I watch a lot of TV. I always have. The exact quality of my TV-watching fluctuates. Often it has been more radio than TV—familiar, talky shows playing in the background while cleaning house, cooking and writing. Sometimes it’s new TV that requires concentration and staying up late and reading blogs. Relatively recently, my TV watching has been all Korean, all the time, which needed subtitle reading and sitting in one place, something I absolutely never resented.
For most of my life, watching some TV and reading a lot of books lived side-by-side as happy roommates. Of late, not so much. I seemed to have very little room for reading that required more than three brain cells. And down-time was hence mostly just TV and pointless, unhappy scrolling. I love TV so it should have been okay, right? Apparently not. I had gone from being a two-three books a week person to a dozen books a year person. I missed reading but I wasn’t able to do too much about it. A few years ago, I even confessed elsewhere in writing that I had had stray thoughts of setting my bookshelf on fire—the unread piles were making me feel oppressed and unhappy.
Then something shifted early this year. It began with some kind of difficulty watching TV. The difficulty remains unclear but I would like to keep it that way, touch wood. I read a couple of books with my old intensity and then a few more and then I was on a roll. I have now read close to 30 books this year and (for now) the streak is on. In case you, like me, have been wondering how to get back to reading or read a little more than you are currently, I did a little survey of what seems to be working for me and other people.
Randall Munroe, creator of the lovely, brainy comic xkcd, wrote long ago, “Like many geeks, I got a little more interested (in exercise) once I made the connection to levelling up.” A decade later, it seems everything (and exercise) is aggressively gamified. And the world is full of readers who have fallen off the wagon. I had never thought I would live to a point where I would think about reading as something that is good for me and something I should be doing more of—much like exercise and salad. Instead of being the endlessly delicious way of spending time that adults tried to curtail.
I remembered that old Munroe strip recently. Champaca, one of Bengaluru’s phalanx of stunning book stores, put out a superb reading challenge encouraging people to increase the diversity of their bookshelves. Alongside suggestions to re-read a childhood favourite or read a book that has been turned into a movie, it suggests that you read a book by a Nigerian author, a trans author, a book written in the language of your state, a book with an animal Main Character, a book about a fisherman and so on. It immediately pinged my “levelling up” neurons and with the avidity of a Sunday Tambola addict, I began to think of ways in which I could cross off books from the list. This, in turn, led to one of the important factors in my reading streak. I now have a rough reading list for the year which still leaves room for diversions and distractions and shiny objects that attract a magpie mind. Rereading Pride And Prejudice for the “childhood favourite” led to trying out Katherine Chen’s Mary B: An Untold Story Of Pride And Prejudice. But I am on the lookout for an animal character book and have several Nigerian options lined up.
The Tambola approach is helped by my reading in all formats. I already read new books, second-hand books, hardback, paperback and digital. It makes purists blanch but I read all four books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan set on my Kindle app on my phone screen. To this, I added audiobooks this year. I listened to Rosamund Pike’s narration of Pride And Prejudice and giggled a lot. The week Elif Batuman’s sequel to The Idiot, Either/Or came out, I wanted to get my hands on it. I was hesitant because of the price but then I discovered I had scored some free credits on my audiobook app and had the delightful experience of listening to Batuman reading her second new novel. It has been slower than when listening to a familiar book but thoroughly enjoyable. Most importantly, having a book loaded and ready to go in some format prevents me from spending 45 minutes doomscrolling/thinking about annoying people while sitting in traffic.
Which brings me to the most helpful thing if you want to level up your reading. Non-annoying friends and acquaintances who read. Sisters Saudha and Serene Kasim are only two of my formidable reader friends. Saudha turned me on to Longbourn, another Pride And Prejudice retelling. Serene and I recently rejoiced over news of a new Jokha Alharthi novel set in Oman, where we grew up. She then recommended a podcast about contemporary Arab fiction, which led me to adding Hot Maroc, a comic novel about Moroccans online, to my TBR (to be read) list. The sisters and I meet perhaps once in a decade but I always follow their reading recommendations. Two academic friends, T and P, regularly recommend authors that become addictions—Kevin Kwan, Kelley Armstrong, Jacqueline Rose and more. I send them all my “read immediately, many exclamation marks” messages. I asked T whether she had read Tomb Of Sand the week after the novel won the International Booker and she said with satisfaction (unlike everyone else I know who was still thinking about it), “Yes, I went through it like a knife through butter.”
Having friends to complain to that you are struggling with Piranesi or that Station Eleven is haunting-lite is necessary. Reading may seem like a solitary activity but is so much more fun when done en masse, like Zumba.
And the thing that helps most with your TBR is, oddly enough, to stop reading. My friend AB, who has great taste, recommended a prize-winning novel. I just couldn’t get into it. I tried hard because many people I know had loved it but after a while I had to admit that it wasn’t working. I girded my loins and put it away. I have since returned that and other books to the book store and bought many delightful things with the store credit. And got a library subscription to make dropping books even more guilt-free. Life is too short for dull books.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.