By Karan Mujoo
Fifteen minutes into reading this year’s Man Booker-winner Flights, by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, the words on the page in front of me started to blur. Sentences merged into one another, and created a new unfathomable language. With furrowed brows, I tried to concentrate. I owed it to the book because it had received rave reviews; one critic had described it as “a passionate and enchantingly discursive plea for meaningful connectedness, for the acceptance of fluidity, mobility, illusoriness,” which I imagine means “It’s a good read.” However, a few more words in, I shut the book, yawned, stretched, and started browsing Netflix.
How did I get to this point? I’ve always been a reader. It started with a bunch of Enid Blytons my mother gave me when I was a child. I opened them and would instantly be transported to the land of elves, fairies, tea parties, scones, and magic. I’d devour books in one go – such was the hunger, such was the joy.
During long, idyllic summer days I could spend hours lying on the bed, turning pages and turning sides, trying to gulp down the story as fast as possible. Calls for lunch and dinner were ignored. So were friends who rang the doorbell. It was a fever that would not go away.
But as years have passed, it has become much harder for me to pick a book and stick to it. Now, I’m unsure of my ability to finish even a Noddy story.
A few months ago, I found myself abandoning books faster than rats in a sinking ship. My list of failures included Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, J M Coetzee’s Dusklands, Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me, Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote, John Banvile’s The Sea, and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Not too keen on self-reflection, I immediately decided to blame the writers. Mohsin Hamid was found guilty of trying to be a writer of the world, trying to pin down the global cultural zeitgeist of migration in a few hundred pages. Murakami was sentenced to being a weird, Japanese, middle-aged man. Greene was accused of senility. Coetzee of trying to overachieve. They were all wrong, I was right.
I finished 400 pages of the book in a week. It astounded me. I was finally able to breathe freely.
I decided to ignore writers of lofty prose and turned to our spiritual guides: the poets.
I made it to the middle of Jeet Thayil’s 60 Indian Poets, before shutting the book and placing it deep in my closet. Next, I tried my hand at non-fiction and failed, rather miserably. What was happening to me? Why couldn’t I, the former devourer of books, complete even a single one?
Unable to find the answer on Google, I put the blame partly on technology.
Put together, Netflix and Amazon Prime offer us more than 2,500 shows and movies – thousands of hours of high-quality, HD entertainment. And unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter. Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us? Why bother reading 928 pages of Sacred Games, when you can binge-watch all the episodes in one day?
It’s not just our consumption of entertainment that has been reprogrammed, but daily habits. One of the greatest joys in life is reading on the pot. Earlier, this scatological sanctum sanctorum used to be reserved for books and magazines – now it too has been invaded by Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram. While we laugh at memes and jokes, the reader inside us wails in agony.
Stupidly enough, I thought the answer to my misery was to buy another book. Literary gluttony, my friends, is a serious disorder. I went to Galleria Market in Gurgaon, that remnant of a sprawling Italian villa with fountains and Renaissance architecture, climbed the baroque staircase and entered Bahrisons x Blue Tokai. Maybe it was here, among writers, readers, and single-origin coffees, that my soul would find succour.
While trawling the shelves, I had a panic attack. How much did people write?And how much did people read? For me, every book appeared like another potential failure. Another unfinished story. These narrow aisles, which had once brought me joy, now felt claustrophobic.
I remembered an article I read in “The Guardian” which suggested a change of genre to beat this reader’s block. So I skipped Coetzee, Naipaul, Pamuk and the other “literary” writers and turned to a page-turner.
Gilt red lettering shone at me from the shelves. A dazzling cover read Return of a King by William Dalrymple. I had long ago read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game with unwavering interest. This book dealt with the same topic: Britishers, Russians, Afghans, and the geopolitical games they played with each other in the 18th Century. I picked it up, took a deep breath, and went to the counter.
I finished 400 pages of the book in a week. It astounded me. I was finally able to breathe freely. I had not lost the ability to read and enjoy a piece of literature. The block was broken. The curse was lifted. Valhalla awaited me.
Or so I believed.
Reader’s block is not a battle – it is a long and dirty war. A war in which you’ll win some skirmishes and lose others. But the trick is not to be too hard on yourself. As the great Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
A few days later, buoyed by my victory, even slightly arrogant, I decided to revisit Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. By the time I was 30 pages in, I was humbled once again. New memes and forwards popped up on my phone, making demands on my attention. As the fog of reader’s block settled around me once more, a single, pinging notification cut through the haze. Netflix, like the sirens who seduced Odysseus, was calling out to me once more. Flights will have to await its take-off, I guess.