Who Reads Anymore

Last week, Ms. Lavanya Sankaran in an infamous article in the New York Times titled “The Good Men of India” created ripples by dividing Indian men into two categories; either feral and rapists or “common Indian”, as in “gharelu” and domesticated. The badly written piece did more to make her known than her two previous books.

It’s not just Ms. Sankaran. While Mr. Chetan Bhagat and other similar authors sell copies and are feted at lit-fests, the truth is that hardly anyone reads books anymore…and even if they do, they are typically the non-fiction, management guru varieties, with titles like “How to Be the Best Manager Who Can Wag His Tail”, etc.

Sure, everyone “reads” (blogs, columns, tweets, pulp, texts), but the “reading” of literary fiction, both classic and contemporary that typically excludes novelists like Dan Brown and Amish Tripathi seems to be dying.

My eventual dream is to write the one novel I know is inside me. But I know I will be writing for myself, because by the time I finish and perhaps even get published, I am not sure there will be “readers” left to read it.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Anjali Bhelande, the Head of English at Ruia College, where I had earlier done by XIth and XIIth. I also met Samantha, a student of hers who was able to discuss authors, novels, genres, idioms and subtexts with such ease that I was transported to a time almost 30 years ago, when so many of us were able to do so all the time.

Perhaps we read in those days, because there were few other distractions and reading was the one relatively inexpensive activity we all had recourse to. Maybe! My kids hardly read. They do the usual Harry Potter stuff, but nothing much beyond. Their friends don’t read as well. Perhaps we are to blame for not inculcating reading habits earlier on…I thought if they saw my wife and me read every day, that would be enough…but after their school-work, some television, YouTube and playing and talking with friends, there doesn’t seem to be any time left to read.

A recent study in Science showed that reading a little Chekhov or Alice Munro goes a long way in helping people develop empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Intuitively, I know that reading helps develop characteristic modes of thinking and understanding that go a long way in navigating the world and so I worry when faced with younger generations that do not read seriously.

I wonder what the long-term effects of this lack of serious reading will be. And the funny thing is…it is not just the kids. So many of us who grew up reading have stopped as well. Even I…while I religiously buy what I want to read and store the books on my Kindle, the amount I actually read is perhaps 1/10th of what I used to.

I have always believed that reading defines a person. It is also obvious that the value of reading in the current world has been significantly devalued as the focus has shifted away to shorter and quicker methods of intellectual stimulation. Perhaps, this is a new direction in our social evolution…the way Malthus has been proven wrong so often, hopefully I will too.

And yet I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the way, we are missing out on something important and significant and it will come back and bite us sooner rather than later.

What do you think? Am I over-reacting or is it perhaps worse?

Happy Diwali!

16 Comments

  • You aren’t over-reacting and yes, it’s worse! In my student days, I could read about 3 books a day… today I can still manage about 1 book a week, if it’s interesting. I lay the cause of this decline squarely at the doorstep of technology. The mind thinks faster than you can speak and tech delivers information faster than the mind can absorb. It’s a no win situation for books.

  • I read and not Bhagat or Sankaran but classics as well as my favorite writers Alistair Maclean, James Hadley Chase, agatha cristhie among others

  • Jayesh Desai wrote:

    I do not share pessimist view, reason many of the classic are available now free to download online and its pleasure re-reading them. Maupassant, Jen Austin to name few. Those who have inclination to read will do it. Because reading transport one to different time and place. Admittedly one will have less time & limited capacity with advancing age. But it is doable.

  • I do read some pulp. My Kindle has old classics put in by my son and I happily reread those. I feel it helps me remain sane and perhaps keep alzheimer’s at bay

  • Sundaram M R wrote:

    You have always believed that read­ing defines a per­son. I firmly believe that ‘writing’ also defines the authors such as the one you have mentioned in your para #1. They belong to the genre which claims ‘We write what the people ‘want to read’. and create loads of waste!

  • H.L. Chulani wrote:

    Not to worry about the bite- most will not be around when the jaws are shut!

  • Ajay Bhonsle wrote:

    I was a voracious reader during my young days but confess I haven’t read a book from cover to cover in the last many many years. I not only read books but also bought them (which is very necessary for the book trade to survive). Fortunately my son has inherited this trait but all the books we bought are now neatly stacked in a large bookshelf and are more of a showpiece which seems to be the norm in any well appointed apartment! But alas the books are just that — showpieces! Yes the idiot box has stolen the thunder from under the very nose of these books because it has become mandatory to have one set in all bedrooms besides the one in the living room. Not forgetting laptops/notebooks AND smart phones in the ratio of one each per family member. So who has the patience for books- Kindle notwithstanding?

  • Dr Shreerang Joshi wrote:

    Instead of merely wailing aloud, all of us can do better by continuously setting examples.
    For some time now, the only gifts that I give to the younger generation are Crossword Bookstore vouchers.We can do better by banning TV from the dining area as also from the bedroom, whenever the house area permits.
    Another method is to consciously persue hobbies. You can engagein mindgames like chess and bridge. The amount of literature there is truly unlimited ! This is already being done in schools in countries like Israel, Norway, China etc.In a generation or so, they will reap the fruits of this culture.Dan Brown and Chetan Bhagat are fine too – u dont always have to eat healthy food but enjoy the vada-pav too !
    There are so many ways to skin the cat, but parents have to get started somewhere instead of abdicating their duty in favour of pursuit of careers.
    In fact, forget about English only, time has come when we must also support our mother-tongue literature. A society bereft of its own language can easily become extinct.

