Somewhere I have never travelled gladly beyond

A reading enthusiast’s honest take on reading skills

I confess. E.E. Cumming might not like what I just did. I borrowed the title of this story from his passionate love poem. But I had no choice. His words truly resonate what I’d like to say – the only difference is that my sentiments are for books.

I’ve voyaged far and wide. Engaged with one-eyed pirates, been a swashbuckling hero to a damsel in distress, ventured down the streets of an era long over, and entered the mind of a criminal.

I’ve loved books. They have been my entry into fantastical worlds. Worlds that have scared me, people who felt strange, read words that I’ve never been aware of. How could I have understood my great grandmother’s world, had it not been for an author whose works have been translated? How would I have, in a small way, understood my roots? Reading has been a blessing, truly.

Although I must admit at the outset, I do have occasional periods of estrangement. There are months where the guilt of not having read hounds me. Or the nostalgia of finding one of my favorite books peeking out of a store shelf, while my smartphone is buzzing with notifications. I rush out of the store, not before looking back at that little book and promising, “I’m going to re-read you soon.” I must confess the ‘soon’ is subjective: to time, events, my set of priorities. Yet, these books beckon me from time and time, and like an old friend, keep waiting. Happily.

A color for every book

Imagine life were a sketchbook with different colors for different events. I know one thing for sure: I would have to mark a speck for each hallmark and represent a book that faithfully stood by me.

Didn’t Little Women give me company during the initial lonely months of college? The Bhagavad Gita gave me solace during the long, crowded bus rides to dance class. And just for a few moments, the chaos of the world melted away with those lyrical stanzas. Rabindranath Tagore’s feisty characters in Gora reminded me to be clear and stand up to pressure when my dream job didn’t seem to work out.

Reading skills, really?

A few friends often ask: “How do you develop reading skills? Perhaps it was because you liked to read as a child. It is difficult to inculcate this habit at a later age.” Honestly, I don’t know. I remember smelling the brown, worn out pages of my father’s books dated 1960 and thinking with pride, that I, too, shall read them one day. (I never did!) And yes, the constraints of modern day living did catch up. It was a lesson in dispassion to condense two cupboards of books into two cartons.

A few things that work for me:

Reading is a personal and community journey. However, here are some of my favorite ways of developing and constantly honing reading skills:

1. Dedicate some time:
I’m not able to do this myself, daily, but I do try. It could be 30 minutes before sleeping in the nights, or when you get back in the morning. Anytime in the day – commuting, waiting for an appointment, stuck in traffic. Just find those precious 10 minutes and read. Your friends, children, family members might appreciate it, although it might seem new initially.

2. What to read:
I was jolted when my colleague scornfully pointed out that reading articles and updates on social media is not ‘real’ reading. He was right, and there I thought it would be alright to forget that book on world history and lose myself in my social network’s timeline. Yes, I’m guilty of being petty and do try to rectify myself. This is one of my all-time tips for developing reading skills. Don’t fool yourself. Enjoy your time on social media, but grab that book too. Dive deep into it. Let’s not compare apples to oranges.

3. Organize reading meetups:
Get a few friends together, and simply dedicate an hour to reading. No talking or looking at the phone. Just read, and keep some fun snacks to nibble on. The quiet of that one hour will calm your racing mind, and the world will survive if you don’t check your phone for an hour.

4. Don’t stress:
Reading is not stressful, it is a stress buster. If you don’t meet your daily goal of two pages, it’s alright. I am guilty of feeling guilty when this happens to me! However, I realized it only drives me away from books, instead of wanting to read them. For me, reading time is a time to calm down, and forget the fight I have with time every day. The urge to finish an impossibly long list of things-to-do, the pressure of meeting goals on time, and the craze of keeping up with a world where data is king. And you can never get enough. Just remember the farmer and keep plodding on in your world of words. Don’t leave the plough in the middle of the field.

5. Unwind:
I didn’t realize the importance of this until I found myself creating a long list of books to read. The urge to know, consume information, gain more knowledge and read started becoming overwhelming. A long list of books, coupled with updates on the latest happenings around the world, and keeping up with social feeds. And of course, keeping up with work, and related research. It was proving to be too much.

I, then, decided to spend a little time every day in quiet. Meditation became that quiet time for me. My routine included a few yoga stretches (I highly recommend the Suryanamaskar), breathing techniques and a quick 20-minute meditation.

I found my mind clearer to absorb new information, assimilate and bask in the information received, and dwell on the characters that painted my life. I enjoy my reading time and am more aware of shutting the laptop when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

6. Buy a book:
This might seem like an unusual tip to enhance reading skills, but it works for me. I highly recommend the electronic versions of books, they have made life more comfortable. However, there is a certain magic in holding a physical book, and turning the pages over. So, keep the physical copy of one book, at the very least, by your bedside. I also realized that after a long day on the smartphone and laptop, my eyes just want a break from the device. I’ve skipped reading many a night just to avoid the light staring back at me from a device. A book in my hand drives those blues away. (No pun intended!)

Enclosed in its pages

Like I said, reading is a personal and community journey. Someone whose life has been transformed by a book will know the importance of a reading habit. Reading has taught me empathy, an ability to think from another character’s perspective. It has opened up my imagination where even a little cave touching a blue cloud is as real as the skyline of a city I’ve visited. I am closer to the world today, not because of my much-loved Google places and maps, but thanks to the places I’ve visited through books.

My grandfather would gladly borrow my copy of Tenali Rama. While my aunt and I rekindled our relationship by exchanging books. A college friend suddenly shared the memory of a poem we enjoyed, breaking the silence that creeps in when people meet after long years.

Let me shut those little smart boxes that connect me with the world, and connect with myself instead.

Let me gift myself a tiny rainbow of imagination and insight, and shine brighter in matters of the every day.

Let me, once again, become a little first-grader who developed fever and missed school. I curled in my chair, poring over a tiny encyclopedia, only to look up for a second when my father took my picture. I smiled, looked straight at the camera and went back to reading. This was my world, for now.

Written for The Art of Living website.

Image credit: Cover design of Bunny’s Book Club written by Annie Silvestro & illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss

 

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