The sting of the unfinished book
We are morally inclined not to abandon books, but our restructured lives circa 2018 make it hard to go the last mile with every book we pick up
In a certain subset of social media, a recurring post is the Japanese word for something inefficiently described in the English language. These are words that have great Instagram potential: think filtered sunlight (komorebi) or forest bathing (shinrin-yoku). But one word that has been showing up in alarming frequency on my timelines along with images such as the one pictured above is tsundoku—the act of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up without reading.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, while travelling for roughly 8 hours in a minivan from Colombo to a beach on the east coast for a wedding, the adults on the bus had one singular fantasy. More than consuming copious amounts of seafood, more than swimming, more than sex, there was one thing every one wanted in the few free hours available: unfettered reading time in the hammocks strung between the palms.
Nida Hasan, country lead at the online petition platform Change.org, told us all that she resolved to finish a certain Man Booker-longlisted book. She complained about its pretentiousness, and random twists and turns. Hasan, who has a three-year-old back home in Delhi, said holidays are the only real reading time she has. We encouraged her to finish it because it seemed like the right thing to do.
We are morally inclined not to abandon books, but our restructured lives circa 2018 make it hard to go the last mile with every book we pick up. Fewer and fewer people “read everyday for a few hours before bed" and most reading is done while seated in vehicles. Even the Lounge books editor, Somak Ghoshal, who reads three-four books from start to finish “on a good week", says he does a lot of his reading on his phone during commutes (yes, I think we should gift him a reading device). My hit rate these days averages at 60%. It is so much easier to flirt with multiple books at once on Kindle that I’m afraid I’ve developed commitment issues.
This doesn’t seem to be a private concern, and hence one I’m not ashamed to share as a journalist who is professionally obliged to read. “Publishers are no longer competing just with other publishers but with Netflix and Amazon and so much else," says Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO HarperCollins India. “It’s not a feeling anymore... we do think the time allotted to reading books has tangibly gone down and specifically for reading fiction." In turn, he says, publishers have amplified their “offers", whether it’s teasers or free digital samples.
“Not all books bought are read," he adds, “and while readers abandon books for various reasons, as a publisher we do have the responsibility to ensure that books are of an optimum length. Of course it’s about the power of storytelling and style…but increasingly these days with attention spans where they are, size does matter." The Man Booker Prize judges agree. The panel selecting the shortlist this year reportedly complained that many of the books submitted were too long-winded.
Publishers—and writers and artists—are experimenting with new, snackable reading formats. This year, we’ve had Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer, a book under 48 pages with watercolour illustrations on the refugee crisis. There was also Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Rabbit And The Squirrel (illustrated by the Swedish artist Stina Wirsén), a clever, whimsical book on the trials of modern life and love.
Hosseini’s Sea Prayer is in the form of a letter from a father to his son. On the eve of a journey, the father reflects on the dangerous sea-crossing that lies before them. Hosseini has said in interviews that the haunting image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy found dead on a Turkish beach in 2015, compelled him to produce this book. Despite the unconventional length and the watercolours that lend it a singular flavour, Penguin Random House classifies it as Literary Fiction. Bloomsbury, which released it in India, classifies it as General Fiction. This is important to note: what we call the novel is in itself changing to suit our evolving patterns of consumption. And length is only a part of the equation.
Popular best-sellers from the Harry Potter series to the Dan Brown books have been upwards of 500 pages but Padmanabhan points out how publishers will only very rarely—and they must love the book when they do—publish a door-stopper by a debut novelist. The risk is too great. We That Are Young by Preti Taneja comes to mind. It is a book that surprised and thrilled me. But one that I have been unable to finish.
She tweets at @aninditaghose