On rereading a book

Reading a book again is like revisiting a vacation spot, which is now frozen in time. You remember exactly what you enjoyed when you first visited. The anticipation of what will happen next is long gone, now replaced by a careful eye for detail- the choice of words, the flavors of particular scenes, and the layered finer brushstrokes of plot.

For the same reason that abandoned travel plans and trips which leave unpleasant memories are seldom revisited, rereadings require previous “travel” to provide some level of enjoyment. Otherwise, why even bother revisiting?

But this is where rereading starts to differ from a second vacation. Even in the same locale, the weather may change, the food may differ in quality, crowds may make the experience unfavorable during the present visit. There are no such convenient excuses when a book is read again. After all, the words cannot rearrange themselves: they did not dance off the page when we were not looking! The uneasy answer to why a trusted book read many times now fails to enthrall us is that we are the ones who have changed: our recollections, our experiences, our moods are no longer what they used to be when we last encountered these words.

And for that reason, rereading- a luxury, given the vast body of unread books lying in wait- is an excellent lesson in self-discovery.

(This is a relatively short post that gathers some thoughts I tweeted in the midst of writing a rather overambitious critique of one of my favorite Bengali short stories- one that I have read many times.  I’m grateful to @complicateur and @GabbbarSingh for a delightful conversation on these thoughts. The critique of the short story I mentioned still needs to be written, if for no one else, then for myself.)


Too much news

What a world we’ve created, in which news of every fluttering butterfly reaches us instantaneously and we are expected to react intelligently. How much of it are we supposed to absorb? How much are we expected to remember?

I remember a time in India when there were no 24-hour cable news channels, no mobile phones, and no internet. It was certainly not an age of information and whatever we got a hold of was limited, infrequent, and often biased. But the fact that news came in packages at expected times during the day back then had one unintended advantage. I used to actually remember the news and have time to digest it. There was certainly a lot less of it, that’s for sure. Maybe being younger had something to do with remembering, but now, I’m living inside an unending news-cycle that feeds me half-baked bits of information.

Is really more happening around the world than it had been in the past? That is an impossible question to answer. The fall of the Berlin Wall, genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the Kargil War were all big stories in the Nineties that happened before I felt the need to instantaneously form an opinion or stay informed in real-time.

I look at the news today. A gruesome murder in Siberia. A freakish landslide in some part of China. These are not events that I need to pontificate over on a daily basis. My own life is too short for that. Unfortunately, the new reality is that I’m consuming news like a locust, and mostly feeding on others’ misfortune (which is what most of news is anyway).

Sometimes I register outrage or sadness, but even that has to be short-lived, because soon the next story arrives and I am forced to react again. In the long run, with this constant overstimulation, I worry that I’m either going to drown in others’ misery or get desensitized to it. It is a common theme in neuroscience: overstimulate your neurons and bad things happen.

I do realize that as an adult, and particularly as a parent, I need to stay informed. But I will try to shield my son from the news for the time being, so that he can attempt to compare notes on nature with Mozart, Darwin, and Tagore. There is an entire world of books and music and critical thinking and most important of all, really stupid, pointless activities that a boy should face before he should care about current affairs. For many years, I’ll be more interested in his opinion of caterpillars and dandelions.

As for me, I still do appreciate the ability to tune in to the news. But from time to time, blocking my mind to it feels like a much-needed vacation.