Why We Must Lower Our Expectations of Reading

My fondest memories involve 10-year-old me, sitting cross-legged on the bed on a summer day with the AC on and a bowl of freshly-cut mango. My copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still speckled with the juice that dribbled down my chin on a particularly bookwormish day in 2012.

When I was younger, I’d gobble down books with no plan, premeditation, or even conscious thought.

In lieu of a reading list, I’d insouciantly pick up any bound volume I came across and read it cover to cover. I read Percy Jackson, various Amar Chitra Kathas, The BFG, Artemis Fowl, Pride and Prejudice, Tales from Ancient Egypt, and the Asterix comics. But I also read the parenting book my Attiya left in the bathroom, Dogs 101, and, in a particularly (un)inspired moment, a Girls Guide handbook on knot-tying. My very favourite books, I reread at least seven to eight times.

To employ a cliché rehashed by at least five of my favourite authors, reading felt like breathing.

After all, I had stomach-tingling hours to fill and parents who didn’t believe in tuitions. Twenty minutes from my house, thick with dust, anticipation, and a pulsating mass of stories, the library grew on me like a second skin.

I still remember which shelves my favourite books were stocked on, can still feel the cold kiss of the corrugated metal staircase-railing that descended to the children’s section. When I close my eyes and dip into nostalgia, my nostrils fill with the honey-rich smell of words to be devoured. Perhaps some places stay frozen in time, etching themselves snugly into the recesses of your being.

What happened when I grew older?

Also read: ‘Always Remember Context, and Never Disregard Intent’: Should We Read More Empathetically?

My relationship with books shifted, slowly, and subtly, and erratically. School grew more demanding ­– both in terms of time and mental energy. I had to constantly plan and schedule, view my calendar in terms of neatly colour-coded slots. My time didn’t feel like mine anymore.

I lost that instinctive sense of ease with idleness and reflection, growing restless in a way that I’d never felt before. I gravitated to quickly consumable, brighter-coloured media – social media, TV, YouTube videos. These gave me access to information books didn’t. But the more my brain adjusted to content targeted at a shorter attention span, the harder I found it to stumble and spiral into a book.

More importantly, I became demanding.

I had started expecting advancement, gain, and productivity even from my ‘down time’. I grew a visceral sense of guilt when reading lighter fiction – what was I ‘getting’ out of this?

Reading a nonfiction book, even about a topic that enthralled me, grew stooped in pressure. I felt an anxious desire to complete it that overrode my ability to enjoy it. Rereading used to feel like home, coming back to intimately familiar characters and plotlines once I’d grown a little older, lilting through the same lines with a subtly different lens. Now, it felt like a waste – time I could be spending ‘expanding my mind’, learning something new.

In a conversation with a friend recently, he mentioned that he ‘didn’t believe’ in reading fiction books. His reading list consisted entirely of deliberately-chosen self-help books that he pounded through with religious diligence.

After an initial chortle, I realised that, in some ways, I was just the same. I’d forgotten how books could whisk you away, yet feel like a warm, heavy blanket. I’d started expecting things from them, thinking of them as commodities. Plastic-packaged knowledge, rather than living, breathing entities I could link hands with, whisper confidences to, and hear a hypnotising reply that evolved as I grew.

It’s been hard to reclaim that fluency, that ease of conversation with books. Trying is painfully slow, but intensely rewarding. One by one, slowly and steadily, I’m dropping my expectations softly to the floor. I’m learning how to talk to the books again.

Inika Murkumbi studies in class 12 at Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Mumbai 

Featured image credit: Unsplash