Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Well read

More and more I find myself fearing that I might be reading too much and too fast, and not reading well enough.

Have just finished reviewing Andrea Levy’s Small Island for our paper (will put it up here once it’s been published). Considering how highly it’s been regarded in most quarters, mine is a not-too-favourable review - I had a few reservations about the book - but then, yesterday, while flipping through its pages again, I chanced upon a striking (and thematically important) passage that had somehow just not registered with me earlier. That was scary, because it suggested I hadn’t been reading (at least some portions) with full concentration. Personally speaking, that’s a depressing thought because of what books have meant to me for most of my life. And professionally it’s distressing because if I haven’t read it well enough, what right do I have to write even a partly negative assessment, to throw in even a few dismissive sentences in a 1000-word review? (That won’t stop me, of course!)

I marvel at how some of the professional reviewers/dedicated lit journos I know manage. A few weeks ago I nearly fell off my chair when I heard one of them rattle off the names and complex relationships of some of the more marginal characters in one of Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books. (I loved that series myself but off the cuff I can only recall Lord Emsworth, Rupert Baxter and good old Galahad. Oh oh, and Beach the butler.) Wodehouse just happened to come up in conversation, and I know that the friend in question, a polymath, reads hundreds of books each year on every subject imaginable - I seriously doubt he would have just happened to pick up a Blandings Castle book in the recent past. So is this just a case of vastly superior memory, or concentration, or what is it? How does one balance reading a lot with reading well?

I’m not sure who it was that said it was better to know one book intimately than to know a thousand books sketchily, but Frank Capra once proclaimed that you can’t call yourself poor if you have one really good friend: “Three of them, and you’re a millionaire.” The comparison makes sense I think; of the hundreds of books in my room, there are some that I once knew so intimately but which seem like strangers when I approach them now - like lost schoolfriends.

Back in 1989-90, which was when I read almost all the Agatha Christies in a space of 7-8 months, I was astonished by my mother’s admission that she had read them all in her youth but didn’t remember most of them anymore. “That’s never going to happen with me,” I vowed, and to ensure it wouldn’t I solemnly repeated the murderer’s name and modus operandi to myself each time I reached the end of a Christie. Today, as I scan the titles on their shelf, I recall the denouement of only 9 or 10 of the books - and even among these, a couple of the memories have been kept alive by filmed versions I later saw. (Of course, every once in a while there’s a happy incident, like when Yazad Jal started talking about Ordeal By Innocence at our bloggers’ meet and the plot suddenly came back to me.)

Actually, Agatha Christie isn’t even the best example, because unexpected endings/revelations tend to stick with you - thereby creating the illusion that you remember the book better than you really do. So what of other books that I knew really intimately at various stages of my reading life? To name a few: Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (which I was so proud about reading when I was just 12 that I re-read it almost immediately). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Shame, most of the essays in Step Across This Line. Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Steinbeck’s East of Eden. (Okay, it might not be a great book but I loved it and was sure I would never forget the plot, and now I completely have.) Catch 22 and Something Happened, Joseph Heller. More recently, Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Tolkien’s The Silmarilion. Best of all, Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books.

That’s a decent list up there, though of course it’s only a small selection. But I can’t claim to know most of these books very well anymore. And one has so little time to revisit them, let alone reread them from beginning to end. There’s so much new stuff demanding to be read, reviewed on deadlines. Sometimes I wish I could create a vacuum in time for myself, crawl into it, reread all the books of my past, and then reemerge to tackle all the new stuff.


  1. Oh dear! (wringing hands) and to think I don't remember anything at all about Wodehouse, except Jeeves and Bertie Wooster... :-)

  2. A few thoughts: (1) The ones who read slow and deep are assailed by similar doubts of opposite nature: that they read too little, and that time is running out. (2) In many cases, what one remembers is beyond what one conciously tries to commit to memory; for no immediately apparent reason, we remember little details of books we've read long ago. (3) I remember details of places I've visited much more vividly than books I've read. I wonder why. (4) Why remember at all? Sometimes my inability to remember details of a recently read book bothers me; I retain the essence of the book, but cannot articulate more than a couple of sentences about it. At such times I wonder if it isn't enough to think of a book as something that offers an experience only as long as we read it; can't we read just for those moments while the book is in our hands? But that is difficult: memory is all we have, and we cling to it.

