Last Sunday, sitting at my desk, I wept tears of joy and self-improvement. For the first time in months, I had managed to read seven entire pages of a book. By book, I dont mean a text mounted on a screen no Kindle-swindle. I mean a physical book, with pages that cant be scrolled, provision to insert a hand-made bookmark, and infinite battery life.
Believe it or not, I didnt break off even once not to check my phone, not to Google a reference, not even to rescue Indian democracy from fascism. I think the last time I accomplished a feat of this magnitude was in 1987, when I hit four consecutive boundaries off the last four balls of the last over to take my school to victory against Donnie Brasco Senior Secondary School, the then under-14 defending champions of West Mambalam.
Unfortunately, my joy was short-lived. The wife picked up the book and discovered that the bookmark was on the opening page of Chapter 1. How do you claim to have read seven pages? she demanded.
Well, this is what sets apart a true bibliophile like me from the millions of pretenders. It all comes down to how you count the pages. I am old school. I adopt the time-honoured practice followed by every publisher when they declare the number of pages in a new title: I count from the copyright page. So yes, when I said I read seven pages, I may have forgotten to mention that this included the copyright page, the title page, the author bio-page (he divides his time between New Jersey and Old Pyjama), the dedication page, two pages of Contents, and one blank page. I had just made it to the first full page of closely printed text when I got an urgent ping on my phone, and the rest, as they say, is Netflix.
Mighty feat
Nonetheless, if there is one thing Ive learnt from our government, it is that you should never play down your achievements, even if they dont exist. So, while it may be true that I havent finished a book in a long time, it must also be acknowledged that advancing seven pages deep into unknown bookish territory is no mean achievement in this day and age.
People who grew up in the pre-smartphone era would remember how easy they had it. All you had to do was curl up in bed with a book and keep turning the pages until you reached the last page. You didnt have to contend with a passive-aggressive gadget suffering from an attention-seeking disorder, as we all do now. I remember, as a teenager, having The Brothers Karamazov for breakfast, War and Peace for lunch, and Vanity Fair for dinner. Each of them is more than 1,000 pages long. And I finished them all in 24 hours flat. Thats the kind of concentration I had. But today, all it takes is a momentary remembrance of pings past, and I drop the dead tree text for the digital device.
There was a time when I would never venture out without a book. What if I have to wait? Of course, I was the one who was always late. I think the last (and first) time I was expected somewhere and didnt turn up late was the momentous occasion of my birth I arrived three weeks early. Since then Ive been the aam aadmis Godot, prone to making anyone wait anywhere any time for purely existential reasons.
Compulsory no more
Still, you never know. What if the person Im meeting has an accident or something, and ends up being more late later? than even me? So a book for me was a compulsory accessory. But not anymore. Now I have, in the palm of my hand, so much material that I can comfortably wait not just for hours or days but months and years. I can spend the rest of my life simply waiting, say, for Indians to stop electing hateful Voldemorts while I finish every episode of every season of every series on my watch list.
The only problem is I have an image to keep up of this person who reads a lot, supports the publishing industry by buying books, and boosts the self-esteem of struggling writers by donating free blurbs. None of this is sustainable if I dont actually, you know, read. So, whenever I feel like taking a break from streaming video, I try to read a book. Along the way, I give myself some positive reinforcement for effort as without effort, I wouldnt have able to keep notifications at bay for the 13 treacherous seconds it took me to navigate from the copyright page to line 1 of page 1 of chapter 1. This may be an insignificant step for cynics without WiFi. But its a giant leap for someone whose reading habit is limited to subtitles.
sampath.g@thehindu.co.in