Friday, November 15, 2013

The Dangers of Reading: The political ramifications of choosing, experiencing, and discussing a book

I had a friend, once, who would come to school holding a book. She smiled as I asked about the item in her hand and proceeded to righteously announce, "Well it won the Pulitzer and it's on the New York Time's Best Seller's List!" I never really understood that: the whole phenomenon of buying a book based on reviews or its popularity. Reading a book, as it were when I was in high school, appeared to be a enjoyable obsession that was rarely allowed to be had due to time-constraints and life's daily demands. Being able to quietly sit and read had become so esoteric that I had zero intention to spend it consuming words that I can't personally invest in. Little did I know, I was making a louder and far more controversial statement than merely refusing to read a piece exclusively for its achievements and praise.

"So many books are published each year that, without some guidance and suggestions, any ordinary person would be unable to sample them," wrote Keith Oatley (2011, 5245/7005). How are we supposed to choose the perfect book for the perfect tea, to be read on a perfect nook in the perfect cafe, when there are so many options to choose from? On a pragmatic level, yes we do need to have some sort of guide, whether it is the New York Time's Best-Seller's List or a book recommended by a friend.

However, inevitably, whilst falling into these habits, we are making a political statement. In holding the book that was, say championed by a renowned author, we are complying to a socially constructed system that divers from the text. Instead of absorbing the text based on our own experiences and surrounding, we are walking towards a position, which is often ideological in nature, set by the critic or whoever compiled the list. As a result, unfortunately, we are incapable to digest the text in a new and, dare I say, authentic way.

Well, then, Ms. Cynical, how should one choose? What is the "right" way of selecting a book? For starters, as a generally pro-choice individual, I would say do what you'd like as long as you are aware of its ramifications. Consciously, know that when you purchase a book that was on a best-seller's list that you are siding with a certain party. Personally, I am the peculiar kind of reader. A political statement in itself, I roam through a bookstore or library beginning with the featured pile of books, before quickly walking towards my favorite section, be it the Sociology section at Kinokuniya Plaza Senayan or the Children's Book section at the Strand. There, I would survey the options. Within minutes I am pulled towards a certain area, where I would then go through the books based on title or cover (another political statement).

Over the years, I found that narrative and voice are two very salient elements of a book for such a lazy and picky reader like me. Knowing my flaws I would read the first chapter just to see how things go. Much like a first date, I surrender to the flow of the writing. If it fails to engulf me then it would immediately find its way back on the shelves, if not then it will soon be a tattered poor soul of a book on my nightstand.

Forbidden books is another example of a political statement, no?

Reading is, perhaps, one of the most intimate, yet social activity. How we choose, read, and speak of them expands our personal space and intertwines it with other people's bubbles. It allows us to be ourselves, but hands us the opportunity to access others' thoughts and experiences. An elegant contradiction, the books we read have the propensity of caving us in, while slowly freeing us from the barbwire that we, once, planted.

As for my friend, I think, she found her strengths in valuing such achievements and coveted lists. She learned pertinent skills to promote book reading and generate a social entity from the solitary act of reading.

*Author owns the rights to all of the photographs above

Oatley, K. (2011). Such Stuff As Dreams: The psychology of fiction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell

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