduced me to it. I like to read about new way of seeing things (Cosmocomics by Italo Calvino and Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), history wrapped in fiction (Kalki’s books, James Michener’s The Source, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World) and books with some great message (Death of Ivan Ilyich).

I do not like to read single issue books commonly found in the best seller lists. My reasons are: They take one issue and make one point, which can be expressed easily in an essay. But the authors seem to elaborate this one idea with several examples to fill a specified number of pages. They often do not  mention the disadvantages of their point of view and other points of view on that topic. In short, they are one-sided.

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