(Opinion Page Column in Khaleej Times dated Dec 6, 2021)
Once upon a time, apart from outdoor games, the only antidote to children’s boredom was reading. The only pastime for women after their daily chores were magazines and books. People reveled in books, and libraries thrived. The printed word was then our primary source of knowledge and entertainment.
I have no idea at what point our new age predilections snatched our leanings towards books. It was likely a gradual process to which we willingly gave in; a slow metamorphosis that happened with the coming of newfangled ways of entertainment. Looking back, it is hard to pinpoint in which alley we lost the unparalleled joys of reading and became vassals to the snazzy visuals.
Many people that I know confess to having ditched books in favour of other things. There is an unambiguous tone of regret in their voices as they hurriedly list down reasons for abandoning books and try to exonerate themselves of the guilt. I also sense a secret desire in them to get back to the old pleasures of reading, if only time and other life variables permitted. This piece is for them; to those whose allegiance to books is still intact in spirit, to those who still believe in the indescribable charms of literature and are looking to return to the pastures that they once grazed and grew in.
The reasons for books to become redundant in our lives are obvious. No matter how hard we try to pin the blame on ‘lack of time’, the truth is that many of us have delisted reading from our routine. It is no more an imperative in our lives, neither as a source of knowledge nor as recreation, for we have found alternatives. It is debatable whether the alternatives are better or worse, but the fact that we have made reading dispensable in our lives remains. Things that previously were important to us often got relegated to the lower rungs only because we allowed them to. So let us first strive to consciously put reading back on the charts for its inherent benefits. I did it at a time when I realised that my inclination to reading was veering away from me and if I didn’t act immediately, it may become alien to me faster than I could imagine.
Not all plans come to fruition unless it is followed up with positive action. So, I reminded myself how reading had once been an uncompromisable part of my life and reflected on how it had contributed to my growth as an individual and as a writer. I reiterated to myself its apparent merits and pledged to give the books that had lain unopened on my shelf and in my Kindle their due.
At that point, I also realised it wasn’t that there was no reading happening in my life. On the contrary, there was so much of it happening and so haphazardly that nothing that I read was adding up to anything credible. I decided to weed out all unnecessary reading on the internet, sorting important articles while browsing and filing them away for reading at a designated hour during the day. Essentially, I learnt to see the difference between junk and useful reads, which does not necessarily mean sticking only to the ‘serious stuff’. Even trivia had its own place, but I did not allow it to claw into my productive time. Recognizing how pointless it was to read everything that caught my eye on the internet was the biggest turning point in my return journey to books.
I taught myself to stop trawling the social media and the internet aimlessly and assigned a time for it. Getting disciplined about it worked further wonders and I soon found myself reaching out to the book on the table or in the Kindle more often. I set a limit to reading random opinion and commentaries online, an overdose of which was only turning me into a mental wreck.
I kept two books by my side at a time so I could alternate between genres for a change as per my mood. What I did not do was to set reading goals because I did not want books to be part of an intimidating self-challenge. Soon enough, what initially felt like a compulsion became a delightful routine, sometimes for pleasure, and at other times for understanding and contemplation.
Luckily for me, I hadn’t lost my love of books; I had merely strayed. All I had to do to get back to them was to fix them firmly on my agenda and swipe the distractions out of the way.