Ask anyone and they will tell you, reading as a pastime is a depleting trait. Ask someone older and it will be coupled with a condescending tone. Given the highly competitive times we live in, most people tend to do things with a purpose. You are encouraged to. Reading included. You might just get a flashback of your teachers telling you to be a selfish reader, asking the text what it can do for you before reading it. My first nudge to read was to read English newspapers, to improve my grammar. A fixed goal. It seemed so important then. It was as if reading with no purpose was some bizarre act, reserved only for the zany.
As a professional researcher, I spend a lot of time reading. But this work-related reading has a definite purpose – gathering materials for a piece of writing, filling a knowledge gap, or understanding the work better; making me more of a seeker of facts than a reader. There is always a problem, a query that needs solving, and the time I put into these readings is deemed fruitful only if they are answered.
Since I started living by myself, my daily life required me to read up a lot too, mostly DIY tips and plant care (although I still managed to kill them), or for some random outlandish query. Maybe more browsing than researching, these too had a quasi purpose. The course of everyday living inadvertently makes you seek information from textual sources, making you read more out of need than choice. Most of my connections who say they read are more information seekers than readers.
It’s not their fault either. Reading for pleasure was hardly ever endorsed, despite it being the only reading where you read to be entertained, not changed, finding value in the process of reading itself and not in some dregs of knowledge left behind. You don’t have a specific outcome in mind. More than the result, the journey is what matters to you. Reading with no purpose makes you inexplicably happy. The process is more affecting than analytical, with emotions being a main character throughout.
Many will have you believe that people who read for pleasure generally read fiction, as the genre is better at providing escapism. But pleasure readers look for both escapism and relativism from their books. Or at least I do. While fiction generally provides more room for manoeuvring with character traits, both fiction and nonfiction have a narrative form and characters who offer a way of living.
In 1983, the US Library of Congress, initiated a programme ‘Books That Made the Difference‘ wherein they asked 1000+ Americans, “What book made the greatest difference in your life?” and “What was that difference?” This investigation showed that for avid readers, books had a significant influence on self-change. Many studies, in both formal and informal settings, have concluded reading to be a personally transforming experience.
The American sitcom The Big Bang Theory had a line said by one of its characters about the other, “Sheldon, you didn’t have a personality. You just had some shows you liked.” This was a line that stayed with me, even though most of the show didn’t. I have often wondered if one’s personality could be definitively affected by reading, especially after a certain age. If I had to describe what personality means, I would call it a sense-making approach. And this approach is affected by the experiences we have, either by actively going through them or watching someone else. And literature (textual or visual) is one of the most common avenues that allow you to experience others’ experiences.
Reading has opened up new perspectives for me, helping me see things differently, offering an amplified set of possibilities. Whilst cognitive science has shown possibilities of experiencing changes in oneself as a result of engagement with art, is that change lifelong? I have been moved and changed by many books, but I can’t say they’ve become a permanent part of me.
I try to remember their teachings but unwittingly retrograde to my default stage. But my purposeless reading has been enriching in addition to entertaining. They have, more often than not, led me towards the accidental discovery of useful information. While I am still in the apprentice stage, far from having achieved the meta-knowledge possessed by experienced readers to make correct judgments about texts, irrespective of what I read, I experienced a fluky knowledge procurement, knowledge that crops up in my everyday interactions. I find myself rewriting these books when making sense of it and applying them in my everyday practice.
Reading without a purpose has given me comfort and reassurance. It has made me feel like I am not alone in experiencing a certain incident and made me get to know characters who became role models for me. While it is fairly evident that I need to engage with a lot more reading before it and its learnings become an indistinguishable part of my personality, it is only while engaging in purposeless reading that I don’t feel like I am working.
Priya Singh is a researcher and an accumulation of antitheticals.