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Reflections on Reading: A Meditative Exploration of Literary Engagement

The phenomenon of reading has undergone a significant metamorphosis in recent years.

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There is a video on the internet in which an interviewer surveys the overwhelming collection of literature that surrounds the Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and asks him the question that lingers on the tip of every viewer’s tongue: “Have you read all of these books?” With a calm and measured voice, Derrida offers his response, placing a single volume back onto the shelf: “No, I have not read all the books that are here.”

Yet, he continues, after a brief pause: "Three or four. But I read those four really, really well." With those few words, Derrida offers a tantalising glimpse into the heart of what it means to truly engage with a text, and how that engagement can transform our understanding of the world around us.

The phenomenon of reading which has been cherished by human civilisation for centuries has undergone a significant metamorphosis in recent years, particularly with the rise of social media and the trend of setting reading goals.

In the modern age, many people establish grand objectives at the beginning of each year for the number of books they aspire to read by the end of the year, which they then publish on social media platforms, extolling their progress. There are different social media groups where people post their reading updates. After every week, a person uploads the book cover or mentions the name of the book that he or she has finished reading. No one can really know whether that person has actually read the complete book or not.

A quick summary can anyway be read about any book online. While such goals may serve as a motivation, they may also generate anxiety and worry if approached incautiously.

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I had observed this trend for some years where people would read and post the books at the end of the year that they had read. Some people posted twelve, some twenty, some forty, and some fifty books. I, too, was tempted by this task, and I took it up during the period of the corona pandemic but could not succeed. I realised that I had not read even half the books I had targeted to read.

At the end of the year 2022, the same trends resurfaced on social platforms. People had amassed a great list of books, and it made me wonder how people could read that fast. People from different occupations, students, doctors, and journalists, posted their lists, and I wondered how they could get time for such readings.

At the beginning of the year 2023, I took up the task again of reading one book per week. By the end of the year, I would have read 53 books. But in this process, I realised that when I was reading, I sometimes went through the sentences without even realising what they meant. It became a task that needed to be completed. The joy of reading began to disappear in the process. It felt like wolfing down food without enjoying even a single bite.

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So Many Books, So Little Time

But one thing that I realised was that one of the main challenges of setting reading goals is finding the time to read amidst the bustle and turmoil of contemporary life, where numerous obligations such as work and school vie for one's attention. In a world where time is increasingly perceived as a scarce resource, the pressure to meet reading goals can contribute to a sense of urgency and anxiety about how we allocate our time. This can lead to a commodification of our leisure activities, including reading, as we try to maximise the value of our time by setting specific targets and goals.

Moreover, the setting of numerical targets can create pressure to read quickly, leading to a loss of enjoyment and comprehension. The trend of setting reading goals may reflect a broader societal shift towards instrumental rationality, or the tendency to view all activities in terms of their utility or efficiency.

This approach can lead us to view reading as a means to an end rather than an end in itself and to focus more on the number of books we read rather than the quality of our engagement with them.

The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal says, “When I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel." Indeed there are many readers whose idea of reading is to skim eyes through each word of every sentence, imbibing the emotion betrayed by the lines. But we are currently in a fast-paced world where people don’t even have time to eat at ease.

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Considerations While Reading

Recently I came across a translation of an unfinished short story, ‘Life in the Year 6000: A Vacation Story’ from the uncompleted manuscript of a Spanish artist, neuroscientist, and histologist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal. One of the points raised by Cajal in the story is that in the future, for a society to progress efficiently, it is important that it does not have to worry about such distractions as having to eat every day or wasting energy on digesting food.

In the story, a doctor from the year 6000 called Dr Micrococcus explains to the unnamed protagonist: ‘The procedure that we have for taking our meals will undoubtedly surprise you, but you will soon see how convenient it is. In your time, you consumed with your coffee, not always a good thing, a certain amount of useless materials, water, fats, and toast, which was essentially a waste of digestive effort, and you vainly waited for the effects of the coffee.

Fortunately, that no longer happens. Coffee is chemically pure caffeine that we inject into special catheters in the external jugular so that it gets to the brain easily, doesn’t cause indigestion, and doesn’t require you to drink or digest useless foreign substances.’ It should, therefore, not come as a surprise if, in the near future, there are devices and techniques that enable humans to grasp books without even reading and enjoying them, and we are indeed headed in that direction.

The act of reading not only allows us to gain knowledge but also helps us develop critical thinking and analytical skills. If we were to rely solely on technology to absorb information, we could potentially lose some of these important cognitive abilities. It could also have unintended consequences, such as a decrease in critical thinking skills or a lack of appreciation for the written word.

Another challenge of setting reading goals is choosing what to read. With so many books available, it can be overwhelming to decide which ones to prioritise. Furthermore, there is often a pressure to read books that are considered "important" or "prestigious," rather than those that one genuinely enjoys. This pressure can lead to a loss of interest in reading and a sense of obligation to read certain books, rather than a desire to read for pleasure. It's important to give oneself the time and space to fully engage with each book and to prioritise quality over quantity.

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Speed Reading is a Disservice

Some time back, in a chance encounter, I found myself engaged in an interesting conversation with a friend. The subject of our conversation dwelled within the realm of literature, and I was amazed when my friend mentioned that she had read no fewer than 48 times in the previous year. I was both surprised and fascinated by this achievement, considering my own feeble attempt to achieve a similar reading feat, but without success.

Eager to unravel the mystery behind her exceptional bibliophilic prowess, I asked her how she managed to read such a large number of books. "I merely partake of selected passages and chapters," she confessed, "for one need not embark upon an all-encompassing odyssey." Her admission failed to surprise me because I was already aware of people who, in their zealous pursuit of expedited comprehension, deemed it judicious to bypass chapters of perceived insignificance and thus their modus operandi was akin to viewing a film in a frenetic fast-forward.

In embracing this unorthodox method of voracity, these speed readers do themselves a disservice by depriving themselves of the full intellectual and emotional banquet served by the author. To forgo the elegant prose, the profound insights, and the sublime beauty encapsulated within each chapter is to reduce the literary experience to a mere skeleton of its potential magnificence.

While the efficacy of such an approach may be undeniable from a temporal standpoint, one cannot help but lament the loss incurred in this futile exercise. The intricate tapestry woven by the author, replete with minute details and subtle nuances, is inevitably compromised when one selects but fragments of the narrative. Just as a painter's masterpiece demands appreciation in its entirety, so too does the written word necessitate an undivided engagement with its constituent elements.

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At a deeper level, the trend of setting reading goals raises important questions about the role of literature in our lives. Is reading primarily a means of self-improvement and personal growth, or is it a way to connect with our fellow human beings and explore the complexities of the world around us? Is reading a solitary activity or a communal one? By reflecting on these questions, we can deepen our appreciation for the transformative power of literature and reorient our relationship to reading in a more meaningful way.

In conclusion, while setting reading goals can be a useful motivator and a way to track progress, it's important to approach them with care and flexibility. Reading should be a personal and enjoyable experience, and it's important not to lose sight of this in the pursuit of numerical goals.

By setting broader goals, prioritising quality over quantity, and approaching reading as a pleasure rather than a chore, readers can cultivate a rich and fulfilling reading life because books are more than just a source of entertainment. They are a source of wisdom, companionship, and comfort. If you are looking for a friend who will always be there for you, I encourage you to pick up a book today. In the words of Santiago Ramon y Cajal: "Of all our friends, books are the only ones who stop talking after they say their piece."

(Satyarth Pandita has completed his dual degree of BS-MS from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal (IISERB). His short stories, essays and articles have appeared in various newspapers and periodicals, which can be accessed here. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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