Reading is likely to become a habit and necessity at the same time. It might help someone to find ways to solve some big riddles of life. For others, it can turn into an addictive practice — reading for the sake of pleasure.
The aim, purpose and meaning of reading could be different for different people. An old dictum ‘we are what we eat’ might be replaced by a new one: ‘we are what we read and how we define our reading’. Both the content and aim of our reading decisively influence, in an interactive way, our perception of life, events and universe. A book and the way we read it can change our worldview and nurture new emotions.
Reading for pleasure is in effect a way and aim of reading books.
Pleasure is arguably one of the strongest drives behind most of our pursuits. At times, it grows so strong that it can surpass the principle of reality. Fight and flight are termed as two most common behaviours of all living beings; they either wrestle with or run away from danger. In deciding to fight the danger, you go with the principle of reality; in choosing escape you vote for the principle of pleasure. Fighting is meant to putting your best abilities to test in quite uncertain conditions. On the other hand, seeking pleasure merely means seeking a place to hide and nourishing your ego.
All pleasure-seekers are egotists. The people who read books for the sake of pleasure build a fort where their ego acts like a king — a king who only listens. In Italo Kalvino’s A King Listens, the King is asked to stay immobile and just listen. “The head must be held immobile; always remember that the crown is balanced on your pate, you cannot pull it over your ears like a cap on a windy day”. The head used to enjoying the heady idea of reading remains immobile. It relishes ecstatic rhythms, descriptions, narrations even some ideas found in books but avoids negotiating and interrogating them. Negotiations and interrogations are crucial parts of the principle of reality.
Egotists like to talk boastfully about their experiences of pleasure. They mention authors and titles of books they have read with love and fondness. Sometimes they talk about their merits and demerits which are solely based on their personal likes and dislikes. Those authors are ‘great’, and deserve all superlatives whose writings they can enjoy while the authors whose writings demand deep, pure reflection of intellect are declared unhesitatingly ‘small’. Their pleasure becomes a yardstick of evaluating the literary merits of authors. This way, they find another means to assert their eccentricity.
Any kind of eccentricity leaves no room for negotiations and interrogations. How eccentricity and self-centredness justify their ‘flight’ from a demanding situation has been illustrated by Ghalib in the following couplet.
Each book is like a Ka’ba with closed doors. Instead of opening the doors themselves and exploring the world inside, the pleasure-seekers like to cast an appreciative look on the embellishment of doors and make a scurry flight.
What happens if books are not negotiated with? What occurs if the doors of a book remain closed?
Publishing of a book of any sort cannot be likened to introducing an ‘item’ or ‘object’ for sale. No doubt, book publishing has become an industry but the book itself cannot be equated with a ‘thing’ to be passively yet joyfully consumed and discarded.
Every book signifies a birth of an ‘event’ in society. It offers us alternatives. It provides us with a third eye to see events that have happened in the near or remote past or are happening right now or might happen in the outside world and in human heart and psyche. The third eye of a book is created out of the words which are not innocent; they point to something in one or the other way. They make us feel good or bad; moreover they make us believe or refute things.
In reality, language is political and ideological at its very semantic level. So when you decree that this or that book was just pleasurable — or a wonderful read and an ecstatic experience — you are endorsing uncritically and in an ambiguous way the third eye’s view. You also position yourself in the real world as well as the world of ideas and books. You position your feeling of pleasure as superior to your thinking; you take pleasure in affirming the already existing ideas, the previously conceived world views.
A book is reduced to a thing like a throne of a king of Italo Calvino who was confined to his throne and advised not to move away from the throne even for a moment. “You would have nothing to gain by moving, and everything to lose. If you rise, if you take even a few steps, if you lose sight of the throne for an instant, who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it? .… A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.”
A pleasure-seeker is advised by his ego that if he rises above his pleasure and starts thinking or begins to interrogate the view a book has taken toward the world, he or she will lose his throne of eccentricity. Moving is thinking, a preferring of cerebral hunt to intuitive pursue.
When you take a book as an event, you affirm that that event needs to be comprehended at two levels: sensual and cerebral. At a sensual level, a book might be equally pleasurable and painful; it can arouse pleasant or/and bad feelings; it may make you feel optimistic or/and pessimistic about the things addressed in it. It is the way the book not only engages your most powerful part of being but also takes you into the mode of fight, into interrogating things courageously. When you decide to fight there are equal chances of success and failure: joy of victory or melancholy of defeat.
An egotist, necessarily surrounded by quirky emotions, is scared of defeat, of an error a thinking mind can commit. In case of defeat or error, he or she strives to justify it by some sort of ‘logic’. Ali Jawad Zaidi in the following couplet seems to bespeak pleasure-seekers’ logic to validate their failures.
Comprehending books at sensual level moves us into the cerebral plane, where we negotiate with and interrogate their themes, their ways of argumentation and the reasons of choosing one particular style by their authors. Books ‘produce’ knowledge, feelings, perceptions and meanings by employing culturally acquired human faculties. If we avoid interrogating how books make us feel or perceive things, we subscribe to the idea that knowledge transmitted through books is sacredly ultimate and unchallengeable, not mundanely transitory. At the cerebral plane, a book proffers a certain type of belief: whatever we come across in a society was humanly generated and it can only be understood and dealt with through humanly produced texts.
Pleasure-seekers take all these things for granted.
This article was published in The News on Sunday on January 7 2018 under the title On reading for pleasure.