Between the beginning of May and the end of July, I finished reading 37 books. These comprised of: 18 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 books of poetry, 3 short story collections, 4 picture-books for all ages, and 4 works of non-fiction.
I hadn’t been held hostage in a library. I hadn’t become unemployed; in fact, my overall workload had increased during this period. I hadn’t had a windfall and splurged it; with few exceptions, most of the books were from my splendid tsundoku collection (the Japanese term for purchasing books and not reading them, allowing the to-be-read pile to become a heap, then several).
The having of books – or if one cannot own them, the solace of wandering the stacks at a library or a good bookstore – is one kind of pleasure and self-care activity. Reading them is a completely separate kind. My book binge was deliberate. It was to limit my social media usage, both so I would spend my time better and because I was increasingly noticing how it drained more than just my phone battery. Studies show how social media usage can negatively affect mental health, as well as physical components like sleep, something most users know from experience.
Many wonder how to rekindle (pun intended) their earlier interest in reading. Innumerable suggestions exist: take public transport and read on your commute, carry literature at all times so you can read during waiting periods through the day, commit to an hour before bedtime or wake earlier and do it before even brushing your teeth. Notice how every one of these suggestions ultimately requires the same thing: a shift in unrelated habits. The thing you need to tweak to bring reading back doesn’t have to do with books at all. Rather than deactivate my apps, I simply decided to do more of something else, and this made me see how little I actually need them.
These days, I work at a desk beside a well-earned wall of books, and I hope I’ll always remember being giddy with joy and surprise on the night I finally set it all up, when it was like I was staring at my childhood ambitions come true. “Now I am a Lady of Letters,” I thought, grandly. “An L. O. L.”
And that’s exactly why I plan to read fewer books this month. The downside to reading so voraciously was that I’d left myself little time to write. After three months of gobbling through pages like a silverfish, I confronted the fact that my book binge was also an exercise in procrastination.
Still, I understood this only through the reset I experienced thanks to it. I had gained greater clarity on my goals, and become more mindful about how I utilise or fritter my time. I didn’t have as many low moods. My sense of self was richer, less reactive to the vagaries of the fickle hive mind. Not least, I experienced the sheer pleasure that comes from immersion, when you don’t shift your attention just because of one slow-moving passage. Ultimately, I found that the many worlds of fiction held far less artifice than the online world.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 8th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.