Art & Culture

This is how we're losing the joy of reading

Tabish Khair
Tabish KhairNov 24, 2016 | 11:56

This is how we're losing the joy of reading

If literature is anything, it is a process of reading. When I was growing up in a small town of India, some people - mostly those who had come to literature recently - still turned pages with the care of a craftsman, manipulating the corner of each page carefully with the index finger, sometimes wetted with spittle.

You could hear the sound their fingers made on the page. Their eyes were focussed elsewhere on the page or, for that moment, outside it, looking into the space in and beyond the book that all literature opens up.


I believe that literature, as we have known it for centuries, is about to die, unless books happen to be replaced by something that gives the reader as much "space" to read - computer, internet, Kindle, etc, do not do so, as yet.

As surfaces to travel on, they are too flat, too fast. Lines skittle off them; commas drop out unnoticed. I can hear scepticism: Ah, another middle-aged writer being nostalgic about the past and resisting change!

I must confess that, despite considering myself firmly on the Left from the time I was in secondary school, I have never shared the common Leftist love for change. Change need not be for the better.

I think the Conservative Right harbours a healthier suspicion of change, and I would only wish that it had a matching suspicion of tradition, custom, etc, which need not be for the better either.

But in this case, I am not being nostalgic about the past or resisting change.

What I mean by literature being a process of reading can be illustrated by evoking a controversial colonial ghost.

There was a time when European colonisers tended to consider many other societies as lacking literature.


It was a convenient argument, as it permitted colonisers to do things to indigenous people, such as shooting them down and appropriating their lands.

Obviously, if you did not have writing on paper, you could not legally claim possession of the lands you had lived on for centuries. You could not claim culture or civilisation.

Since then we have spent about a century proving that these people - we people in many cases - had literature: oral literature. The endeavour was valid, and necessary.

But in the process we have forgotten that the detested colonisers also had a point: there is a major difference between morality and literacy.

The Odyssey might have existed as a bunch of oral narratives, and maybe Homer is just a myth.

But it is only when the Odyssey was compiled as something resembling a book, with Homer appended as an authoritative maker' of the book, that it became the sort of literature we have come to consider it.

Readings became possible: the act of turning the page with a finger, and something far more than just that.

As the many renditions of the Ramayana prove in India, the oral tradition has its own kind of fecundity.


But even the Ramayana - no matter whose version - came to exist as literature only after it became something like a book.

One can say this of any foundational religious text, such as the Bible or the Quran.

Oral literature, in a certain sense, becomes literature only when it is written down, and then it is no longer whatever it was when solely "oral".

In other words, as a necessary aside, it needs to be stated that Bob Dylan does not deserve the Nobel for Literature as a singer or a performer or a cultural symbol.

The texts of his songs, written down and read across time and space, have to win him the Nobel for Literature. Whether they do so or not is not my concern in this essay.

In short, literature as a process of reading: the turning of pages, the movement of the eye in a certain pattern, the capacity to focus and contemplate, the ability to open up spaces between the lines, between the pages (for instance, by being able to look at three or four pages in ways that one still cannot on the computer screen), and beyond the book.

To read fast is a bit like driving fast: you get to your destination sooner, but you see much less on the way. (Photo credit: Google) 

But it extends further: the ability to read in different positions and different circumstances, the ability to read at different paces, the greater presence of each page (which needs more physical contact to turn), the turning down of corners, shade, light, etc.

All these went into the reading of literature, and texts that enabled such engagement came to be celebrated as literature.

All these little acts and quirks enabled a process of reading that favoured a certain kind of writing: writing with what used to be called "depth", writing that allowed the reader to think in certain ways.

The tactility of the book has framed our mentality of literature. And it has allowed even enforced, much intellectual movement.

"Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible," writes the Korean-German philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, "Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyper attention."

"Multitasking," Han suggests, is the common plight of all animals, including humans, in a hostile environment. What humans had partly achieved, and are now gradually losing, is the space and capacity for contemplation.

It is impossible to contemplate on computers. This is not just because, as Han suggests, computing as an activity is opposed to contemplation. Computers, i-Pads and other such screen-reading devices are structured to split our attention; internet forces us to "multitask", as all those pop-ups indicate at the simplest.

One can argue that screen reading is far too fast: for instance, your eyes move down the page, but the cursor moves the line in the opposite direction too.

So that you can read faster, and faster, and faster. To read fast is a bit like driving fast: you get to your destination sooner, but you see much less on the way.

Literature has never been only about getting to your destination.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: November 24, 2016 | 11:56
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