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Binge-reading: A high-risk, high-reward endeavour

Can one have too much of a good thing, as far as books are concerned? Vineet Gill explores the dangers of binge-reading, and offers suggestions on how to cope with an overdose of literature.

Vineet Gill  4th Apr 2015

Michel de Montaigne.

am always grousing about not reading enough. This bedside table, overburdened by a heap of unread books that grows only bigger, was never meant to be as off-kilter as it now is. Nor were my Flipkart or Amazon wishlists — childishly extravagant in their scope — supposed to be as lengthy. It's almost dispiriting, this ever expanding world of yet-to-be-read books. So much has been, is being, and will be, written that is worth reading, and one lifetime is never going to be enough to cover even a fraction of this output. I think it was the critic Harold Bloom who said that we need to choose carefully what we read, for we are reading against the clock. But even if the choices we make are sensible and, as Bloom would have it, resolutely highbrow, there's much that will forever remain pending.

I am reminded of this each time I come across a blind spot on my reading map. Take South American literature, for instance, to which I have never quite paid my dues in readerly attention (with the sole exception of Borges). Then there remain a few unread European writers, like Robert Musil, whom I am always meaning to devote my time to, always failing. Musil's final masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, runs to over 1,100 pages (the novel was left unfinished, by the way). Now, I ask myself, how does one do that? Over a thousand pages containing rectangular blocks of tiny print stretching all the way to the edges and leaving barely any space for margins. How does one do that and follow it up with perhaps an equally hefty doorstopper by Roberto Bolaño?

While the contemporary age fosters philistinism as a way of life, it has made reading into a virtue. We are told reading cultivates the “personality”, that it enlarges the brain. And to help us through this path to personal growth, we’re bombarded with text wherever we go: books, newspapers, emails, SMSes, advertising, public-health warnings — all seeking to make us read more and read better.

One way out is reading quickly. I don't mean speed reading, which is a mindless racket devised by a management class dreaming of an optimal, high-efficiency readership. What I mean is reading at your natural pace, but doing so through the day, and all through the subsequent days, so that books are finished in quick succession. This entails reading attentively and actively while we can, and reading on the side when we're busy doing other unavoidable things like watching TV or playing video games. It's quite like binge reading, except that people who binge read do so for short spans of time. Presumably, they emerge reeling from their intense textual engagement, with heavy heads and building nausea, resolving never to read another sentence again.

Like an inveterate addict, I am more inured to the kind of unending binge I have subjected myself to. Soon as I finish one book, I begin the next one, so that everything I read seems to belong to a narrative continuum. And I wonder what kind of confusions I may be creating for myself with this approach. Have I ever conflated two voices in the literary precincts of memory, transposing one character out of a Dostoevsky novel, say, into one of Chekhov's tales? Possibly. But if so, how does that alter, or indeed corrupt, my understanding of these writers?

Most of us tend to see reading and understanding as logical stages in an algorithm. This is wrong on two levels. First, reading is not a sufficient condition for understanding a text. In fact, as Nabokov tells us in his Lectures on Literature, we don't read a book, we only reread it. Harold Bloom's own work on the importance of misreading gives a whole new spin to this issue. Second, understanding is too strong a term to be used in connection with literature. The function of art, all art — high or low — is to add to the ambiguity of things, to ask questions rather than dish out cheap solutions. We read books, or experience art, not in order to come to an understanding of some sort, but to absorb the experience extended to us. And I believe that reading too much in a sequence may interfere with that all-important process of absorption.

he other day I was struck by an article I was reading on Montaigne, where the writer — Virginia Woolf — talks of how the pioneering essayist of all generations wasn't himself an obsessive reader. Montaigne, Woolf wrote, "could seldom read any book for more than an hour at a time." Throughout his writing life, Montaigne was convinced of the detrimental effect that "book learning" can have on the imagination, and he wasn't alone in this. The Romantic poets were as disaffected with what books in their age had come to symbolise. One of Wordsworth's hymns to the beauty of nature, as opposed to the deadening air of the library, begins with these words: "Up! Up! My friend, and quit your books..."

The irony of our own era is a little more confounding: while the contemporary age fosters philistinism as a way of life, it has made reading a virtue. We are told reading cultivates the "personality", that it broadens the mind. And to help us through this path to personal growth, we're bombarded with text wherever we go: books, newspapers, emails, SMSes, advertising, public-health warnings — all seeking to make us read more and read better. Where do we turn to in this confused rush of language?

I turn to music, or painting. These two forms have a lot to teach us. The primary lesson being that a handful of abstract noises, or a palette of colours, is not meant to be "understood", but only to be experienced. The wordlessness of music (with obvious exceptions) and of painting (again, there are exceptions) enrich the pleasure I take in these forms. But even more delightful is the silence that follows a 20-minute stretch of Chopin, or the darkness — when I close my eyes — that descends after an attentive study of Renoir.

This is the point when the work of art really gains presence, as a totality, within a contemplating mind. If reading day and night heightens our erudition, it doesn't let us sit still and contemplate, which is what every book demands and even expresses by means of a few blank pages at the end.

Each book, at the point of its conclusion, has the same message for us: up and quit your books.

 
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