I always find myself in a conundrum when someone asks me my hobbies, because that leads me to mention that I love reading books, and then, since I have proclaimed my ‘love’ for this clichéd act of ‘reading books’, an act which many proclaim pretentiously, I have to quickly get down to defending my proclaimed love as pure and honest. This is a situation in which I find myself in a lot of interviews as well, though it’s easier in that case because everything I have to say is already prepared – I know who will I name as my favourite authors, which will be my favourite books, and I will know (because of a quick summary revision the previous night) the motivations of the protagonist to the most subconscious of details.
Coming back to the act of defending my love as pure and honest – whenever the situation is unexpected, I fumble for words. My mind goes blank and I’m not able to remember the book or books I’m reading. It’s usually in the plural – I have a habit of reading more than one book at a time. One will be a fiction, which will mostly be a paperback – literary fiction like Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera, etc. or one of the classics; another will be a non-fiction usually being read on my phone during loo breaks – either a historical work – most often about Indian partition, or ancient Indian history, or some biography of a historical figure; or a business management related work – Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker, Dan Ariely, and their ilk; a third category is the one I’ll be reading on my Kindle – mostly authors that are otherwise either inaccessible because of their books not being available in India or those one-time but must-reads which I don’t believe in buying physical books for– these days it’s the A Song of Ice and Fire series – hope you get the idea.
So whenever someone unexpectedly enquires about the book I’m presently reading, my mind goes blank. I used to wonder why it is so every time. Lately I believe I might have grasped the reason. There is a subconscious struggle in my mind whenever I face this question. As I mentioned earlier, invariably I would have been reading 3-4 books at any given time, and when I have to give a name, I face an instant paradox. If I name the lesser known work that I am reading (if I’m reading one), I fear the other person would not have heard of it at all, and the conversation would end right there. Also, the other person may be a casual reader and I would like to make him/her curious about what I read so that he/she can also talk about what he/she is reading. Such a turn off is definitely not the right way to go about it. I could also say the name of the very famous work that I might be reading (e.g. these days I’m reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – an extremely famous work which I should have read years ago but always missed it somehow or the other). Now I always pause before mentioning such a work. Would the other person judge me to be someone whose reading prowess extends only to the most famous of works? No, I do not want that. The breadth of what I read is considerable, and I would want to be recognized as such. So I do not want to say the name of that famous book, even though I might happen to be reading it at a given point of time.
I also don’t want to name a non-fiction book as it can generate strong impressions. For example, I am reading Nehru’s The Discovery of India these days, but the name Nehru these days prompts a political connotation which has nothing to do with this seminal work. I cannot always explain that I am also interested in the works of political commentators like Noam Chomsky, Arun Shourie, Shashi Tharoor and Amartya Sen, and my present political view has been shaped by immersive reading of many others socio-political writers like Sunil Khilnani, Edward Luce, Ramachandra Guha, Gurcharan Das, Louis Fischer, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, among others. In such a scenario, it feels cruel to let yourself judged by people based on the first book you name. But such is the way of the world and I must learn to live by it. My suggestion to the world – like you should not judge a book by its cover, you should also not judge a person by the first book he names.