How Reading Shaped Me Into Who I Am Today

I can no longer count the number of people I've met who take a rather puzzling pride in never reading books. It always throws me off, especially when followed by statements like "how do you read books, they're so boring". And so apart from my college batchmates (who I'm immensely thankful for), since I studied English Literature, I rarely meet anyone in my social engagements who actually reads.
Consumer behaviour often reflects how this works. As far back as the late 90s, Harry Potter was praised for getting people to love reading. Meaning that it's been on the decline for over twenty years now.

The idea that reading is 'uncool'

It's easy to place blame. You can blame the internet, you can blame busy schedules (I blamed my schedule too, when my own reading habit went into decline), attention spans, video games, Instagram...but the fact remains that culturally, reading books has not always been a priority.
Think back to the movies we all grew up on. The term 'nerd', something I now quite proudly reclaim, was used for any kid who would read books or be academically inclined, or both.
Every movie made you want to be a popular kid, because nerds were 'weird' and 'uncool' and being smart was so not important, compared to being hot and socially adept. In school, 'nerds' were either bullied, or would never be thought of as likeable.
Isn't it strange how intelligence isn't seen as a virtue? And isn't it also why the world is in this mess? Leaders with no intelligence or empathy, ruining entire nations because people voted 'charisma' over thoughtfulness?
We are conditioned so deeply to value everything else other than intelligence. (I do not mean academics - we all know our education is more about memory than critical thinking or nuance).
And now thanks to all of this and social media getting bigger, people don't even read Instagram captions anymore, let alone entire books.

How Books Made Me Get Through Childhood

Intelligence. Imagination. Wit. Passion. Empathy.
I value these traits the most - in all the people I choose to stay connected with or let into my life at an intimate level.
Intelligence, of course, is much more than straight As and great colleges. It's the ability to approach things with nuance, to have knowledge, but also wisdom. To have originality of thought, which only comes through reading and connecting with people who also read. To form balanced opinions.

Intelligence is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.
- Susan Sontag

Ever since I learnt my ABCs, I developed a taste for reading. The moment I discovered what each letter meant, I would do my best to read anything and everything. The back of a toy box. The backs of labels. And I'm grateful to my mom, for encouraging me to read right from then. Annual visits to the World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan.

A pavilion at the World Book Fair, 2011

My dad buying me books. My brother handing down his collection to me. I started with picture books from all over the world, especially the (then) USSR, the US, Japan and Taiwan.
It was fascinating for little me. I still remember how engrossed I'd get, that I'd forget where I was. Entire worlds, in the pages of a book.

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I was always different. Straddling two worlds - one where I was extremely outgoing, but another where I liked nothing better than to stay locked in my room for hours with my books. They got me through everything.
When I was bullied, I'd retreat into my space, get all the tears out and then pull out a familiar, well-worn book, probably read so many times, to read it yet again and feel comforted. When I had a bad day, read. When class got boring, I'd daydream about my favourite characters.
Library period and English period were my favourite times in school. And when the new books for the school year came in, I'd finish the English textbook from cover to cover and annoy the kids when the teacher would read from it, because I already knew the story.

Books taught me about people, places and situations without me having to take a single step out of my room. My imagination soared when I read, as did my grasp over the English language.
And it fuelled a lot of my other interests. I became a good conversationalist, from a young age. I drew and painted all from my imagination. I started writing my own stories and comics. And would always ace my English class. Create make-believe worlds with my toys.

Even my cat loved my bookshelf :P

Books taught me that there are so many different perspectives. They made me see things with a lot more empathy, because it would encourage me to relate to situations better. It also taught me to approach everything in a fair and balanced way, analyse, go deep into the meaning behind things, and think critically.
This is a reading from a book written by a friend that I did earlier this year.

It taught me that the world is not black and white - it's actually grey, with maybe stripes or polka dots or some other pattern of black and white in between :P
It taught me that human beings are complex, their motivations and desires are fluid, they love labels, but only to make sense of the swirling wonder of millions of things put together that the world is.
That adults seem sorted but are no less confused and awed by the world as children, but more cynical.
I am better as a person today, than I ever would have been without reading books.
Somewhere along the line though, when life and dealing with identity, ending a dead end relationship, and a crazy lifestyle, I lost my way. My reading habit went from several books a week to less than one a year.
It's no coincidence that this decline also made my non work-related writing reduce by a ton.
The pandemic, and several large life changes made me turn inward and bring back the joys of my old self, including reading. Then early this year, I met the Reader-In-Chief of a very interesting initiative called Project Bibliotherapy (a mission worth supporting btw). This accelerated my return to reading even further this year.

It feels like coming back home.
Reading has made me a stronger, more passionate, more empathetic woman than anything ever could. And for me, the learning never stops.
All it took was a page a day to rekindle my reading habit.
Give it a try. You'll never regret it :)

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Nandini Swaminathan

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