  3. do i get a little credit for being the one your polymath friend was having the wodehouse conversation with? presuming it was the same conversation...

  4. Fascinating thoughts, Jai.
    Parmanu, you make some good points.

    I'm a slow reader, and also quite promiscuous one. I can't relate to these people who have read twenty new novels in one year.

    It's not such a terrible problem, though. Reading, after all, has to compete with the other pleasures of life, and the moment it becomes something frenetic and guilt-inducing (when was the last time I savored a nice fat Russian novel), the purpose is defeated.

    If all I can get through this month is another chapter of Suetonius, or Sebald, and I manage to read it attentively, and even if I forget plot details, as long as I remember what it was to sit and take those words silently in, I count myself a most successful reader.


  5. Annie: put everything else aside and get started on Blandings Castle. Now. Much better than Jeeves.

    Samit: did consider mentioning you but then thought hey, he gets enough free publicity anyway ;)

    Parmanu: am heartened that someone else has difficulty remembering details of a recently read book. Wouldn't want to be the only one.

    Elck: "Reading, after all, has to compete with the other pleasures of life, and the moment it becomes something frenetic and guilt-inducing, the purpose is defeated." Thanks for that. It's something I have to keep reminding myself of. What complicates things is when you're a professional reviewer working on deadlines (and for different publications) - you don't always have a choice then, unless the choice is to stop reviewing, which I'm not ready to do yet.

  6. How does one balance reading a lot with reading well? you ask. hmmn, very tricky.
    I've had the vaguest books stick in my memory and sometimes can't remember a thing about ones I seemed to like (at the time). Perhaps impressions depend on spacing out the reads? Difficult to do.
    If you cram in three Wodehouses in a week, the details are bound to blur. And like people who skip breakfast when they're going to a daawat, perhaps a week of abstinence must precede a really good book.

  7. Hey. Saw your site as listed in Well read and also found it in a page about a Search for People I knew at Do you ever trade links?

  8. Jay, you're singing my life with your words.

    It's reassuring to hear ( that I'm not the only one who forgets the books s/he read so avidly. I feel as though I've betrayed an old friend when I can't recall the plot or character quirk of a favorite book.

    But sometimes all it takes is a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word to bring it all back. When I feel the storyline of a favorite slipping away into the dark recesses of my fickle memory, I force myself to make time and read a random page from the book. It keeps me grounded in the literature that have defined me over the years.

    On a side note, I just discovered your blog this past week and I'm hooked on your movie reviews, book reviews, and general ruminations on life.

  9. Ermmm...huge apologies for misspelling your name in the above comment. Have an office mate of the same name, albeit different spelling!!

  10. Thanks Vidhyuta, very nice of you to say that. One of the great disadvantages of having to read professionally is that one just doesn't get the time to go back to old favourites and engage in that delightful rediscovery process. Maybe retirement beckons... :)

  11. ok, i need to admit that these days ur blog gives me the much needed respite during the boring office hours.So i keep reading all ur old rants and esp. loved this one.

    i am one of those who keep re-reading just for the pure pleasure of recapturing those moments when i first read it.
    well, at one point even i wondered if i could ever forget my favorite Christie books but then time did fade out many characters (n sometimes even the denouement!!) except in a few cases. But I do know a dear friend of mine who has the uncanny ability to even quote from books he has read(blessed are those ppl i guess..)

  12. Thanks for the comment, Swathi! Always nice to know someone's trawling the archives - especially given what they say about blog posts being so ephemeral.

  13. You think this is bad? I am a slow reader - AND have a bad memory!

    I'm always scared to start reading a 1000 page book - Firstly it'd probably be more enriching to read 3 300 page books, and secondly, I know I'll forget how things started by the time they are ending.

    P.S.: Great post!