  • Lavanya Sankaran seems to be over smart in Indian men as she has not understood the importance of men-if she has a father/brother/male cousins.How can she generalise all men and categorise as rapist or ghareloo.Anyway it is possiblt her experience of defining MEN.

    Coming to reading,the views expressed by Kumar and Ajay Bhonsle are very true as the technology and ultra modern gadgets are responsible for the good old habit of reading vanishing/dying.

    You have TV.laptop,iPad,Note Book etc to keep the young generation busy throughout the day apart from school/college/classes/sports/gathering etc due to which there is no extra time left out.

    Reading is good to develop one”s thought/language/social change/varied knowledge in worldly affairs.

    However,every individual has his /her own tastes to pass time or engage in hobbies and inculcate habits which are found suitable to them.

    I am surprised to learn that most of the elite class of young/old(literate) prefer to read books of Foreign authors or read Magazines having contents of photography/films/sports/gadgets etc.

    There are scores of books authored by famous Indian writers on philosophy/fiction/politics/music/vedas/puranas/religion.

    Our Indians have false prestige and go for Foreign authors and boast of reading novels/books in English.

    Dr. Shrirang Joshi has hit the nail aptly saying mother tongue should be supported and learnt by every Indian to read/write and speak or else the regional languages or the mother tongue of various communities will have its natural death in the near future.

  • V.Subramanian wrote:

    In the 60’s four of us used to take 4 books from the circulating libraries at King Circle. We used to finish all the four books within a week. The fact that we had to shell
    25 paise more for the second week was a deterrent which motivated us to finish read the books within a week. Most of the citculating libraries have vanished.The electronic versions somehow do not make for compulsive reading.I firmly believe that it is reading which forms a basis for refined writing as well,without the use of “Abrasive language”.

  • V.Subramanian wrote:

    In the 60’s four of us used to take 4 books from the circulating libraries at King Circle. We used to finish all the four books within a week. The fact that we had to shell
    25 paise more for the second week was a deterrent which motivated us to finish read the books within a week. Most of the citculating libraries have vanished.The electronic versions somehow do not make for compulsive reading.I firmly believe that it is reading which forms a basis for refined writing as well,without the use of “Abrasive language”.

  • As many have said you are not over reacting. I don’t have kids so my opinion may not count.
    I feel it is the herd mentality of the parents as well. Most of the parents want their kids to do what other kids are doing. Almost all the kids are doing the same things. Even books are being read because other kids/people are reading it. I have rarely heard the parents tell them to go to the library or a bookshop. Malls it is.
    Of course there are quite a few Samantas and parents like you. Then the quality of teachers in most schools don’t help either. Abbas’s DVDs circulate more than the books. I really hope the reading habit gets its due.At this point I don’t care if it is in the electronic form or any other form.

  • RK Narayanan wrote:

    The decline in reading Books is simply because of other media available for information., viz internet, audio, video,
    e-books etc. The the Book write has to evolve and compete in alternate space too. At the same time Good writers will always be able to draw the reader to the traditional format of paper back reading for the sheer emotional appeal. Can u imagine reading a PG Wodehouse or a Stephen King in the internet ?

  • Jayaram, M wrote:

    Reading a “dead” habit?
    Not really – yes, TV and Kindle, et al; have changed reading habits. Whatever format it is in; it still has to be “written” and then “read”.
    In metro’s: books, other than texts and the occasional dictionary is NOT really the staple of continuing life. What appears on TV is edited to the bare fundamentals and if one wants to understand why the Titanic sank – not the right steel plates – one still will have to search for and read it: in whichever format.
    Once one becomes a professional; as compared to a academic life – the need is just not there for fiction/knowledge outside your own area of endevour. Reading here is limited then to children’s books (if at all) and while travelling – time!
    Reading to a certain extent reflects social and family levels – if one is exposed to more books during their schooling stage – it will reflect later on in life !
    Sorry Bhavin – reading (in any format) is here to stay : reduced; made electronic and perhaps in the future – pushed into your subconscious while one sleeps ??
    Stone etched, papyrus, palm leaf, Gutenberg and digital – they will continue to be the “founts” of life ??

    Regards n’ best wishes –

  • Prakash Nanavati wrote:

    Mu grand daughter in US has to read several books during school vacation which she enjoys too. Why cant our schools do same to inculcate such good habits?

  • dr mona badani wrote:

    i completely agree with you. the stark example is right there in my amily. my elder son read his first sidney sheldon in the 6th grade, and is a voracious reader. my younger is just six years younger to him – and has hardly read anything.

    but dont be so disheartened. do write what is in your heart. i am sure you will find some people who will enjoy what u write- it wont be labour lost.

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