My mother began reading novels in the 1970s. She was still a teenager then and money was scarce. Whenever she had a rupee to spare she would wrap it up along with the name of the novel she wanted and hand both to her brother. Acting as her library mule, he would trek to the tiny excuse of a library in Kashmiri Bazaar, Rawalpindi.
At the time she knew of only three writers: Razia Butt, Naseem Hijazi, and Quratulain Hyder. After reading a novel she would investigate its book cover for names of other works by the same writer or publisher. She would then seek validation from friends and cousins. Had they read the new novel? Did they like it? Should she spend her time and money on it?
She doesn’t remember hearing about new novels or writers on the radio or in newspapers. What she does remember is that she was never spoilt for choice. Often, her neatly inscribed book requests would be checked out and her brother would come home empty handed, having spent the rupee on something deliciously sweet for himself.
I suggested to her that this might be more telling about her brother’s intentions than the paucity of books in the library, but she said: “As a college student, when I became a member of the British Council Library, the halaat were the same; I would go to the library with a list of 3-4 British classics I wanted to borrow — after making sure that my friends thought they were interesting — but my first few choices were rarely available.”
I’ve never faced this problem of scarcity. But there are two commonalities between the way my mother chose her readings in the 1970s, and the way we do today: firstly, the unrelenting need for validation and approval of our reading material by people we trust and respect, and secondly the concept of building family trees out of one book, essay or writer that spoke to us.
A journalist friend known for her mania with Zadie Smith says that after reading White Teeth she wanted to know who Smith reads. Through an interview she found on the internet it was revealed that Smith was an ardent E.M. Forster fan. My friend then proceeded to read A Room With a View and A Passage to India. “You then wonder what Forster was reading when he wrote A Passage to India, and you get your hands on that and it builds a kind of family tree of writers,” she says.
There’s another way to build a family tree of writers that can help you decide what you should be reading. An editor whose social media access is limited to texting and email (he’s running a newsroom without Whatsapp), says that when he was a teenager his cousin gifted him Sibte Hassan’s Musa Say Marx Tak. “I decided that if I am able to read every book that Hassan quotes from, or comments upon in Musa Say Marx Tak, I could consider myself well read,” he says. The list of mentions is approximately 800-entries long. He has yet to finish it, but about 30 years on his resolve is still strong.
The problem is that much like the rest of us, his access to reading material is wider than just that list. He has an overabundance of other reading distractions. “I read anything sent to me via email or text,” he says. In an ideal world he would only read material sent to him by people whose judgement he trusts, but the reality is that he can rarely resist opening the link and at least skimming through whatever is sent his way. If it’s interesting, it’ll wile away at his day, if it’s boring, he will close the tab and get back to editing copy (i.e. required reading).
There are others though, with a heightened sense of self-control. “You have to cut through the clutter,” says a bookworm whose day job is fancy financial consultancy. To do this, he has downloaded an application called Pocket. The free application allows him to save links he finds interesting while scrolling Facebook or Twitter; after getting to know you and your tastes, the reading application suggests essays, interviews, and other reading materials to you. One can think of the apps as a really dedicated albeit stalker-ish librarian: “You liked Mrs Dalloway? Let me introduce you to more works by tortured souls, why don’t you try The Bell Jar?”
More online sources that help people decide what is worth their time include Good Reads and the Amazon website. A Lahore-based thirty-something who is steadily working towards becoming the president of his family-owned multi-million-rupee retail business, says that before he bought a Kindle he hardly read two books a year. The idea of choosing a book from a bookstore was overwhelming and unappealing. Now he reads a book every week on his Kindle, mainly science fiction, but murder mysteries and thrillers also attract him.
He logs on Amazon, which had gradually gotten to know him and his preferences, and reads reviews for books Amazon throws his way. His three-hour vetting process ensures that the book he purchases is thoroughly validated. “Nothing I purchase has less than 400 reviews and less than a four-star rating,” he says. As a result, he is rarely disappointed with the books he selects. I ask him if he’s worried about how Amazon may limit his horizons by only nudging him towards a specific genre. “If I am confident that I am interested in this genre then why do I need to snoop around in other genres?” he asks.
But there are some readers who can’t resist snooping around, they drop digital and physical bookmarks everywhere. They are the kind who have four windows open at any given point, each with about 20 unread tabs. The kind that go to Readings, a bookshop in Lahore, and move from aisle to aisle, unsettled about what genre they need to read most urgently. The kind that compulsively opens every link on Facebook, if for no other reason then just to know what their friends and colleagues are reading. The kind that reads three novels at a time: “fiction for pleasure, non-fiction for knowledge, and biography to learn how to manage my time to do all this reading.”
A consultant based in Islamabad is one of them: “The way I consume reading material is greedy and gluttonous.” He compares the voracious way he reads to the way alcoholics consume spirits. “If I consume about seven essays or interviews in a day, by nightfall my brain will struggle to recall most of what I read,” he says. So he’s cut himself off from Facebook. He now looks for ideas about what to read during conversations with friends in intimate gatherings or from less-intimate Whatsapp groups.
Reading is labour, if it’s been done right, it can be pleasant labour, but it’s effort nonetheless. Perhaps that is why we wait for those we trust and respect to validate reading material before we invest our time in it. A writer who spends an unhealthy amount of time online says that if someone whose intelligence he respects has posted a link without comment, they are probably just being ‘social media polite’ and he ignores it, but if they have posted a short review along with the link, he will click it open. “In the latter case, even if I find the essay boring, dawaai samajh key pee jata hoon because I suspect it will expand my horizons.”
Many I spoke to said they constantly forget that they should be expanding their reading horizons. Everyone is comfortable in their echo chambers; I’ve seen many a liberal shriek in horror when a Tariq Jameel post appears on their news feed; similarly, I’ve had Jameel fans ask me how to block all essays espousing Western freedoms from their newsfeeds; our interior minister doesn’t want himself (or you) to read articles against our army or religion, I don’t want to read 30 ways to make my complexion fairer, and nobody at all wants to read the story behind Waqar Zaka’s new haircut. And yet all these reading materials exist in our world. So we block, cater and curate our friends and feeds to ensure that everything we read, and everything we suggest to others for reading is validated and approved.