28 January 2017

Paradise Lost - and Regained

Apathy happened almost imperceptibly. It spread like slow poison, a piecemeal thing at first. Then, it grew insidious. I saw the rupture only after it had actually happened: I seemed to have stopped reading. Sunday afternoons passed without my picking up a book. There were, all of a sudden, unwatched shows and unfamiliar music and neglected friendships crowding my time and mindspace; there was something there at first, discovery, rediscovery, the unalloyed empiricism of fresh experience, the thrill of uncharted waters, the reaffirmation of old intimacies. It wasn’t so bad, this not-reading thing, I reasoned with myself with a desperation that reeked of the sourness of grapes; maybe this was what they called a well-balanced life.

No, it wasn’t that I couldn’t read or concentrate or that I lacked the attention span. In any case, the fact was that I was reading, and reading constantly, for work. But when I desultorily picked a book off the shelf, I seemed to be treating it like that most prosaic of activities: a chore. I was reading as though what I wanted was the final product, the feeling of accomplishment that came at the end of a book, the knowledge of having finished it, not the exploit of reading as a thing in and of itself, of staring at a sentence until it swirls around so fast that it begins to make sense in thirteen different ways, of that lurching, hard consciousness that, for the lack of a better word, I will call recognition, but by which I mean finding oneself revealed in the pages of a book, finding one’s private adventures filched from one’s brain and rendered with the particularness of a particular writer, and by which I mean the thing that Pico Iyer refers to as ‘hauntedness’. And by which I mean this: instead of reading to decode the world, I was reading to decode the book.

I was frightened. This thing, this creeping sickness of mine, had become a barnacle; it had latched on to me, and I didn’t know if I even could fight it off. Of the many fears that plagued my overwrought spirit, the unexamined life was a principal player. When I longed to make sense of the ways in which the world ravaged itself, and sometimes me, I would glance wistfully at my bookshelf, feeling cheated and resentful that books were not granting me deliverance. It was like sudden faithlessness: it was in my darkest moments that I most needed the light. In the past, reading had helped me uncover my demons so often and so elegantly that without it I was a worse person, or at least a much less self-aware one. I found myself grasping for metaphors that I could not auto-complete because I no longer had the reference points to do so. On sleepless nights, in the haze of insomnia, I would reach under my pillow, like a creature of habit, for a book that was never there. Reading had become my phantom limb, my ex-lover, the tan mark of a wedding ring taken off. I chanced upon terminology for what I now was, a ‘lapsed reader’, but diagnosis was not a cure.

It snuck back up on me, though, my reading habit, a few months after I first noticed its absence. And let me admit to you: it was the Kindle that saved me. I’d owned a Kindle for years, but had only used it occasionally – long-haul flights, road trips, out-of-print books, that sort of thing; it was a sometime companion. I romanticized the scent of paper, the texture of a hardcover, the folding of a crease, the dog-eared ends of a well-loved volume. But one day, due to nothing more dramatic than boredom, I ended up sliding back, not to reading but to rereading. I’m tempted here to quote Nabokov: ‘Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.’ But in truth, I had no lofty intentions at the time. I was alone in an airport. I had missed my connecting flight. I had hours to myself, no cellphone reception, no wireless connectivity, no laptop, multiple coffee vouchers – and my Kindle. And so, feeling a bit woebegone, I flipped my device open and my eye instantly fell upon a novel I had read several times before but hadn’t read in years.

It doesn’t matter what the book was. Oh, all right. It was Of Human Bondage. It had been recommended to me in my youth by a teacher as a pairing for Great Expectations, which I was meant to be studying at the time. I had read Maugham then with twin sensations that are so often found in each other’s company: trepidation and impatience. I’d discussed it with that teacher for hours, even written a paper on it, and argued endlessly about it with a friend (so endlessly that references to that exchange pop into our conversations even today). So you get the picture: it wasn’t just any book, it was a book that held meaning for me at several points. When I acquired the Kindle, it was one of the first to be added to my digital bookshelf. There was a history there, an important one.

I read tremulously at first, stricken with terror that it would now lose meaning for me – or, worse, that I had imagined it in the first place, in that plaintive way in which I sometimes snap up the coincidences that inevitably conjoin distant occurrences. But that barnacle had transmogrified now into a different creature, a persistent straggler inhabiting the last light of a better day, clamping on to the footboards of an overfull bus about to depart.

I was reading skittishly still, scared of something different now, because I knew how blithely this beast of mine could leap off the rampart. If I made too many sudden movements, if I stopped to eat or drink or breathe, if I overanalysed the moment, would it flutter away? I treated it delicately, as a brittle object, a soldier come home from war.

What happened next was the relapse of an addict. One book led to two, which led to ten. Which led, of course, to freedom.