No, Don’t ‘Marie Kondo’ Your Books Away, But Reading Less is More
Swati Chawla explains through her own experiences, why we must read only a few books each year.
At their best, books aid our own efforts at making meaning, and stories help us narrativize our own lives. But they can only do that if we give them room— carry them to our journals, our work, and our conversations with friends.
So, while we may not follow Marie Kondo’s advice to cull all the unread tomes, making this room requires that we buy— and read—fewer books.
This is my story of making room.
A Failed New Year’s Resolution But A Valuable Lesson on Reading Habits
Three years ago, as a New Year’s resolution, a friend and I decided to read all the novels of Jane Austen in the order in which they were published. It was a simple exercise: there are only 6 full-length novels, and we had read them all before. We would meet at the end of the year when we visited our families in Delhi. (Shilpa lives in Brussels; I, in Charlottesville.) She’s a voracious reader, always has been. I was fresh out of working through three reading lists of over a hundred books each for my comprehensive field exams in the Ph.D program. I had passed with an A; we got this, I knew.
Too busy to read? Listen to this instead.
Three years later, we are on Emma, the fourth published work, whose eponymous heroine excels at making reading lists.
But the failed New Year resolution has taught me valuable lessons about reading practices. The first of these is to read less. Much less.
The second is to go back to familiar works— like reconnecting with an old friend you find a bit altered upon re-acquaintance. The third is staying with a single author for a year or more, enabling a deeper connection with their words and their worlds. The most important one though, is to read with a friend.
Finding the Vocabulary to Describe Grief
With Sense and Sensibility, we found the vocabulary to describe how we had each grieved the loss of a parent (my mother; Shilpa’s father). I had been Marianne Dashwood, “eager in every thing.” I “gave [myself] up wholly to…sorrow,” and “resolved against ever admitting consolation in future.” In Marianne’s excessive sensibility, I saw a mirror for my own. She dared greatly, loved impulsively, lost publicly, and saw no shame in protracted despair.
My friend grieved quietly and privately. Like Eleanor Dashwood, she tried to look after her mother and sister: “her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them.” She, too, “was deeply afflicted, but still she could struggle, she could exert herself.”
The novel also gave us the expression that has initiated many a pep talk ever since: “the sanguine expectation of happiness is happiness itself.” We couldn’t have picked a better first book.
Re-reading Pride and Prejudice in our 30s, we talked not of the romances that had been, or could have been, but of how gendered parenting still was.
We felt more patient with Mrs Bennet, and our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers— the inveterate matchmakers. We mused instead: why must worrying be Mrs Bennet’s lot, and pithy observations her husband’s?
What I Learnt From Jane Austen & Thich Nhat Hanh
We found absent parents everywhere in Austen’s world (and ours)— whether negligent, selfish, distant, or dead. We wondered how we would fare when it was our turn. (I am currently doing spectacularly as an aunt, once removed.) And we found the relationship that sustained these characters within the warp and weft of their communities: friendship.
Last September, I teamed up with another friend for a different exercise in collaborative meaning-making. Sonia is an artist in Charlottesville, and we share an interest in Buddhist philosophy and amateur philology.
We decided to study ‘The Noble Eightfold Path,’ and committed to eight meetings over the next 2.5 months. We read from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, and often went directly to the sutras, aided by her wide reading of translations and commentaries from both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions, and my middle-school Sanskrit.
Although we came into our meetings with heavily annotated texts, and quoted chapter and verse, this wasn’t a scholarly exercise. We wanted to understand how we could apply the lessons of suffering and freedom to our lives. I asked once, how do we square deliberate resolve (from the Sanskrit samkalpa) with aimlessness?
Of ‘Persuasion’ And Second Chances
The week on ‘right speech’ offered space to connect with the painful and deeply etched tendencies of exaggeration, gossip, and willful misrepresentation. In talking of ‘right livelihood’, we reflected on how our fears about material well-being might have come from our experiences of being the children and grandchildren of refugees (Russia, the Second World War; Punjab, the Partition).
It was the most rewarding reading experience of my life. In Buddhism too, the most significant relationship is with a ‘kalyaṇa-mitra’ — the virtuous friend who acts as mentor, mirror, sounding board, and counsel.
If you are very lucky, she will read the same books as you, and make the time to discuss them, be it once a week, or once a year. And you will develop not just a shared repertoire of life experience that sustains any friendship, but also a shared vocabulary of concepts, characters, and consolations from others’ worlds.
Shilpa and I have not given up on our resolution to read all of Austen. Persuasion, after all, is about second chances.
(With love and gratitude for Shilpa Sood and Sonia Fox, who read with me, and taught me to read.)
(Swati Chawla is a historian of modern South Asia, and a Fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies. She began the year by poring over private papers of bureaucrats posted in the Himalayas, and bootlessly warding monkeys off her lunch at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. She tweets @ChawlaSwati. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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