Info overload and book boom

I had once earlier talked about the information overload.  Today\’s article in the Hindu leaves us saying that we need to read what we \’need\’ to read and not everything.  We have to read things which leaves us enlightened and in a better state of mind and what it does to us – rather than plain read for the heck of reading and to keep up with the joneses.  Read on:

 Been reading more book reviews than books lately? Don\’t jump with a guilty start as you say a meek \”Yes\”. That\’s exactly what every second \”reader\” the world over is doing these days.

Hard to blame the poor, well-meaning bloke though. Even before he got halfway through Shalimar the Clown, everybody started talking about On Beauty. And before he could even get hold of a copy of the book, people began to ask in disdain: \”You mean you haven\’t read Maximum City yet?!\” Memories Of My Melancholy Whores may have been panned by critics, but how can he not read it considering you-know-who wrote it? And it doesn\’t help that the most suitable boy of Indian writing refuses to say anything in less than 1,000-odd pages.

And cast the bloke in a slightly more eclectic mould and see what happens. He is trilingual and therefore doesn\’t want to miss out on Poornachandra Tejaswi\’s latest Kannada novel or that Marathi dalit autobiography. It isn\’t Booker material, but he wants to read The Da Vinci Code because critics have convinced him that all literary pecking order is to be turned on its head and pop fiction deserves as much attention as War and Peace. How about that book with stories set in Bangalore? He can\’t afford to ignore it because it got an incredibly huge advance from a dollar publishing house. And, of course, he wants to keep tabs on that NRI kid\’s Harvard adventure too because it has the longest title he has ever come across. And… he is a management professional and so has to keep up with all the books every CEO is churning out by the dozen.

Now, doesn\’t our bloke sound like someone eminently qualified for an intensive de-stressing therapy? More so because he works from eight to eight in a slave-driving firm that pays him an obscene amount.

Not that stress levels would be much lower if you chose your area of super-specialisation. When I last did a search on amazon.com on \”gay fiction\” (which, mind you, narrows down both genre and theme), I came upon 1,318 entries. And I suspect the number may have gone up over the last two days.

The big contradiction

If there was ever a countdown on the greatest contradictions of the time, this one would sure figure among the top 10: that even as we never tire of bemoaning the death of reading habit, we have more books written and published today than ever before and people seem to be buying them by the cartload. Anybody who is running a bookstore for over a decade in town will tell you that the number of books fighting for shelf space has grown by at least tenfold since he started out. How we have turned out to be such a gargantuan world of wannabe authors and what its implications are to the literary marketplace would make up many more stories by themselves. But this glut of books sure is leaving an average reader very, very confused.

\”I feel it\’s no longer possible to be `knowledgeable\’ about everything because there is so much knowledge available on every conceivable thing! You feel confused, fragmented, as if you know nothing about anything!\” says one bewildered reader. Says another: \”The flood of books intimidates as well as makes me feel inadequate. So I end up with a huge pile of `To be Read\’ books and end up not reading most of them.\”

The reader gets even more bemused because every publisher and author is moving heaven and earth to claim a share of his already much divided attention. Haven\’t we, in just the last five years, seen that no book worth its name gets just \”published\”? Instead it is \”launched\” or \”opened\” like only movies once used to be, and that too many times over across the country. Even dear old Margaret Atwood, who hardly needs any more attention, made news recently with her Long Pen, a virtual autographing tool. Major publishers often pay movie stars huge sums to launch books in the hope of grabbing a bit of Page 3 space, considering that \”serious\” literary review pages are either non-existent or shrinking in mainstream papers. Big companies are pumping big money into big lit-fests and bigger literary awards even in our poor little country.

What happens to a reader and his ever-dwindling attention span (as all those market research results tell us) in a situation as overwhelming as this? Does every one end up where the poor bloke in the beginning of our story did — on a shrink\’s couch? Does he get fed up and start writing his own novel? Does he say to hell with all books and grab his remote? Or does he just stick to reading reviews and media previews and wax eloquent at fashionable dos without having read anything? Each unto his choice.

But there are also some resilient spirits who have, over a period of time, evolved their own formula for remaining sane in the cacophonous world of words. Says well-known writer and voracious reader Shashi Deshpande: \”Too many choices is never a problem. I have reached a point in my life when I know exactly what I want. I can walk into a shop full of books and decide in exactly one minute if it has anything worth reading.\”

Kannada writer U. R. Ananthamurthy would argue that a reader should learn to resist getting \”blackmailed\” by the publishing industry. \”The books I like are those that slow me down; those which shake me up and question my assumptions. This, by definition, means I can\’t read all that is published.\” He says each man should learn the art of \”making a few books yield a lot\”. That, in fact, is the only way to save oneself from \”feeling like an illiterate.\”

Ananthamurthy adds on a more philosophical note: \”If you are a deeply searching person, you will read the book you have to read and meet the man or woman you have to meet. Like W.B. Yeats, I believe in that kind of luck!\”

In spirit, Brazilian writer Gabriel Zaid seems to share Ananthamurthy\’s views. He says in So Many Books, Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance: \”Maybe the measure of our reading should be not the number of books we\’ve read, but the state in which they leave us… What matters is how we feel, how we see, what we do after reading; whether the street and the clouds and the existence of others mean anything to us; whether reading makes us, physically, more alive.\”

Surely, words good enough to calm and de-stress our bloke who is breathlessly trying to keep pace with the book boom. Unless, of course, he is right now anxiously looking for a pen to add So Many Books to his long \”To Be Read\” list.

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