Art & Culture

How to read a novel, a poem and a judgment: Yes, we need to learn the art of reading all over again

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanOct 22, 2018 | 14:23

How to read a novel, a poem and a judgment: Yes, we need to learn the art of reading all over again

A book is no longer a story or an act of wisdom but a bundle of information to be reduced to a quiz or extracted for an exam.

Often as a writer, I want to report what media thinks of as a non-event.

What passes as history today is often ephemeral. I wonder why ideas and discussions do not get reported and if they do, they get distorted into brand names or ideologies.

Even the weather gets reported more systematically then ideas. There are speculations about the monsoon, the rise in temperature but there are few reports of the seasons of the intellect, about the festivals of mind. An academic discussion is seen as dull unless it is inaugurated by a VIP or a politician.


Competition has destroyed the joys of reading. (Photo: Reuters)

Book worshippers

A few days ago, I was invited to be part of a jury to decide on the best books of 2018.

There was a sheer sense of enjoyment as each discussed the taste of books. We had to choose the best books of non-fiction and one realised non-fiction was a subcontinent with myriads of genres. One understood non-fiction demanded a different kind of storytelling and yet the narratives it created were compelling.

Every book need not be a classics, but many of the best books had a sense of it. As we talked and gossiped, summoned references, recited quotes, I realised that we were one of the oldest of cult-book worshippers. Loving books and talking about them is an act of trusteeship. You celebrate the story, the storyteller, the language, the ideas, and the craft of writing. I wish someone had recorded the discussion because it gave a certain dignity to the author and the book, two rituals we rarely emphasise today.

I feel sad that the space for book reviews has shrunk, and empty bestsellers peddling spirituality or personality development get more space than books full of ideas. There is little respect for the book today.


Few have read classic beyond the compulsory reading at schools. Almost none can recite a major poem or quote from a classic play. I was sensing our childhoods were different. There was less money but always more books. Libraries were greedily devoured and librarians were respected as custodians of the book. Today, people do not have patience for a book; they want downloaded information, quick summaries as poor substitutes for the power of storytelling. The power of the book as a part of today’s competence and heritage needs to be emphasised. One cannot conscript the reader; one has to invite him or seduce him. He or she has to understand what I call the eroticism of the book, the seductive power of ideas and narratives.

Reading is one of the great rituals of today, a craft as much as writing is. (Photo: Reuters)

Reading ritual

I wish people would teach students to read a book. Reading is one of the great rituals of today, a craft as much as writing is. Reading is always re-reading and I really wonder how many colleges graduates can read a poem, a judgment, a novel, not summarise it as information.


Books elude the simplicity of ‘The Information Age’. A discussion around a book was sheer aesthetic pleasure, a little festival of ideas, in fact a sacred cult. I remember the joys of browsing through streets playing out the adventure of pavement bookshops. Recently, the Delhi Book Fair had stacks of second-hand shops with some wonderful books. I ran excitedly to an educationist friend of mine asking him to send his children to the exhibition to discover books. He looked dismissively at me and said, “I have just bought my son a Kindle”.

I was appalled.

I felt the man was depriving his kids of the joys of childhood and I said so. He mumbled that I was outdated. I realised that it was officials like him who were ruining our libraries, denuding them of classics in the name of updating books. “Up to date”, the official slogan is an obscenity in the world of books. Sadly, it is a common affliction.

A book is now just a bundle of information waiting to be paraphrased. (Photo: Reuters)

Fortify readers

Some time ago, I met an old school friend, a major executive from IIT and the usual addendum of business schools. I talked to him excitedly about a novel, requested him to read it.

He looked tiredly and said, “Why don’t you summarise it in two pages? I don’t have time for more”.

It was like cutting down a forest for two pieces of lumber.

I remember asking my engineering students why they had not read a novel in two years. The answer was interesting.

They said “Our parents used to punish us if we read books before entrance test”.

Competition has destroyed the joys of reading.

A book is no longer a story or an act of wisdom but a bundle of information to be reduced to a quiz or extracted for an exam.

Suddenly, I realised that the five of us sitting and deliberating on the power of narratives were outdated, gabbling like a masonic cult about ideas people do not care for.

The discussion was about the power of narratives, the differences in narratives across Dalit, feminist, Naxal writing and we were celebrating the different dialects of liberation, the varied glossaries of pain and anger.

I realised a man who celebrates a book is a trustee of culture today. He certifies the dignity of the author as craftsmen and the joys of narrative. Reducing such creative reading to a mere act of consumption would be obscene. Reading is a ritual that needs to be presented. I also felt glad that the newspaper which had instituted the award took books and juries seriously.

I wish the readers had listened to the joy of discussion.

Last updated: October 22, 2018 | 14:23
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