Reader’s Block

A friend from India messaged me today when I was at work. He asked me if was reading these days, reading enough that is, and if I was using a E-book reader as most people these days do or still hooked onto good old printed books.

Just this afternoon, I had penned down about a thousand words on how I have been spending my afternoon lunch breaks at a local bookstore, and how instead of buying a book, I return each time empty-handed from the bookstore after comparing the cost of  printed paper books with the Kindle versions.

Well, this friend of mine, call him A—–, was guilty that he has not been reading enough of late, and he was looking for some ideas to get him back into the habit. He admitted that he had lost interest in reading. He did not read anymore like the way he did two years ago.

Not a serious problem, I suppose. It is what I will call a “Reader’s block”. I am sure this term might have been coined already, and I am no pioneer. Just as a writer finds he is unable to bleed with words time and again and terms it ‘writer’s block’, so does a normal person, like you me or the writer, sometimes finds it difficult to put head into a book and read quietly. There develops a tacit distaste for reading; another activity such as watching TV or sleeping seems to substitute reading. I do not attempt here to offer a solution to escaping reader’s block as I myself get afflicted with it time and again, and I am not conscious of how I have managed to recover each time. Something, somewhere or someone makes me pick a book or an article up and I regain my cerebral composure to start reading all over again. But I know how it feels to have a reader’s block. It’s guilt-ridden.

During the period that a reader’s block prevails, you and a book hate each other. You both are at cross with each other, and yet the two may be in each other’s sight every day. There are several moments during the day when you and the book take a conscious look at each other. You know it exists; the book knows you exist. After a few days, dust settles on the side of the book that is exposed. Then the book gains some overdue attention, but not your attention, your family’s or your partner’s. You will be asked if you are going to read it. If you refuse to reply or if you reply in negative then you will be threatened that the book will either go to the junkman along with the monthly quota of old newspapers from the house or the book will disposed off in the attic. You will mostly reply in positive saying that you will read it. And, why not? You are a reader! So what if the book and you are not in cordial terms with each other, there will be a reunion soon, you hope. Saying this, the book is wiped clean of all the accumulated dust and is kept in the same place, or you take it from where it lay all this while and find a new place for it from where you can still see it. And the whole saga may continue again: book hates you – you hate book – book untouched – book accumulates dust – interrogation – threats – wipe clean.

And then, there comes the day of reunion. When, I can’t say. It could be days, weeks, months or years later. It will mostly be the day when you either stumble upon it when looking for something else or when you, like my friend A—- above, feel the need to read again. And that’s the day when you will touch the book, open it, and dust it off by holding the book by its spine, if a paperback, and ruffling your hands through the pages and hitting it hard against your open palm of the other hand and making sure you don’t breathe any of the dust. A hardbound may get a more pampered clean up.

And then the two of you fall in love again. Whatever it was that pre-occupied you before you discovered your book is adjourned and you retire to a corner of the room, or curl up in your bed and resume relationships with your estranged partner – the book.

Love among the Book Shelves

You can never be lonely at a bookstore, if you are a bibliophile. One may extend this fact and conclude that it’s true not just for books but also for other interests: a glutton will never mind dining at a lonely table at a restaurant, a movie buff will not find it unusual to go alone to the movies and watch the screening of a much-awaited movie.

I seldom eat alone. It is, as Paul Theroux puts, ‘one of the most depressing activities’. But there are times when I have to eat my lunch alone. And unlike most people at work, who are paid by the number of hours they work, I enjoy my ‘holy’ lunch hour; I must get out of work, got for a stroll. I love to walk on the streets by the side of restaurants and then make a choice as to where I will eat my lunch. I enjoy that freedom of having to make a choice – amongst Mediterranean, Indian, English, Continental; Vegan or Vegetarian; Healthy and lean or Rich and fried, and so on. I take my time, and, after much deliberation that a Libran is known for, I decide on what my lunch will be. It must never be a take-away. I either eat-in or never eat at all. I don’t like to walk my lunch. Eating is such a private affair, you don’t want to walk around and display to the world that you’re busy , you’re worried , you’re walking fast and eating your lunch, or that you have ham and lettuce and cheese, and tomato sandwiched between two thick slices of freshly baked multi-grain bread. The sight of a man, dressed for work, walking and drawing out a sandwich strangulated inside a transparent cling wrap from inside his trouser pockets appalls me.

