It’s California’s reading-for-pleasure and its attendant neighborhood library culture that I miss the most. Yes, that’s it. I’m finally sure of the answer to the second question every one in Palo Alto asked us when we said we were moving back to India. It was after our container had been shipped, carrying all our worldly belongings. All we had left to get us through the next few weeks were eight suitcases, a borrowed airbed — and around 50 books from our neighborhood library.
What will you miss most about Palo Alto? We thought hard as we perched on borrowed chairs those final evenings, trying to finish, with the help of willing friends, leftover bottles of wine that we couldn’t transport to India, while the last rays of the 8 pm summer sun slanted in through curtain-less windows, making crooked patterns on the empty hardwood floors.
At that time, I couldn’t think of the one thing, although I knew I would miss many, beginning with the legendary year-round Californian sunshine and temperate blue skies. But now, I’m pretty sure its that reading-for-pleasure culture that I found across its hybrid community that I miss most.Aided greatly by free access to well-stocked, well-catalogued neighborhood libraries and new technologies, I found more people there reading for pleasure, both adults and children, than I’ve found in any of the other two continents I’ve lived in.
Oh, people here read as much, perhaps even more; just not for fun or leisure. For that, they turn mostly to TV, movies, digital games, internet-surfing, mall-trawling or amusement parks — that is, when they aren’t collectively partaking of the pervasive greet-meet-eat culture. Most Indians read books mainly for information, learning or self-help.
And I use “books” here as a generic term. This isn’t about the changing medium of reading in a digital world where the mode of delivery of books and journals has become irrelevant. Kindle, iPad or e-books, downloadable on any computer, have diminished the importance of physical books and libraries. No, this is about the importance of reading for pleasure, whether fiction or creative non-fiction.
Given that mammals are the the only species on this planet with a neo-cortex, the seat of imagination, reading is what distinguishes us from all lower forms of life, since it fosters our imagination — critical for empathy, evolution and higher growth. Leave alone artists and writers, even in science, the obvious role of imagination is in the context of discovery. Unimaginative scientists don’t produce radically new ideas. And without imagination, one couldn’t get from knowledge of the past and present to justified expectations about the complex future.
There is no doubt that reading creates intelligent humans with broader horizons. In part, reading suffers because it has to compete unfairly with movies, TV shows and electronic gadgets, whose marketing and publicity budgets far outstrip those of books and publishers. Perhaps if we treated electronic media as an opportunity rather than a threat, we could succeed in luring eyeballs away from gadgets, games and other digital activity towards reading. For fun.
“Reading is magical,” says Anthony Horowitz, best-selling children’s author and creator of the popular Alex Rider series. It is what makes us human, tells us who we are and where we're coming from, he told me in an interview some months ago. “Something magical happens when you read. You can build worlds, create an entire universe in your head. Its like a film only you can see. Reading is not a passive activity — it is mentally creative — and one of the things it creates is imagination,” he says.
Reading isn’t just an intellectual activity, exclusive and solitary. It also improves communication skills and carries with it an emotional sense of story-telling and empathy, a different level of intimacy and intensity compared to any other visual language. Fiction writer and educator Paro Anand can intuitively spot a reader in a class full of children — “the ones who just sit and listen with concentration, without fidgeting. They absorb and process information and are able to return it as understood knowledge, not just factoids.” She firmly believes that people who grow up with books “are undoubtedly happier and wiser.”
Jyoti Pande is a Delhi-based writer