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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

Reading for “fun” and “knowledge”

've always believed that to be a good writer you first need to be a good reader – someone who reads widely and wisely. While that seems almost too obvious to need mentioning, during my time on the literary beat I've discovered that it's a quaint notion for some young writers. "I don't read books – I write them," one of them told me with admirable but misplaced confidence a few years ago. He also wondered aloud why it took someone like Vikram Chandra so many years to "produce" a book: "My life has been so eventful that I can write five or six books a year based on my experiences." (He was around 21 years old.)

Given this attitude (and the habit that some wannabe authors have of writing emails and even book proposals in SMS lingo, with little indication that they would know how to whip up a proper sentence if asked to do so on short notice), I'm always thankful when an aspiring writer asks for book recommendations and displays a genuine interest in reading. However, these discussions can head off in problematic directions too.

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I was surprised at the wording of the question – by its polarising insinuation that reading must be either for fun or for education.

"Do you read books for enjoyment, or to learn something?" a young short-story writer asked me recently. It was part of a comment on my blog and I was surprised at the wording of the question – by its polarising insinuation that reading must be either for fun or for education. Anyway, my reply was that all the books I have really loved have given me joy and learning (though I might define "learning" in a broader sense than he intended), and that I'm unlikely to learn something useful or lasting from a book that didn't engage me in the first place. I don't know if he got what I was trying to say though, for he continued (and I quote), "Personally I belong to the category of people who read for knowledge and pursue Autodidacticism, which is why I often end up getting bored while reading fiction. But do you think I could gain some knowledge by reading fiction? If yes, feel free to recommend some books."

t struck me that here was someone who had probably started reading at a late age, and was trying to make up for lost time by accumulating only the most "relevant" literature. In my experience people who encounter the joy of reading early are less likely to be preoccupied with such things as "autodidacticism" and more likely to simply keep absorbing many different types of books, along with the different types of experiences they offer. Naturally, part of this process is that as you read more you become more discerning, develop likes and dislikes – and you learn things too, at a conscious or subconscious level. But setting a rigid agenda for what one must get out of books seems like the hallmark of someone who only started reading as an adult and then said to himself, "I have to prioritise and get maximum value from what I read."

(Pauline Kael, incidentally, made a similar observation about movies: someone who sweepingly expresses disdain for popular Hollywood films, she said, and chooses to watch only "serious and artistic cinema", is invariably someone who got into movies late and could only think of them in narrow-minded functional terms.)

The other notable thing about the comment was the disdain expressed for fiction; the idea that you can't "learn" anything from made-up stories. This is a common form of snobbery among those who aren't habitual readers – I often find people using "fiction" as a synonym for "escapist entertainment" while indiscriminately equating "non-fiction" with "knowledge" – and it shows an inability to see how insightful and psychologically acute a good novel can be. There are sub-sets of snobbery too: for instance, fiction has genres (fantasy, chick-lit and so on) that consistently draw negative press regardless of the quality of the individual books in them. But most of the best readers I know have eclectic tastes and avoid pre-judging a book by the supposed attributes of the category it belongs to. Not coincidentally, all of them started reading at an early age.

 
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