The lowest common denominator of all needs of us humans – rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, Caucasian or African – is Food. If you exclude all the higher needs of a human, what remains at the dregs is: Food, besides of course clothing and shelter. Then, why not pay the food its dues by sitting in one place and eating it than make a public display of what you’re eating.

Anyway, if you think there is a disconnect between what I intended to start off in the first paragraph and the rest of this writing so far, then let me retract back to what I wanted to write about.

I often like to give my mind a therapeutic treatment of the sight of books in a good book store. After I eat my solitary lunch, I always visit Fuller’s Book Store on Collins Street in Hobart. It falls on the way back to work from where all restaurants are.

I love the sight of those neatly arranged books – new books, paperbacks, re-printed classics, hardbound; fiction and non-fiction; history and current affairs. I often delve around the fictional and classics section where I get to browse the magic of Orwell, Hemmingway, Albert Camus, Ulysses, Steinback and the likes – I don’t find my Indian favourites: RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond in this store, but that doesn’t disappoint me. As much I love the smell of fresh paper, I know I can’t afford the embarrassment of picking a book out from the shelf and smelling it. Yet with so many people reading from the new books, the air is filled with the typical whiff you get at a bookstore.

I see people around me sauntering around the shelves – some like me with no book in hand, some with one book, and others with two and few with more than two books. I never followed them beyond that point to see if they purchased those books but it did look to me that they intended to buy them. And me – I would simply walk slowly from one end of the shelf to another, and then back again, gazing at the same books as I did just a while ago. I’d pick up some books I have read in my Kindle. I’d read some lines from a page in between to see if they read the same in print as they did in pixels. There are some books of whose starting line I vividly remember – such as PG Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves,and Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. And it gives me a shot of queer happiness to read lines I knew of before as if I knew what the writer was going to write. Strange, I know, but I do this often. It’s just how books and I play with each other.

One strong reason for my frequenting the book store is that I have gone cold-turkey on purchasing more books for the past 2 years. Since I got a Kindle, I have resolved to not buy any printed books. There are two reasons for this. First, because I resist making any place home, and I keep travelling every 2 years, I cannot afford to lug my books around upon relocating. Baggage and cargo are expensive and I have given away all my books I had in my past travels simply because it was not practical to ship them. Second, Kindle books are cheaper. Therefore, I do a rather strange thing when at the bookstore. I decide upon a book I want to buy. Then I say to myself, ‘You won’t regret buying this book. Buy it. It feels good to hold; it’s an excellent story and what a great author! Classic piece. A must buy. Add to your collection.’ Then I turn to rear jacket and see the price tag. It may say somewhere between $19 and $50- average range! Then I pull out my mobile phone, key in the name of the book and check the Kindle price – it may say $8.99. I then put the book back and walk away from it. I seem to self-tantalize and then convince myself that I must not buy the print version for the two reasons I mentioned above.

After some more sauntering and touching and rubbing books, feeling the edges of the crisp pages, checking the binding, the typesetting, comparing prices between print and pixel versions, making a list of books I must download, I look at my watch and I exit the book store. Yet another day goes by when I have entered a book store, loitered around for quarter of an hour and return without making a purchase. I wonder if someone watches me each time I do this, maybe the lady at the cash register, or someone manning the CCTV. They may well think I just come ‘to make love among the bookshelves’. The origin of this phrase, and the title of this piece, is attributed to one of all time favourite Indian authors – Ruskin Bond.