I used to be a voracious reader as a child. I remember reading books in a single sitting when I was around 7-8 years old, not wanting to be disturbed for meals or pretty much anything else. As I got older, the books got bigger, the plots more complex, and the language more ornate – a reflection of my own maturing self.
When I look back at my growing up years, I am amazed at the number of books I managed to consume – there was no Amazon, no e-books, no Google – heck there was no Internet. My go to source for books was my rather ill-stocked school library and dad who would get me the occasional Amar Chithra Katha or Russian storybook (there were a lot of Soviet era books in India during the ‘80s, before the Indian economy opened up and before the Soviet Union collapsed).
And so the years went by, each punctuated by the discovery of a new author or a new genre. But gradually and rather steadily, my reading plummeted. The pressure of high school, grad school and eventually corporate-dom pretty much consumed the desire to learn anything outside the realm of one’s immediate relevance. Distractions from cable TV onward to streaming media and social platforms duly occupied all hours of leisure. And before I knew it, I hadn’t touched a book in years. Sure I kept reading – but all of what I read was online – opinion pieces, feature articles, interviews, reviews, news. There was always so much to read and so much left unread. I felt like I was always in the midst of reading something and yet it was increasingly difficult to stay focused on one.
Interestingly enough, online content that kept me engrossed also goaded me to read books. From articles propagating the 5 hour rule to Bill Gates’ reading list – suddenly all the Internet seemed to be telling me was to start reading books again – I am grateful for the filter bubble in this one instance.
I made a start with smaller e-books – the sheer habit of reading on the phone definitely helped. And I knew I wasn’t quite ready to tackle War and Peace just yet. But the pings and dings continued to distract. I decided to take a goal – a big, hairy audacious goal. I was going to read a book a week. I posted my reading challenge for 2017 on GoodReads and bought a Kindle. A book a week was a powerful motivator. The distractions fell by the wayside – I was getting hooked. I started using all odd chunks of time and places to read – at my children’s school, the doctor’s office, the check-in line at the airport, the check-out line at the grocery store; the hair salon, the nail salon and more. I carved out 30 mins each weeknight and longer stretches during the weekend. I opted to read on flights versus watching the in-flight entertainment.
Did life ever get in the way of this pursuit? The pace would certainly slow down with impending deadlines at work, the children down with flu or a heavier read that would stretch beyond a week. I would make up by getting through two smaller books the following week. But no matter what, I could sense a habit taking shape – a habit of sitting down for an extended stretch of time, concentrating on the printed word, getting immersed in the subject and paying little heed to anything else. Reading a book is in this sense much like meditation – you don’t let the mind wander, when thoughts come in, you let them go, choosing instead to focus on what you’ve set out to do.
I read 34 books in 34 weeks across genres that interest me most – fiction, business, history and self-help. I certainly don’t remember everything I read – but it’s interesting how a nugget of something I had read would weave itself into a dinner conversation, make its way into a business proposal or show up during a job interview.
I have continued reading books ever since and have been religious about carving at least 30 mins before bedtime for a book. While I no longer aim for a book a week – the habit that the goal helped form has stayed. I still read news and other assorted titbits online – but I don’t seem to have the inclination to chase links or spend hours on social media any more – there’s always a book waiting patiently for my attention. I find myself more enriched, less distracted and a lot calmer and for this I have my books to thank.