Visiting Lahore these days to attend my convocation, I was perhaps a little over-cautious to be in time and ended up today in the university two hours earlier than the scheduled time. Rather than milling about in the university, I decide to lounge myself in the university cafeteria. It must have been ten minutes since I was sipping my orange juice and trying to lick the concluding passage of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated essay, when I saw a seemingly blurred young boy, trying to verbalize what must have been lurking in his mind since last few minutes.
“Can I sit here for a moment, if you don’t mind”, he asked me while wearing a sheepishly reluctant disposition.
“Yes, please have a seat”, I mechanically responded, while wondering what he would going to ask next moment. “Perhaps, he would ask for my willingness to participate in a university blood donation drive or a contribution for some needy student”, I thought.
“I actually wanted to ask about the book you are reading”, he straightaway came to the point, while drawing out the chair and sitting in front me.
I wanted to start by saying that this is an essay about Tolstoy’s view of history as depicted in War and Peace but broadly speaking, it belongs to philosophy of history and some outstanding, yet distinct and at times diametrically opposite perspectives on nature of observable reality. However, guessing my interlocutor’s age and intellectual demeanour, I kept quiet for a moment and tried to figure out a more sensible and appropriate response
“It is basically an essay by Isaiah Berlin, extending some literary criticism on Russian literature”, I carefully phrased myself. “I presume you don’t know much about literary criticism”, I added to reassure him, so that he might open up for a conversation.
“Yes Sir, you are right. I am absolutely unfamiliar, but since you were too absorbed in your reading, I thought it must be something really good and interesting. I actually wanted to discuss how and what should I read, because I like to read a lot but I almost always struggle to keep myself interested in a book; and sometimes, I end up reading the same passage time and again”, he finally eased up.
And so we continued with our brief but very interesting discussion for next half an hour, which can be loosely termed as a reading-counselling session for a fledgeling young reader. [And at this point, I must interject that anyone who has crossed twenty, likes to read in English and hasn’t yet heard about Dickens, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky fulfils my criteria for seriously needing a reading counsellor.] In a moment, another young boy who was listening on a side table also joined our little conversation as a silent listener. And so I kept on talking incessantly on one of my favourite topics.
Two good listeners in a single afternoon; what more can an ardent conservationist wish for?
We reflected upon a lot of specifics but while driving back, I kept brooding over the state of reading among young educated Pakistanis, and tried to formulate the exact problem in generalized terms. In my opinion, the problem is much bigger than a mere issue with interests and indulgences of young and supposedly bright people, or the so-called lack of literary awareness.
The problem is much bigger and far more serious than that: from my standpoint, it is in fact related to completely transposed intellectual dimension of our social fabric.
Due to factors I am neither yet ready nor able to express clearly in this space, the cornerstone of the whole intellectual criteria in youngsters is not the depth of their whole personal outlook towards larger issues of life but the outer, more tangible, materialistic crust riveted in a kind of utilitarian Weltanschauung. And who else can bear the brunt of the blame, except our preceding generations and the whole Orwellian disposition of our knowledge disseminating mechanisms.
As it turned out, when three of us looked around carefully, among approximately 75 to 100 odd people in the cafe, only I was reading for leisure and only two others, who happen to sit in front of me, were presumably interested in the enterprise of reading as a vocation.
Yes I call it a vocation, as in my considered view, you need to ceaselessly train yourself to be able to grow intellectually; and also to mitigate eventualities that you don’t end up in the same preadolescent paradigm all your life.
There are books to read when we are ten to twelve because we need to be ready, in all possible ways including our ways of imagining life, to move to our teens and twenties; and there is stuff to read at forty because one needs to be equipped to move meaningfully to one’s logical terminus. This does not mean that reading solely and exclusively encompasses the whole dimension of human wisdom, but it surely is among the most important acquirable traits to attain wisdom since antiquity. Not just reading for the sake of it but reading as a vocation, to expose yourself slowly and gradually to various complexly interwoven threads of life.
I tried to help my young friend a lot, especially with regards to his two important questions, that is what and how of reading. I told him that there are books to be read in teens and texts to be indulged when one is in his thirties. There are readings so arguably insignificant to intend simple pleasure and written words fraught with a myriad of meanings that if one is just able to make some partial sense, one feels amply gratified. Of course, Francis Bacon explained this last point in far lesser words with much more meanings. I post them here in memory of this memorable afternoon.
Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.