World of Reading
(Remarks by former Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan at the International Book Fair, Abu Dhabi on April 29, 2016)
I am grateful to the Siraj newspaper of Kerala for inviting me to be part of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. As a passionate lover of the written word and a writer of sorts, I enjoy being in the company of books and book lovers.
The world of words, of knowledge, is as ancient as the universe itself. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God", says the Bible. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism "Om" is a cosmic sound, a spiritual icon and a mystical syllable, a mantra, which preceded creation.
"A good book is the purest essence of a human soul", said Thomas Carlyle. It ignites the imagination. In so many different ways, the world of books and reading have shaped the human civilization. Writers, intellectuals, poets, scientists, musicians and thinkers down the centuries have acknowledged their indebtedness to reading and books for what they accomplished in their lives. Reading is to the intellect what food is to the body. It makes us what we are. The world of reading entices, mesmerizes, enriches and transforms us. It distinguishes the human race from the rest of the animal kingdom.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive,” said James Baldwin. Reading links us to the past, prepares us for the present and makes us visualize the future. “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends, they are the most accessible and the most patient of teachers,” said Charles William Eliot.
Speaking of teachers, the story of the legendary Dronacharya comes to mind. The teacher of teachers, the guru of the Pandavas equipped his disciples for peace and war. But he inspired not only those who were fortunate enough to be his disciples, but also those, who were not qualified to learn at his feet. He turned away Ekalavya, a lowly untouchable, but he installed an image of Dronacharya as his guru and acquired the same skills as Arjuna, the guru's favourite disciple. Books are anonymous teachers to millions of people of different generations. Authors assume the role of teachers without being aware of it and disciples grow more and more, with the passage of time. But, unlike Dronacharya, the authors of books do not claim their thumbs as gurudakshina. They bequeath their learning to future generations without expecting anything in return.
The gifted author, Orhan Pamuk describes what all of us have experienced, “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” Books influence not only individuals, but history itself, they create revolutions, they can be traced to war and peace. Much in the world may have been ignited by books and everything in the world happens in order to end up in a book. They chronicle events for posterity and continue to inspire changes many centuries later. It is a miracle that books unfold different worlds to different readers. Books enable us not only to understand history, but also help us understand who we are and how we must behave, how to live and die. They break the shackles of time.
The world of reading has no barriers. Shakespeare belongs as much to India as to the United Kingdom. In fact, it was discovered during his 400th anniversary that he is more popular in India than in any other country. Hamlet, when he is asked what he is reading, he answers, “Words, words, words” and my book on diplomacy has the same title as diplomacy is all about words, written, spoken and unspoken. Many authors have lost their national identities because of their acceptability outside their national frontiers. Henrik Ibsen,Haruki Murakami, Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho are stacked among English authors though they wrote in other languages. Translations are taken as authentic even if their diction and nuances may have been lost in the hands of the translators. Nobel prizes have been awarded on the basis of translated works, except in the case of people like Rabindranath Tagore, who rendered their works into English themselves with ease and felicity.
Indian writers in English have made a mark on the English literary firmament. R.K.Narayan, V.S.Naipaul and Neerad Chaudhary are no less English than some British authors. This is a genre that is growing fast as more and more Indian immigrants in the UK and the US are taking to writing. It is believed that their experience of leaving the mother country has given them a special creative energy, which stand them in good stead as authors.
I recently watched a TED talk in which the speaker narrates the excitement of reading a book from every country on the planet in just one year. Books came to her from around the globe in English from Tokyo to Timbuktu The time has come for an International Book Fair with a book in English from the 193 member countries of the United Nations. Such a world of reading may bring greater peace and international understanding than what the United Nations has been able to accomplish in seventy years. Such a collection will reveal that a person in Papua New Guinea has a thought, a feeling and a way of looking at things, which he thought was intensely personal to him, had already been recorded by a person in Burkina Faso, perhaps a century ago.
The height of absurdity in such a world of reading is the arrogance of banning or censoring books or even eliminating authors for propagating an idea, the time of which had not come. I was in Moscow at a time when Dr. Zhivago was still kept out of Soviet book shelves and members of the Communist Party were expected to say that the book was not in good taste even if they had not read a word of it. The greatest service that the Internet has done to the world of reading is that books need not be smuggled through unsuspecting customs officials. They can be read by the present generation, just as they were read by old generations without any feeling of guilt. Bloggers are unencumbered by puritanical censorship or messianic zeal.
All readers may not become writers, but there is no writer who has not read. To be a great writer, one needs to be an avid reader. But readers react to writing in many ways. Dr.Johnson felt that reading of Milton’s 'Paradise Lost' was a duty rather than a pleasure. Mark Twain defined a classic as a work that people praised, but did not read. Using the image of eating, Francis Bacon said, “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only some should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” In many cases, a book gets better when you read it several times as if something were left between the pages every time you read it. But leaving a book unfinished is like leaving a half finished love affair only to find that a bride in hand is worth two in the bush. Books of poems occupy a special place in the world of reading. "Poems are the songs that capture the summers and the winters of hearts", says a budding poetic genius poetically.
Mercenary and ghost writing are commonplace today and people,who have something to say, but cannot express it in suitable words and style resort to these methods. But those who sacrifice truth and sincerity in order to build colossuses with clay feet are no better than purveyors of paid news and views. On the other hand, books on other people should not either be idolatry or iconoclastic. My own effort to write on another person with objectivity ended in losing him as a friend, but retaining my integrity as an author, who has a responsibility to the reader. Writing, like lending and borrowing, should not lose itself and friend.
The world of editors and publishers cannot be left out of the world of reading. The internet and the acceptance of raw language as legitimate means of communication have minimized their role, but a good editor and a good publisher can transform books beyond recognition. My first editing venture, a book called, ‘Venkat Forever’ was harder to do than my earlier ones, which I wrote myself. But Konark Publishers of K.P.R.Nair gave it a good form and shape. My own selected writings, ‘Applied Diplomacy Through The Prism of Mythology’ edited by Dr.Divya Iyer and published by Shobit Arya of 'Wisdom Tree' is likely to be remembered for their immense contributions as editor and publisher respectively. An eminent writer left the project, thinking that diplomacy and mythology would not mix, but later called it an exceptional work. The book went beyond the familiar ground of diplomacy to the eternal world of seven immortals. Myths and legends of centuries ago provided models for 21st century diplomatic challenges. Hanuman became the perfect diplomat, Ashvathama depicted the United States and Kripacharya became the symbol of the United Nations.
No one can cover the world of reading with any finality in a talk or a book. The vast expanse of the world of reading cannot be easily fathomed. We can only touch the tip of the iceberg and wonder what immortal hand or eye could grasp its fearful symmetry. Books will live forever, whether in print, with their intoxicating aroma or as images on Kindle and other electronic devices and reading will continue to make the world worth living. The word preceded humanity and it will outlast it.