I’m afraid of flying, so in an airplane I will do anything but look out of the windows; like stare pointedly across or down the aisles. Sometimes spotting people reading books. The last time, I caught one, two, maybe three people in the act. The third person was far enough away to possibly have been reading the safety manual, just more thoroughly than anyone ever before.
I make a mental note of the two bookworms, to approach later during baggage claim, where thanks to the celerity of the porters there is ample time to communicate. Both are women. The younger, wearing a tight fitting white shirt and jeans, sunglasses propped on her head, had been reading a black tome with golden letters on the cover. It was a treatise on modern Islam called Meezan, by Javed Ahmed Ghamidi. She said she was reading it to get an alternate perspective on mainstream Islam which she found rigid and oppressive. She usually read books to better understand her religion.
The other, a middle-aged woman, had been reading the recently released Nobody Killed Her by Sabyn Javeri. She was a lawyer, and a frequent flier because of her work and would end up picking up new books at the airport. She was a transit reader, to pass time from one city to another.
When I crowdsourced my friends and acquaintances for reasons they read books, passing time did come out as the predominant motivator. Surprising. Because in the 21st century there are a myriad more sensually stimulating ways to pass time. The sound and the fury of cinema, the infinite jest that is the internet, and the Faustian bargain that is television. Even just picking up a smartphone is a digital odyssey. So why read?
Upon further probing, the ‘time-pass crew’ admitted to certain peculiarities they still cherished about picking up a book and turning the crisp pages between their forefinger and thumb. “Fiction exercises my imagination”, they considered it a more immersive experience than watching a film. “I enjoy getting lost in a different world,” one said. “It helps me use my imagination, I enter someone else’s world but the interpretation is mine.”
Another friend thinks she reads to survive, “We are a storytelling species. Reading fiction offers a break from your own existential woes, you get lost in another person’s story.” Sometimes the only way to deal with your problems is to immerse yourself in someone else’s.
One person said, “When reading fiction I become privy to events, emotions and settings I haven’t experienced before, or if I have, I resonate with them and that itself is quite cathartic.”
When asked why reading over more visual forms of immersion, most people replied that books were more immersive than movies. They sometimes also contain the added joy of beautifully sculpted sentences.
Expatriate friends said they read because they had long commutes, often having to sit on a train to and from work for an hour and a half each day.
A man who’s written a book of his own said he read: “To enlighten myself, to learn”. To learn words, phrases, people and places, to learn the craft of storytelling itself.
A civil servant from Islamabad replied that, “I read books to develop a coherent world view, through dialogue with the sages, philosophers and theorists who write them”.
A teacher of university-level literature calls reading a mere childhood habit, subtly and sneakily encouraged by her mother, but a habit she found impossible to break since.
One woman was fascinated by, “How a writer perceives relationships, the way he or she writes about them intrigues me.”’
There are the compulsive readers, who pick up anything and can’t put it down till it’s finished. There are the impulsive readers, who spot a gorgeous cover or fascinating title and just have to read that book. There are readers who start multiple books at the same time and finish none of them, for them reading often becomes a to-do list. They feel like they have to read something just because it became famous, or got rave reviews, or someone really, really recommended it.
A very successful career woman said, “I like the lack of accountability that fiction allows. If it’s a tragedy I can console myself that it didn’t happen, but if it’s a happy ending I can share in the joy.”Perhaps the best answer yet.
A journalist friend says she, “mostly read(s) memoirs now. Because I’m interested in how people make their tiny stories urgent. Their little struggles, personal histories.”
While another journalist friend says, “I read books to learn about things that I don’t know. I’ve read three books about black holes. Black holes fascinate me, because well they’re holes and they’re massive. I like books that tell me how much I don’t know. Like compilations of useless knowledge.”
Finally, a friend who is now about to become a loose acquaintance says he doesn’t read at all. He considers it a waste of time. “When you’re hungry or sick or homeless, no book is going to help you, books have no utility beyond being burnt for a fire.”
My paternal aunt used to have an entire shelf of Urdu digests full of stories written by women. She used to say that these fictional stories had more truth to them than people’s conversations. That people were most honest when they wrote fiction.
My own father’s bookshelf is full of biographies. Hitler, Napoleon, Rasputin, Jinnah, Nehru, Benazir Bhutto; interspersed with books on the Mughal period, ancient Rome and the Islamic conquests of the near east. He likes to read about history and the people who shape it, because he fancies himself a little bit of a shaper too, in his own world. He came from a small village in Jhelum to make a life in urban Lahore, for himself and for his extended family.
I’d often seen the clerk at my local pizza place reading one Urdu novella or the other, a whole stack of them tucked away behind the counter. So I asked him one day why he read, when the place had a television that was always on. He said these stories took him to foreign and far-away lands, where he would probably never make it himself. They had bungalows and palaces he would never live in. Cars he would never drive, and adventures he would never have.
At the hospitals and clinics I frequent due to a genetic predisposition towards emergency wards, I sometimes see nurses burrowing their noses in similar books and digests. It shuts out all the sickly noise around them, one explained, the only possible escape when on duty.
The utility store owner down the street reads the tales of mostly fictional valour by Naseem Hijazi, because he wants to know of times when Islamic kingdoms ruled the world. Which are only to be found in books. His son, who sometimes delegated for his father, reads digests full of ghost stories, because he believes they are real. He believes in the world of Djinns.
All of which brings me to one important question: Why do I read? Well, there’s never any one reason. Sometimes it’s boredom, sometimes it’s a lust for words. I consider books to be a conversation between the reader and the writer, the writer often being long dead. It’s my own way to time travel I suppose. I read a lot of fiction from centuries past, to find out how those people talked and lived. Sure, through fictional characters, but penned by people who were astute observers of the world around them.